And what we’re really asking for…

One of the most interesting things about working at an agency is the different people and how varied their backgrounds are. There seems to be hundreds of paths that have led people to agency roles, but how is that possible when most require “agency experience” as a minimum?

These are my thoughts from the last eight years about what this really means and things that I’d tell anyone to consider if they are hoping or planning to work at an agency in the future.

In my first post I spoke about how I landed my first role after a bit of a weird experience. I figured I’d keep this blog somewhat chronological and follow on from there, to avoid running out of ideas for posts at the very least.

I was fortunate that I started working with an agency whilst still at Uni, but to be honest, it wasn’t planned and I knew nothing about the industry. It was mainly a copywriting job, but what surprised me was how relevant my background and experience was, as it had never been mentioned as a potential job or career path. It was a bit of a fluke.

I do think that’s changing as stronger relationships are being developed between Colleges/Universities and agencies, but it’s still not as quick or progressive as it could be. There are still a lot of people hitting “apply” without enough context and unwittingly falling at the first hurdle, whether that’s straight after studying or when looking for a new role.

You will start to understand why once you’ve made it past the front door, but for those struggling to get that far, this should help to at least get a foot in.

Pick a lane

To put it simply, agencies are hired by clients to fill a gap. It can sometimes be a big one, but it’s always specific to what their business needs at that point.

The role of the agency is to have the skills and experience to help. A typical team working on one individual client can be anywhere between 3 and 10+ people (in my experience), and when you consider the average salary for each of them, it soon stacks up.

The value for the client is that their fee should be a fraction of the cost needed to employ those people themselves, in terms of the number of staff, levels of experience, and how long for.

The challenge for agencies is to attract people with the skills that clients want and become indispensable, or using the agency clich√© being “an extension of the team”. This typically means hiring specialists.

The biggest mistake I see when recruiting is having someone tell you they have done everything from building a website and SEO, to Email Marketing and PPC, when the role advertised is for a particular niche.

It’s understandable, of course, you may have just spent ¬£27,000+ on a degree covering all aspects of marketing, or spent the last few years in-house doing three different roles, so you’re bound to want to shout about it.

But the best advice I can give is to pick a lane and put your foot down, whether that’s in SEO, PPC, CRO, or Social Media, or specialising further in Technical SEO, Digital PR, Analytics, or Paid Social. These are the specific roles that agencies will have available.

At the very least, do your research and tailor your CV and application to focus on just the role. I’ve turned plenty of people down for not showing a genuine interest and applying as it’s semi-related to what they want.

Culture

Agencies are famous for their cultures. Some are bullsh*t and built solely around Friday beers, free snacks, and playing table tennis, but there are just as many that are genuine and more meaningful.

For a business that largely relies on collaboration and people working well together, there needs to be a set of common interests and goals that everyone shares, whether it’s plastered across the office walls or not.

A lot of agencies look for people that can fit into their existing culture when hiring, consciously or unconsciously, and it’s an opportunity for you to show how you are a perfect match regardless of experience.

You’ll hear many owners and directors talk about some of their biggest problems coming from individuals that turned out to be on the wrong page. It can quickly become a serious issue.

Find where the agency’s values are documented (their website is a good place to start), arm yourself with relevant examples from your perspective, and reference it all in your application. If you get far enough to interview, make sure to ask about them about their culture and values.

Don’t forget, it should be a place you want to be at, and it’s as much your opportunity to find out more as theirs.

Brass tacks

I couldn’t write about this sort of topic without getting down to brass tacks about what people generally say or think agency experience is.

I should admit, the first thing I look for on any CV is previous experience at agencies, but it’s not a deal-breaker if we can see potential.

I’ve never worked in-house but there is a big difference in working for one business and focusing solely on that, compared to agency life where you could essentially be working for 10 businesses, or more.

Each client has their own dedicated team to build a relationship with, objectives or targets to hit, ways of working and processes, and pressures or demands that you need to understand. You’ll have to manage deadlines for all of them, regularly come up with different ideas, and give them as much attention as needed.

It’s a lot to juggle.

But that’s not to say this experience can only be gained at agencies. I’ve hired people that have worked at businesses with multiple brands, freelanced on the side, or managed different stakeholders and departments, as just a few examples.

Ultimately what it comes down to is applying what the agency is looking for to whatever you have done. In short, the “agency experience” we actually want.

Tick box exercise

The above shouldn’t only be an approach for those without previous experience at an agency.

No two agencies are the same and assuming otherwise could be a hurdle. Most people that have joined our business have been shocked at the difference, even if their previous agency seemed very similar or offered the same services.

Previous agency experience is often a tick box exercise when shortlisting different candidates (maybe literally if the hiring managers use scorecards) and a precursor to what they really want to know, how is your experience relevant?

Depending on the role, whether it’s in client services or a creative department, practical and relevant examples will be what you’re judged on. At the start of this post I mentioned about filling a gap for clients, and regardless of agency experience, you need to prove that you’re not a square peg for a round hole.

Research their clients, the work they have done, and be bold with your opinions. Don’ be afraid to point out improvements and say you can bring something different as agencies are constantly adapting and growing their offering. I, for one, am always looking for that.

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