It’s agency life — but does it have to be?
“It’s agency life.” It’s a term you’ll hear from employees at marketing and advertising agencies across the country. You may even see it accompanied by a hashtag. If you’re not in our field, it may just sound like another marketing catchphrase, but the term explains how our industry is set up.
In many marketing and advertising firms, “agency life” is a life of late nights and long hours. It’s a life where you spend your day rushing to beat deadlines, followed by endless revisions from clients. Most agencies are built on the mentality of giving their clients whatever they want, whenever they want it. New pitches equal weekend work and all-nighters. Doing anything less than a 10 hour day looks lazy. And what personal life you once had turns into happy hour with your coworkers (and that’s if you like them).
Marketing and advertising jobs pay well financially, but the employees pay with their free-time and mental health. “It’s agency life” is a way of saying: you will have no life outside of the agency. The industry sees excessive turn-over, with many folks aging out by 40 or earlier if they want to have a meaningful relationship with their kids, and for the people who stay, it becomes more about surviving than thriving.
So why is it that agency life feels less like a life, and more like a killer of personal time, and sometimes even dreams?
The vendor-client relationship
Having spent the last decade in the marketing field, I have worked with clients in all industries and of all sizes. But no matter the size of the organization or the market segment they inhabit, the thing that seems universal for most relationships is the way clients view agencies as vendors. Clients want what they want when they want it – and that was often yesterday. Clients expect us to bend over backward because in return, they give us money. Even though we work closely with the clients, the relationship often becomes lopsided because agencies who don’t step up become replaceable.
The vendor-client relationship mentality is industry-wide, and we can’t blame the clients. If you give the client what they order, every time, they will come to expect it. It can be compared to a retail store offering constant discounts à la Old Navy. If there is always a sale, people will come to expect it.
Profit over people
The extra money agencies make from “living the agency life,” they pay for in employee turnovers, family problems, and poor mental health. If you look at the marketing field, you’ll see a lot of young people. That is because most people don’t survive living the agency life. It’s a make-it-till-you-break kind of environment and many employees end up moving in-house as they grow older, and dare I say wiser. The profit of the business and the happiness of the client are often put in front of the happiness (and health) of the employees.
So now you might be wondering, why do I stay in the industry? I do it because I found an agency who’s willing to spend the time and effort doing things differently.
I started working at Media Cause a year ago. I joined the company to get the opportunity to work with nonprofit organizations. I’ve always had a passion for helping people, and this was a great way to do that while growing my skills and my craft. Throughout this year, I’ve worked with great clients for great causes, but the greatest thing about the transitions is that I’ve discovered a different kind of “agency life.”
After starting at Media Cause, I quickly discovered their focus on building partnerships with their clients. Instead of giving clients what they want when they want it, they worked with them to build strategic campaigns that helped them move their mission forward. A year in, I have seen what it means to work WITH clients, not for them. I have learned that a partnership based on trust and mutual respect is possible. The partnership approach is a balance between the two parties. They respect each other’s knowledge and expertise, and both sides are willing to give and take. It’s the type of relationship that helps both the clients and the agency grow. The relationship grows stronger as the respect and trust cements.
At Media Cause, the partnership relationship starts at the beginning. There need to be clear expectations. And both parties must be on the same page. It can be a difficult conversation to have, especially in an industry that has operated in a specific way for decades (if not even more). But if you don’t establish a partner relationship from the start, you’ll more than likely forever be treated as a vendor.
Work-life balance (No, really)
At Media Cause I also quickly learned the value and benefits of keeping employees happy. We do this with unlimited PTO, with three-weeks of vacation as a minimum, and a 30-hour billable week. Our people are expected to spend 30 hours of their time on client deliverables. The remaining 10 hours are for personal development and internal meetings. This is just one of our efforts in establishing a different kind of agency life–one where people can grow, thrive, and live–both inside and outside the office.
Keeping employees happy doesn’t just help them as people. It also helps the agency’s bottom line. And we all know that happy people will be more creative, efficient, and productive employees. And productive people means more money and happier clients. Additionally, keeping people happy means they will stay around. And the longer people stay around, the easier it becomes to build partnerships with clients. It starts with providing a safe and encouraging environment so employees have the freedom to have a life outside of work, and the time at work to produce good work.
Transparency and trust
When Covid hit, I was one month into my job. We all transitioned to our home offices, and we all experienced different new kinds of stressors. Being new at a job, it was an adjustment. However, with an organizational structure built around transparency and trust, I felt like I was a part of the team right from the beginning, even though I only interacted with people through a glaring screen. I was trusted from day one, and that trust in turn inspired me to raise my hand when I needed help and reach out a hand when I saw others struggling.
If we’re willing to change the way we do business from the inside out, by building mutual relationships with our clients and an internal agency culture of happy humans, we can slowly begin to change the meaning of “agency life.” I’ve seen it first hand. It is time we establish a new way to run our agencies that in the long run will help our clients, our people, and in the end, help us create better products, campaigns, and messages for the end consumers.