David Blecken
Nov 13, 2018

Seeking pastures new? All you need to know about moving client-side

Brand roles are often fêted as the ideal escape from the long hours, low pay and minimal influence that agency life can involve. But moving can be hard—and new roles are not always what they're cracked up to be.

While looking to move brand-side is a frequent goal of many agency employees seeking a more balanced working existence, the reality may not live up to expectations (Shutterstock)
While looking to move brand-side is a frequent goal of many agency employees seeking a more balanced working existence, the reality may not live up to expectations (Shutterstock)

Senior advertising executives have always been fond of touting the personal rewards to be had in their industry: buzz, variety of work, exposure to a wide range of other industries, the chance to “let your creativity fly” in a way that you can’t in most areas of business. Working in an agency should be, and often is, stimulating and enjoyable. But not for everyone.

With their constant pressure, constraints and increasingly low margins, agencies are seen as notoriously bad in areas such as staff development and wellbeing. In addition, there is the obligation for employees to stay on top of every technological trend that may or may not have implications for their day-to-day work.

As the advertising agency business gets squeezed harder and new possibilities continue to open up at brands and in the technology space, many have the impression that their career prospects and lifestyles could be better elsewhere. Restlessness is typically most widespread in mid- to senior-level account services, but creatives are increasingly looking to get out too.

Control, stability, money: why people want to move

For recruiters specialising in the marketing sector, how to transition from agency to client-side is a conversation that comes up almost every day. People’s reasons for wanting to move are numerous: while some are positive, others are negative and sometimes poorly considered. Gary Goodwin, a former agency professional who now specialises in coaching, lists the top motivations as a desire for more control over decision-making for brand development; the assumption that brand work provides more opportunities for strategic input and control; and a belief that being brand-side offers a more stable existence than the agency world.

Makoto Oda, a marketer at a global technology company in Tokyo, has held a variety of client-side roles since working in advertising agencies. He says that while he values the experience he gained in an agency environment, he grew tired of taking calls at midnight and in the early morning and generally not being in command of his own time. Money was a factor, but his decision to change career was driven more by personal interests and wanting to live better, he says. He does not envisage returning to the agency world.

Female applicants are better at showing the willingness to adapt, and are therefore more readily accepted

A Hong Kong-based source who asked to remain anonymous, who made the more unusual move from a PR agency to a marketing role at a major financial services company, says simply: “People want to move because it pays more and big [brand] corporations have better benefits.” This source continues that they enjoyed the consulting side of working at an agency, but adds that “it’s not treated as high value” and the challenge of selling those services means it “sometimes feels like you’re pushing a boulder up a hill”. The source reasons that most PR agency employees would rather work client-side in some form if they had the opportunity.

Goodwin thinks the rosy view of brand marketing roles is “usually based on a certain degree of ignorance as to what the full scope of the role involves”. “Assumptions are based on the limited world agency people see when they meet brand people to discuss primarily communication-based solutions,” he says. Achieving more balance “is the prevailing perception but in reality, with only a few minor exceptions, it is not the truth. Flatter organizations and more cross-functional teams means the pressure on time is still always there, if not more so”.

He adds that while technology companies do pay well, standard consumer goods companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever are usually not that generous in the short-term: they tend to negotiate a small trade-off in salary due to lack of experience, but do promise increased future earnings.

The challenges of switching sides

Crossing the bridge is not always easy but, like anything, is achievable with the right combination of talent, strategy and luck.

Jason Ayers, CEO of Sector5, a marketing industry recruitment firm based in Tokyo that also works internationally, finds traditional marketers with hiring power can be reluctant to take a chance on people with pure agency backgrounds. A typical concern is that that those who have grown up in agencies still only understand the communications aspect of marketing. Budgeting, for example, can be an area where agency people struggle, Oda says. But Ayers notes that marketers with agency experience themselves are usually much more open to such candidates.

The proliferation of data-driven marketing might also have made it more difficult for agency people to gain acceptance. “A skills gap for account people is that if they are weak on data then unless they can show their strategic agility, it is harder to move over—unless the key requirement is relationship-building and selling concepts,” Goodwin explains.

It comes down to a degree of flexibility on both sides, says Ayers, which is not always present in more senior candidates. He things the best time to switch sides, if a person thinks they want to do it, is by their late 30s. After that, client-side companies can struggle to match their expectations of seniority. Generally speaking, he argues that female applicants are better at showing the willingness to adapt, and are therefore more readily accepted.

An agency candidate's skills may not match a marketer's requirements

Another factor that can hinder a move is the candidate’s attitude. The Hong Kong source says people in agencies often fail to do their homework on the roles they are applying for, instead focusing on the negative: the reasons for wanting to leave the unsatisfactory position they are currently in. It might seem obvious, but “saying ‘I don’t like my job’ is not a good interview technique,” the source points out.

On the flipside, others come to believe the move is impossible if they meet with resistance after a few attempts. Unless they are too senior, they shouldn’t be disheartened, Ayers says. It comes down to how serious they are about it. While there are many “guardians” of a desirable role, “if someone really has their heart set on working client-side, there is generally the possibility for them to do it”.

Laying the groundwork for a move

When considering a move, a person should first ask themselves why they really want that client-side job. “It depends on what you want to learn,” says Masahiro Ando, chief strategy officer of Publicis One Tokyo, who moved back to the agency world after working at Coca-Cola and Nike with the aim of gaining new experience.

Of course, it pays to build connections—with an existing client, or with a decision maker at a target employer. Ando got his break with Nike by working on the account at an agency. Account people “have to be very proactive and gain the client’s trust”, Oda says. “Then they might have the chance to move.” He says varied experience over the years, and in particular getting a big brand—Disney—on his CV helped open doors. As someone working at international companies in Japan, so did English fluency. But while he admits to having done a fair amount of job-hopping, he says it looks better to commit to any one company for around three years.

You’ve got to equip yourself with the tools of a new trade. It’s just like any other job. You can’t just go from being an accountant to a lawyer without a law degree. That sense of entitlement is wrong.

If a person is serious, they should look to gain transferrable experience in whatever role they’re already in. “You need to look internally for relevant opportunities so you can talk competently about marketing,” the Hong Kong source says. “You’ve got to equip yourself with the tools of a new trade. It’s just like any other job. You can’t just go from being an accountant to a lawyer without a law degree. That sense of entitlement is wrong. You have to learn the lingo, you have to have the ability to talk competently in the field so they’ll respect you.”

Building up your personal brand can go a long way, too. Doing this well puts people “in charge of their own destiny”, Ayers thinks. “They should think of themselves as the CMO of their own brand” as well as considering which are the companies they genuinely admire, why they want to work there, and planning their careers with as much thought as they put into their clients’ accounts. By all accounts, trusting an agency to look out for personal career goals would be foolhardy, so in that environment, the onus is on the individual to pursue what interests them.

A new generation of creatives

Where account executives are often pushed to move by wanting to escape, creative directors are lured by exciting new opportunities. “It seems so many creatives today don’t want to work at another agency; they want to work in-house,” Ayers says.

Andrew McKechnie, for example, spent 12 years in agencies before becoming global group creative director for Apple. Last year, he moved to the unlikely-sounding role of chief creative officer of the telco Verizon. Rob Sherlock, global creative head of ADK, who knows McKechnie, says such moves are driven by the thrill of a blank canvas and more resources than agencies can offer, as well as a better paycheck. He sees people like McKechnie, and Mark D’Arcy, who became chief creative officer at Facebook seven years ago, as representative of a new generation of creative leadership.

“These are not the people who stand on the podium at Cannes,” he says. “They’re not award-motivated; they’re brilliant solution-motivated. That’s the difference. A lot of traditional advertising creatives are still consumed by awards, whereas this new dimension is consumed by solution-based success… It’s the challenge of starting something new, rather than maintaining something old.”

He envisages these transitions happening “more and more” but sees agencies as the hunting ground for talent for the foreseeable future. “Where else are [brands] going to look? There’s only one place where you’re going to get these rounded creative resources.”

Does it bother agencies that quite a high number of their employees would ultimately rather be working on the other side of the fence? “Indeed it does, and they have very little room to negotiate to retain them when the other side of the fence looks greener from the perspective of stability, training and potential learning from a new industry,” says Goodwin.

Thinking of moving from an agency to client side? Remember these key pointers:

  • Be clear about why you want to move, where you want to move to, and what you want to gain.
  • Build connections with the right people by showing genuine interest in what they do, a desire to help them and a reason to be trusted
  • Develop a personal brand. This can bring focus to your career development, help you stand out and put you in greater control of your future
  • Do your homework. Demonstrate a clear understanding of marketing and the business you want to go into, as well as the company itself. Be able to converse on the same level as whoever has the power to hire you
  • Focus on the positive—the pull rather than the push—and on what you can bring to that organization
  • Don’t set the wheels in motion too late, do enough preparation to have faith in what you have to offer, and don’t be deterred by a few rebuttals. 


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