Good Enough: Agency vs. In-House Marketing Career

In the midst of retooling and repositioning my search engine marketing agency to an integrated marketing consultancy, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a variety of candidates for key roles. While I’m well-aware of the differences in personality and talent-set of agency vs. in-house corporate types, this recent experience drove the point home. I’ve realized that skills and talents inherent in a corporate environment do not necessarily lend well to a successful career in the agency world.

When an in-house candidate reached out about our mid-level digital marketing position, we were excited. He had personal experience interacting with agencies and had many years of relevant experience. As such, we brought him in for an initial review and he performed well. The second step was to complete a sample project and present the research to us (as if we are his client).

A word about the project: we provide real data (albeit not necessarily current) and ask they analyze site traffic from an organic and paid search perspective. We do not provide much in the way of guidelines. The final report can be delivered in any format, as we like to see how creative and innovative prospective talent can be in terms of presenting information. In the past, candidates have created surprisingly credible Anvil-branded PowerPoint templates, while others prefer traditional Word-based reports or Excel spreadsheets with charts.

One telling sign is how candidates tend to frame the presentation. By comparison, a recent agency-side candidate opened the presentation with an analogy including stars and reflective light to explain Google rank, which immediately captured our attention. This same agency candidate had a confident but not cocky tone. He was also humorous, yet credible. Perhaps due to the dynamic nature of his agency experience, he did a great job of framing insights and recommendations based on industry and competitor benchmarks. Unfortunately, that is not the approach the in-house candidate took.

The client-side candidate did not have a strong opening story, lacked enthusiasm and failed to frame observations or recommendations. More importantly, his attention to detail was poor: my team counted 4 different font types, formatting issues and a handful of typos. In the corporate world, this level of oversight on his part might be acceptable. In the agency world, however, a lack of attention to detail can end a client relationship, if not employment. At Anvil, it won’t get you in the door.

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Another insight I’ve learned over the years building and managing teams, is to hire for talent, not for skills or experience (which can be taught or gained over time). Talents, on the other hand, are inherent in your being, and should be discovered and leveraged. In the case of the candidate in question, we could certainly manage around attention to detail, but perhaps not his inability to connect with clients (us). After assessing the presentation and assignment, we decided to put this candidate on the backburner for the time being.

Whether you’re in-house or agency side, you need to have a basic set of skills and relevant talents. That said, what makes you successful in a corporate environment may not help you in the agency world. For example, if you want to succeed in a corporate environment, it is helpful to understand politics and hierarchical structure, which may be more pronounced than in agency. To be successful in an agency environment, you will need to be organized, have a high tolerance threshold for chaos and be able to work well with others. Most importantly, you need an attention to detail of a librarian. I’m not saying one career or position is better than the other, but I do know what it takes to succeed in an agency environment. Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments section.

Comments: 4

  • Kent, thank you for this insightful article. As a corporate in-house creative, I have found many of the hurdles you described to be true, specifically the lessened consequence of small errors. That is why I find it necessary as an in-house creative to also maintain a small group of clientele on a freelance basis, which gives me the ability to interact with the “outside world” and see what is going on in other industries, and to continue to develop my customer service and attention to detail. Thanks for the write-up. -Kyle

  • Chris says:

    I would argue that attention to detail is extremely important in-house trait and a quality all successful in-house marketers must have. But it’s true: In-house reports are usually kept in-house and may not need the same polish that a client presentation would. On the other hand, an in-house marketer is responsible for creating tons of content that is immaculate and made for public consumption (ads, press releases, articles, white papers, etc). Any employee crossing from one kind of business to another will need to learn the ropes. I think it’s dangerous to assume people’s personalities and skill-sets are directly related to their job titles. If a candidate is passionate and willing to learn, in most cases, they will succeed. I think I would need more empirical data to support your theory.

  • Chris says:

    edit: is “an” extremely important in-house trait . . . *facepalm*

  • Johnny says:

    Kent, there is much truth to your assessment, but being an “in-house corporate type”, I can no further with my comments and thoughts on the subject…smile.

    However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Case-in-point, while I am an in-house corporate type these days, I am what you would call somewhat of a hybrid. Not only do I work in-house but I have also, freelanced for years. So, while I work for a major health care, I am also the owner of

    SEO/Internet marketing is a passion of mine. It is true that my in-house duties sometime take me away from SEO; my spare time is filled with as much relevant reading (and learning) about the industry as I can find.

    BTW, Great post!

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