Before I got in, here’s what I thought working in advertising would be like: you come up with cool, creative ideas that help a brand tackle a tough problem. You’d struggle to come up with them but eventually you’d find the one you thought was amazing.
The best ideas would always win out and client would thank his/her lucky stars to have you. The rest of the time you’d sit around talking about books and movies (we’re all creatives, after all).
That’s what everyone would like it to be, anyway. Working at an agency has some great benefits, but it also has some serious flaws, and I’m here to tell you about them.
Let’s start at the top with something most people think is trivial: time sheets.
Working at an agency means you have to bill every hour of your day to a project a client has green lighted. Doesn’t sound like a big deal? Yeah well it sucks. First, you’ll spend an hour or more of your day simply tracking and reporting what you’re doing and making sure you’re somewhat accurate. Do you remember how you spent every hour of last week at work? Me neither.
Second, it’s exhausting. People eventually fall behind or forget or just don’t have their timesheets ready in time, and then Finance sends some angry, threatening emails to PLEASE HAVE YOUR TIME SHEETS IN BY NOON! And I get it: without those time sheets, the agency can’t get paid. So yes, I know, it’s very important. But everywhere I’ve worked you’ll see issues around timesheets. People get angry at finance, finance doesn’t understand why you can’t just get your damn sheets in on time, and animosity reigns supreme.
I’ve been lucky in my experience working at agencies in that I haven’t had to put in very many crazy hours. But that’s not the norm. When clients have something big and important (guess how often that is) that they want need to get done, they’ll push and push until someone finally says “OK.” And that means everyone working on that project will probably need to stay late. And I’m not talking a couple hours—I’m talking midnight and beyond, sometimes for days.
The worst part about this—like a lot of negative aspects of working anywhere—is that you get used to it. If you’re not careful, you’ll stop valuing your time as much and come to accept that you aren’t in firm control of your own time, and that’s a really helpless feeling. Which leads to…
According to studies, one of the main drivers of job satisfaction (let’s call this the odds that you don’t hate your job) is directly correlated with how much control you have at work.
Think about that for a second. Think of your own job. How much do you decide what you work on, when you work on it, and how you approach it?
If you work for a company, there’s always going to be some level of control that you have to give up, but at agencies you’ll be giving away more control than at most places.
They’re already demanding you mark down what you’re doing to the nearest 15 minute increment, but that’s nothing compared to having to jump when the client says jump. I’ve had several projects that I knew shouldn’t go down a certain way (because they weren’t “the right way to do things”) but we had to do them that way because the client demanded it or because the client demanded it had to be done by a certain date. And once that happens a few times in a row and you realize how little control you have over what you do, job satisfaction goes away with it.
You want to throw in an extra feature into a website or app because it’ll make it so much better? Too bad…odds are you probably won’t be able to get anything in unless it was budget approved at the very start. This shortsightedness comes down to clients typically wanting things quickly and cheaply. There are clients out there (I’ve heard) that are willing to eschew that mentality to really get good things done, but unfortunately these are few and far between.
There is a thing called the project management triangle. It goes like this: cost, speed, and quality. You can only pick two. And guess what? Speed and cost are always the things that get picked. Think about it: agencies are kind of like people. What do you prioritize when you’re going to buy something?
Most people will buy something on Amazon and get it shipped next day or they’ll drive over to Walmart and get it ASAP.
But that means that quality has to suffer. Which of course no client will ever tell you. Instead, it’s implied that you would never allow low-quality work to come out of your office, so let’s not even bring that up! That’s the theory.
The reality is that all kinds of corners have to be cut when the priority is to get things done as quickly as possible. You don’t want to know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Man, if I only had another day, this thing would be awesome!” Sadly, a lot of creatives wind up working on the idea after it’s all done and over with and file the piece away in their book because they’re actually proud of what they had time to actually finish.
That means that after a powerless day at work that runs into midnight, they’re going home and putting the finishing touches on a piece so they can move on to the next agency gig once their patience runs out.
Clients are people, and people want things FAST. When you’re job is to try to come up with creative solutions to problems, sometimes you need to just clear your head, stop thinking about it, and go for a walk.
But you don’t really have that option at an agency because odds are the timelines are going to be really tight and everyone is already going to be on edge about hitting them. So instead of taking a break and hitting the reset button, you’ll find yourself loading up on coffee and trying to bang away until you find something that the client will approve just so you can go home.
Being in a constant state of hurry is stressful and too much stress is bad for your health. And once your health is at risk, you know you’re in a bad place.
Fear of Firing
Why would people subject themselves to this kind of treatment? Because they don’t want the client to fire them. This is always looming over every agency’s head: if the client isn’t happy, they could fire you.
Remember those time sheets? If you don’t have any projects to bill to, guess what happens? People start getting fired. Getting laid off is not fun, but living under the constant threat of getting laid off is almost as bad.
One More Thing
It’s easy to sit here and point out all the bad parts of working at an agency, especially since I don’t work in one anymore (and again, here is a look at the good parts). But if there’s one thing I want to tell people that are working there or want to work there, it’s this:
Don’t get used to it.
The worst thing about any job (regardless of whether it’s an agency gig or not) is if it makes a permanent dent in your soul. It’s happened to me and my friends, and it’s a travesty. Just because agency life happens to be structured this way, it doesn’t mean all you can do is shrug your shoulders and say “oh well, what am I going to do about it?”
Don’t get jaded.
Instead, try to turn your agency into the exception. Try to be optimistic that change is possible and see what you can do to make it a place you love to work for.
It’s not easy, but the people you work with (and your soul) will thank you.
Image by Marvin Lee