Agency vs. Corporate: Which One is Best for You?

By: Guest | September 8, 2011 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Jeanine Black.

Gini Dietrich recently wrote about the pros and cons of working for a large or a boutique agency. It made me think about the same arguments for agency vs. corporate sides.

There is green grass on both sides; deciding which side you like best is key.

I have worked at a small marketing/PR firm, as a freelance writer and consultant, and now as the only in-house marketing professional for a CPA firm with 70 employees.

I have not worked for a large agency or organization with huge in-house departments, and don’t represent their perspective here.

I do, however, strive to find some commonalities that I believe would pertain to all organizations, big or small.

Since taking the job at the CPA firm four and a half years ago—a great opportunity for me, personally—I have often wondered if I made the right choice professionally.  Has it made me “soft?” Has my creativity suffered? Will I ever be able to re-enter the agency world if I decided to try?

To say I haven’t pondered the pros and cons of each, at least daily, would be a lie. But I decided to focus on the positive aspects and allow you to draw your own conclusions.

The Agency Side

  1. Variety of clients and projects. Moving from pediatric healthcare to retail/grocery to industrial tubing in one day keeps you sharp.
  2. Fast-paced. It’s hectic, insane, and it increases your blood pressure; but when it goes right, it’s exhilarating.
  3. Opportunity to learn different disciplines. We wear a lot of hats in smaller agencies: Media relations, crisis communications, community relations, promotions, marketing communications, and more.
  4. Work with like-minded people. In essence, you are surrounded by people who think like you and understand you.
  5. Everyone understands what you do for a living. Even with four and a half years at my firm, I still have to explain to some friends and family what I do. But, at work, I’m surrounded by people who know exactly what I do.
  6. Opportunity for advancement. I know many PR/marketers who have made it to CMOs, partners, principals, and VPs of Marketing at their organizations, but the opportunity to grow with an organization and become a partner/owner, I believe, is greater on the agency side.

The Corporate Side

  1. Non-billable. There are no quotas or added pressure and competitiveness.
  2. Schedule is essentially 8-5. That doesn’t mean we don’t work more than 40 hours; there just isn’t an expectation to do so.
  3. It’s nice to be the client. For those who went from the agency to client-side, I actually think we make AWESOME clients, because we understand what the agencies are experiencing and what they are capable of doing.
  4. No day is ever the same. This is the one thing that really shocked me coming over. I thought I would be bored and unchallenged. If you look for new opportunities to be creative, you can make anything interesting and exciting—yes, even accounting!
  5. No one understands what you do. Okay, no one is an exaggeration, but many don’t. It’s frustrating, but this can actually be a positive because they depend on you and your skills that much more.

Agency vs Corporate

Essentially, both sides have their pros and cons.  For me, it was a personal, as well as a professional choice. I don’t regret it one bit. But I often wonder what it’d be like to go back, and if I’d be able to.

What is your experience with this?

Jeanine Black is the marketing coordinator for Akron-based CPA firm Bober Markey Fedorovich with more than 12 years of marketing and PR experience.  Prior to joining BMF, Jeanine worked as a freelance public relations consultant and writer. She also held positions with Fine Point PR and Wirtz Integrated Marketing, both in Akron.

  • This is a good topic to bring up, Jeanine, because I’m sure many PR/marketing/comms folks out there have an opinion about it. Here’s my experience:

    I went from in-house nonprofit corporate communications to a healthcare communications agency. While I allowed a year to adjust to the change in pace and format of work (there is a “way” of working in an agency I learned), I still liked being dedicated to one company or institution to support 100% as opposed to being split across different clients. That’s just the way I am. So, I recently made the switch back to an in-house setting within a university and am much happier. Although I do miss the multiple resources available in the agency setting and have had to adjust to a much larger bureaucracy, it’s still the right fit for me.

    It all comes down to your personality, your way of working, your skills, a compatible organizational culture and finding a fit for all of that put together. Some folks thrive in agencies and that’s great. Others work better in-house and that’s not bad either. As they say, “to each his/her own” 🙂

  • beckymochaface

    I also went from small agency to corporate (first accounting firm and now software company). I don’t regret it at all. I do enjoy being the resident marketing expert that gets pulled in on a wide variety of projects. I also really enjoy being able to help drive the overall marketing strategy instead of always focusing on specific tactics.

  • You make a very good point, Krista. It’s the difference between knowing a lot about one thing or knowing a little about a lot of things. Neither are wrong. And we have experts and leaders who operate in both ways. Again, it has to be what’s right for you. @Krista

  • I think those are the hidden secrets of going corporate – the wide variety of projects, the level of creativity used and yes, that we are involved in overall strategy vs. tactics. Thank you, that is a great point that I didn’t mention above! When with an agency, you should always be strategic when working with a client and sometimes you’ll brought in to develop a plan, provide consultation, conduct research, etc. but in-house corporate, you often find yourself part of the management team affecting business strategy on a daily basis. @beckymochaface

  • Anthony_Rodriguez

    I have only had the experience to work in government communications, which to me, has a completely different vibe than either an agency or a corporation. Now I haven’t yet had the opportunity to work for either so I don’t know if this is exactly true.

    On this side of the PR world, I would have to say that working at a government agency looks to have a mix of both agency and corporation, @jeanineblack . You definitely get a variety of experience in different disciplines and have that consistent schedule. But the challenge is getting everyone outside of my department, including management, to understand what I do. It’s getting better but I do find myself challenged on this from time to time.

  • Anthony, you touched on a frustration that I think many of us on the corporate side, especially, experience and share with you – no one knows what the heck we do! And it is a challenge to get them to understand. @markraganceo of Ragan PR once tweeted “It can be exhausting explaining what you do to strangers when you work in this business.” But, as I also wrote above, the reason they don’t know what you do is because they can’t do it, which means you bring that much more value to their team and they need your talents that much more. They may not understand how you do it, but they’ll appreciate the results! @Anthony_Rodriguez

  • You made both sides sound like so much fun! I was on the corporate side for several years… 7, I think. I got bored, because for 3 of those years, I was in the ski industry and it just became too cyclical and repetitive to me. I love the variety of client projects now.

    To bring the ski reference back in, just like some of us are more inclined to ski, telemark or snowboard, some of us are more inclined to corporate or agency (small or large). As @Krista said, to each his own.

    but but but… I totally agree that the grass is green on both sides. Switching it up every now and then doesn’t sound like a bad plan either!

  • CristerDelaCruz

    I was on the corporate side for 13 years and I agree with the points made here… with a few revisions. I would add on #2 that it really depends on the organization you work for. I was part of the in-house hospital PR department and in my last few years, led it… I don’t think I was ever an 8-5er, I carried a pager with me (just like a doctor), and had an on-call schedule for weekends. So I’d add that caveat of “it depends on the company you work for”.

    For #3, I’d also add the reverse… former client PR/mktg pros make great agency people because we know exactly what it’s like to be on the client side.

    Like you, I also am enjoying the variety of clients and industries I touch. There definitely are pros and cons for each, and either way it’s a terrific profession.

  • BethMosher

    I’ve worked for small, medium and large agencies and now have headed up my corporation’s small PR department for the past 6 years. A couple of things to add based on my experience. First, the corporate side has enabled me to develop much stronger relations with the media because I’m frequently working with the same ones. They rely on me and will always take my call – that has made my job easier. When I was at the large agency, the quality and experience of the people I worked with far surpasses those at my other jobs and still amazes me. Based on my experiences as well, the creativity and collective brainpower at agencies is richer than what I’ve experienced in my corporation.

  • For the duration of time at agencies and freelancing, I happened to stay with one client – a major pediatric hospital. So I completely understand the schedule you lived with Crister. My clients also wore pagers and alternated on-call weekends. In fact, I was often at the hospital, myself, at off-times to accommodate doctors and other personnel when doing interviews for stories,etc. I guess the difference btw that and an agency, though, is that at agencies, big ones, esp., the 40+ hour weeks are driven by billable hour quotas rather than the type of job. I.e. there is an expectation that you work overtime and weekends to meet and beat those quotas to climb the ladder and beat your competition. That’s the difference I was trying to make between corporate and agency. Not to say that corporate doesn’t work just as hard, but I think there are different motivations. BTW, I loved my hospital clients and loved working for them. We felt like part of the staff. We still keep in touch. 🙂 @CristerDelaCruz

  • Very good point, Beth! We’ve experienced the same thing here. We have our “go-to” reporters at each outlet as well. And yes, when we recently did a complete re-branding of the firm, we hired a fairly small agency to do it for us; although, an agency nonetheless. But we did it for reasons you cited – creativity and collective brainpower. @BethMosher

  • “hidden secrets”? LOL. How about “hidden gems”?

  • jennwhinnem

    I appreciate your post Jeanine – I worked briefly for an agency and I hated it. HATED it. Give me corporate any day!

  • ginidietrich

    @jennwhinnem Don’t make me fight you!

  • jennwhinnem

    @ginidietrich ooh I meant for ME! God bless you & the others who work for agencies. I just couldn’t hack it!