Agency or in-house? How to pick your digital career path

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Paige Schnoebelen Agency, In-House, Career...

Working as a recruiter specialized in the Digital Marketing Sector, perhaps the most frequent piece of advice I’m asked for by candidates is whether to focus their careers on the agency side of the sector or build their careers within corporate ‘in-house’ marketing teams.

It’s a choice many digital marketers make, and there are a lot of factors that weigh in the balance.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but there are some interesting positives and negatives of careers on both sides.

I advise candidates to choose based on their individual career needs: learning new skills, adding brands to their CV, working with different budget sizes, increasing versatility or gaining rapid promotion.

Let’s look at how each path stacks up for key topics:

Client Diversity

This is a win for the agency career path.

Although larger marketing agencies may focus teams on single enterprise accounts, it’s more common for agency marketers to support a range of clients which are often spread across multiple industries. This offers great exposure to how companies in different sectors adapt their marketing strategies and tactics, and can be a valuable learning opportunity.

Working in-house, marketers typically concentrate on promoting a single company and the chance to get creative in solving diverse brand challenges is lessened. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, such as companies which have a varied product portfolio or manage multiple owned brands, or companies which are comprised of subsidiary groups or affiliations.  

Task Diversity

There’s a case to be made for both sides here.

If working in a smaller in-house team, marketers can frequently get involved in multiple aspects of digital marketing and therefore gain exposure to different channels. This can be valuable in building a rounded skills base. In companies with larger marketing teams, roles can be less diverse.

Working for an agency, there’s a likelihood that fulfillment teams will be carefully structured for efficiency and therefore roles can be very narrowly defined in terms of scope.

As with in-house work, the big variable here is agency size – although smaller agencies may not look as impressive on a CV as their bigger competitors, they can offer the chance to experience more variety as they lack the resources to create silo-ed specialist teams the way some larger agencies do.

Career Development

This is where it gets interesting.

It’s common for marketers to feel that their career path should begin on the agency side in order to build the skills needed to ‘jump the fence’ to an in-house team.

Although this is an established route, there are some big benefits to agency careers that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Part of the difference between the two sides lies in the business dynamic.

A marketing agency’s purpose is to grow revenue and expand, and great people performing at the top of their game are what makes that possible. This is good news for agency marketers, as they have a great opportunity to progressively build their careers if they can perform well and prove their value to an agency’s management.

It can be less straightforward to plan career development on the in-house side, where marketing is just one of many functions within a company and there may not be a clearly-marked career ladder to climb. Even if a marketer generates great results, the ability to build a career may not be guaranteed.

Something I advise candidates against is making the agency to corporate jump too soon - unless there’s a great reason to do it.

Building a career on the agency side by embracing the opportunity for steady progression and gaining exposure to multiple industry sectors can position candidates to move across to the corporate side later in their careers, and maximize their earnings and job satisfaction when they do.

Making this move too early can hold a marketer’s career back, as they may lack expertise to make an impact in an in-house team.

Naturally, the corporate side can offer great career development potential.

Marketers who can compellingly show their ability to impact top-line results can climb quickly either with the same employer or by switching companies.

What determines how often a marketer may need to change employers to achieve this progress is often whether marketing is viewed as a cost or investment by management.

In an environment driven by cost, where marketing is considered a fixed expense, career progression be slow and frustrating.

Businesses with a stronger online focus who view digital marketing as a key investment may take a different view.

With agencies, employee value can be more easily recognized. Good agencies view people as investments and the building-blocks of the company. As services businesses, they rely on people to generate revenue from customers. Outstanding performance and a positive attitude are likely to be rewarded, and this can facilitate career development in a big way.

To wrap up, it’s clearly a complex decision. Not all agencies can be compared like to like, neither can all corporate marketing teams. Whichever side of the ‘fence’ candidates focus on, they should make carefully considered choices based on the short and long-term goals they have set for their careers.

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Do you have any experience to share with digital marketers choosing between agency and in-house work? We’d love to hear them!

You might also enjoy our look at top digital career paths on LinkedIn.

You can check out Adaptive Digital’s full list of digital marketing job opportunities across SEM, Social, Programmatic, AdTech, Mobile and Ecommerce here.