How it’s more like two degrees of separation at agencies

There are so many clichés in the agency world that it would be easy to fill a dictionary. Some are hard to avoid, most need to be banned. One that you won’t hear very often though is “it’s a small world” as this industry is in fact tiny.

I probably need to file this under “unconventional advice”, but for me, it doesn’t take away its importance for anyone starting out or working at an agency to know.

I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d done something differently in the first few years of my career, even slightly. Whether I would have specialised in SEO or eventually run an agency, both of which I’m thankful for.

One thing that always stands out is how I left my first agency role. I’ve mentioned how I ended up there in previous posts, so I won’t bore you with the context, but in early 2014 I saw how things could have potentially gone differently and it’s been quite a theme since.

Leave through the front door

After almost two years working with my first agency, on a freelance and then full-time basis, I was approached by another business and ended up getting the job.

It was a pretty daunting and big step. Going from a small company working with three people, to an established agency with 30 staff. It didn’t actually phase me though, or at least I didn’t have the time to think about it, as I was dealing with enough in trying to leave.

Without going into the full story, I felt I had put everything into that place, working long hours and weekends, taking a 3-hour round trip on the bus every day as I couldn’t afford a car, and overseeing the day-to-day running of the agency. It was an easy choice to go by the end, but almost impossible for the owner to accept. I was offered all kinds of things to stay and when that didn’t work, there was a hefty guilt trip that the agency would probably have to close if I left.

The important context here is that it was my first job and I didn’t know that this wasn’t the norm. I had offered to give plenty of notice for handovers, even though I wasn’t contracted to, but at the lowest point the only thing I wanted to give was a piece of my mind and never go back.

I’ll never forget my Dad saying I might regret it one day, and he couldn’t have been more right. It’s a situation many people will unfortunately face, but the decision usually comes down to you to leave through the front door feeling grateful and positive, rather than shown the back door, angry and deflated. The latter, which I now understand after different situations, should always be the last resort.

It’s mainly for your own benefit as one bad agency experience can leave a bitter taste about the rest.

Everyone knows everyone

I realised within a week of starting the new job that I’d made the right decision, and if you don’t believe me that it’s a small world, here’s why.

The owner of my first agency knew the MD of my new agency and had; almost joined there a few years prior, already been in touch about me specifically, managed various members of the Senior team (including my manager) at two previous companies, and the real kicker, decided to hire the agency a couple of years later after moving in-house.

I haven’t really considered what could have happened if I’d left on different terms, it’s pretty obvious, but more importantly it’s unbelievably common amongst agencies – everyone knows everyone.

Now that I’ve been in the industry a while it’s actually harder not to find a connection to someone you or a friend/colleague knows. It’s more like two or three degrees of separation than six, regardless of where you are in the UK.

Don’t let this be a shock or only focus on what you’re leaving behind, as it will likely follow you.

And don’t be this person who sent an interesting reply after missing out on a job at my agency a couple of months ago. I posted it on LinkedIn and directors/managers of other agencies were equally shocked.

“I see I wasted my time with this application. I should have taken the warning when a company specialising in communications can’t even run a website.

Delete my information and confirm when it’s done.”

It would only take a quick message with a name to limit your chances elsewhere. I did give them the benefit of the doubt, in case they were just having a bad day.

Extreme networking

I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘networking’. It feels too stuffy and forced. In digital marketing, it also doesn’t cover half of what actually happens.

The amount of conferences, events, and award ceremonies (pre-Covid of course) is an anomaly compared to other industries and there’s a huge presence on Twitter and LinkedIn too. You can easily meet and get to know a lot more people than you might elsewhere, which is great and has always been a big draw for me.

But it is a case of ‘extreme networking’ and people across the industry regularly speak and share stories, good and bad, without ever actually working together.

You’re pretty much always “on” when it comes to representing your agency, and although it doesn’t feel like you’re at work, it’s not actually the case. You can usually tell who has enjoyed the free drinks at said events the most and what agency they work for.

I also set up a work account for Twitter to keep the odd rant about politics and football separate, as you’ll probably find work and everyday life start to merge with how many SEOs there are to follow. I’ll never forget clicking a Twitter link in someone’s CV (important context) to find a pretty graphic play-by-play of their weekend and posts about how useful their “freelance SEO invoices” were for buying certain illegal substances.

People buy from people

Another cliché for you, but one that I actually think is relevant. The typical agency-client relationship comes with a certain dynamic (more on that in future posts), and relationship is always a crucial factor.

There are plenty of positives working in a small industry and a big one is how your main client contacts can become part of the furniture. If you work with a business for 6 or 7 years, you will probably speak to them more than some of your colleagues and become just as close.

If they eventually move on to a new role, you can sometimes find yourself joining them at their new place too. It’s less risk and easier to bring in “your people” if you have proven ways of working and results. I’ve been on both sides of this plenty of times, the agency shafted when someone new joins the client or the new faces brought in. It’s understandable to be fair and won’t be changing anytime soon.

It applies to colleagues too. A former team member could be a way to get your foot in the door at a new agency or even end up being your new boss. LinkedIn and Twitter are like Sky Sports Transfer Deadline Day in January with the number of agency staff moving around.

Sometimes those extra favours, last minute requests, or really helping someone out of a hole can go much further than you initially think.

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