Written by Lucy McCulley, Head of Agency
VMA GROUP’s impressive roster of clients sees household names of the consumer world sit alongside multinational organisations of the corporate. With consultants working on both in-house and agency roles, we have established a solid understanding of the skills to be gained in each.
The PR derby
Where you’ve stood in the agency vs in-house debate has probably come down to which side you’ve been working on when asked. This is because any PR professional worth their salt will be able to recognise valuable skills that can be gained in each. In fact, experience in both formats is much needed nowadays in order to hone and boast a top class skills kit. With over 10 years’ in recruitment, the head of our agency practice at VMA GROUP, Lucy McCulley, explains why we’re such advocates of agency experience for all comms professionals, regardless of sector, seniority or ultimate ambitions.
VMA GROUP have recruited for PR and comms agencies for decades. In that time, we’ve seen the industry morph and evolve through changing times and economic climates, creating different comms and PR needs. What has remained constant, however, is the breadth of application that agency experience offers. “Without a doubt, working for a PR agency gives you exposure to a diversity of projects within a timeframe that you just can’t get in-house,” Lucy says. “Working on more than one account at a time means that you have to adapt your voice and method for different audiences, usually several times a day. It stops you becoming complacent with one tone of voice and one tried-and-tested strategy. That’s not at all to say that in-house professionals will fall into that trap; it just means that, when working on multiple accounts, you get well-practiced at having to constantly re-evaluate the audience and market your approach in a fresh, innovative way.”
The rapid-fire variety
It’s this constant changing of tone that makes an agency a brilliant place for a junior to cut their teeth. One thing you can be absolutely sure of in an agency: you’ll never be short of variety. With no such thing as a typical day, any given morning can present an array of activities for the hours, days and weeks ahead: meeting journalists; working on a pitch; drafting a comms strategy; writing and releasing press releases; media training with clients; dealing with a new client crisis and making sure you’re prepared for the next – the list goes on! Not only does agency life equip you with an arsenal of different campaign experience, it can be your first opportunity to establish what sector or client is right for you. In short, it can be a fast-paced crash-course in finding where your strengths lie and where you’re best suited in the world of PR, comms or marketing. That said, it can also stop you being pigeonholed to a certain sector when you’re further on in your career and looking for a change; agency experience can give you cross-sector exposure that would take years to clock up through different in-house roles.
The all-seeing comms eye
As well as being a great place to start your career, the advantages of working in agency continue all the way up the seniority ladder. “The range of work you’ll be doing in agency is such a brilliant selling point for a comms pitch, especially when it comes to forming a client’s strategy”, Lucy explains. “At a time when corporate reputation is the cornerstone of modern business, having a thorough understanding of the commercial landscape as a whole just can’t be undervalued. As a big brand looking to build their comms strategy, it can be a huge advantage to have that managed by a senior team of professionals working across a spectrum of sectors, because you know they’ll have a handle on the bigger picture, and where the consumer’s interest lies at all times. You go to them for that expertise and it can really benefit overall strategy.”
Having to adapt to different audiences daily can also lend itself brilliantly to a career in internal communications. Managing multiple stakeholders in a large multinational for example can be tough, but with experience switching between different clients altogether, it can make the internal task less of a challenge.
The work/life balance
One reservation that we hear from time to time with candidates is the preconception about an unfavourable work/life balance in agencies. “But it’s the same in any line of work,” explains Lucy. “There are absolutely those agencies who don’t appreciate how important a good work/life balance is for people, but it is definitely not that way across the board.” What VMA GROUP’s decades of experience recruiting for agencies has taught us is who the culprits are in this respect, and it means we simply won’t work on their roles. A good employer knows the best advocate for their brand is their employees, and that when people are working around the clock, the work suffers. Our agency clients have all been cherry-picked with this in mind: they all understand how to look after their employees, and more importantly, they want to. It’s why so many of our agency candidates come back to us when they’re looking for their next career move: they know the agencies we recruit for at VMA GROUP are the ones that they’ll really want to work for.
If progression and managerial experience is high on your list of career priorities, considering a move to an agency could be well worth a punt. The way agency structure usually works is with dedicated account teams for each of their clients, in the way of account executives, managers and directors (or equivalents). Generally speaking, this means you tend to have strategy responsibilities much earlier in your career. While there are still senior colleagues overseeing best practice, the client liaison responsibilities and project progression lies with the account’s team.
The communications industry as a whole is under increasing pressure to embody a growing list of skills and business knowledge. With that in mind, VMA GROUP champions all avenues that will broaden a candidate’s experience – and subsequent employability. Whether your ambitions reach skyward to direct or even found an agency, or whether you have your eye on that chief communications officer seat with an exciting and energised in-house comms team, getting experience in an agency can only serve to improve your ultimate skills offering.