Agency vs in-house life?

Written by
Samuel Russin

It’s a common topic of conversation around the water cooler in comms and PR; should my next role be at an agency or in-house? People will argue vehemently one way or another; “agency life is too stressful,” “in-house is boring,” and so on. As is usually the case, the answer is not clear cut and it will vary by person, so here are some key considerations that may help you decide.

A disclaimer up front; yes, the bulk of my career has been at an agency and I work at one right now BUT I’ve tried my best to be as impartial as possible. This is also likely more helpful for those starting out all the way up to mid-senior level roles. Enough preamble let’s get into it:

Claim: “Agency life is more stressful”

Reality: The same could be said for any role, so I believe it’s more helpful to examine how you like to work. Agency life usually requires you to work across anywhere from one to eight clients (depending on their size), so I think a lot of the ‘stress’ comes down to having to switch between different tasks and the time management skills that come with this. In-house there’s just the one ‘client’ but you may still have multiple stakeholders to report to and keep happy, so again this can vary by role.

How to decide: it may be helpful to think about whether you’d like to work across a variety of different tasks and types of work (agency) or go deeper on a specific area (in-house), while keeping in mind that either role could offer what you want.

For example, when I was in-house as a graduate, while the subject matter was the same day in and day out, I got to work across PR, content, marketing and events.

Claim: “In-house is boring”

Reality: This is another blanket statement that’s not very helpful, so it may be more valuable to define what ‘boring’ looks like to you. For example, I love tech, but that doesn’t mean I want to work on it 24/7. At an agency, I can ‘diversify’ my client list with different industries like gaming, property, lifestyle, etc.,because I enjoy the variety. Someone else may want to hone in on just one topic or discipline that they really love, in which case having more topic variety could be ‘boring.’ It’s all a matter of preference.

How to decide: define what ‘boring’ means to you and ask open-ended questions during the interview process to get a sense of what the role will feel like. Some questions could include, ‘What does a typical day look like?’ ‘How much time will I get to spend doing xyz?’ ‘How much room is there for me to customise my role and responsibilities as I grow?’

Claim: “I’ll get paid more in-house”

Reality: Very mixed. It’s true that some entry to mid-level roles in-house can pay more, but that could come at the expense of quicker promotions and/or skills development. For example, it’s pretty common to be considered for a promotion at an agency every 12-24 months at the entry- to mid-level segment (provided you achieve your KPIs, etc.), whereas in-house, you may have to wait for the next role to become available. Having said that, there are in-house roles that offer a clear progression path with lots of room to grow and move around internally.

How to decide: it’s safe to say that the more you are paid, the more is expected of you. So, picking a role with a higher salary may involve more hours and more responsibility, which can be stressful if you still want or need time to develop your skills. The flip side is that you don’t want to be undervalued and be paid less than you deserve.

Therefore, the best first step is to establish what you could earn in both scenarios by gathering a few real salary ranges from advertised jobs. Then you can make a more informed decision, e.g. “I am ok to earn a little less because I want to learn xyz or love doing xxx” or ” I want to go for the higher salary and am ok with the responsibility that may come with that.”

Claim: “The culture and/or work/life balance is better at…”

Reality: workplaces are made up of people, so finding a team of people that you feel you can work with, rely on and feel safe around is crucial.

How to decide: you’ll never know with 100% certainty whether you will vibe with a role until you are in it, BUT, there are certainly some tell-tale signs I’ve found that have helped me:

  • It’s cliche but trust your gut. If something feels off, don’t ignore that feeling. However, I also like to tackle that head-on during interviews and might say something like, “I really like xyz aspects, but I am still a little unsure of xyz, could you help me understand that a bit more?”
  • Meet the team – many companies will have a ‘meet the team’ portion of the interview process toward the end, and I find this really valuable. If the company does not suggest it, I often do.
  • Define what ‘culture’ means to you – is ‘culture’ a team of people that you want to party with every weekend, a group where intellectual curiosity is encouraged or all of the above? I like to ask during the interview, “How do you define your culture?” to help uncover these values. A word of caution; if someone answers this by only talking about company initiatives – e.g. free pizza, training allowance etc. – I’d probe deeper. These things often add to a role but they aren’t what will keep you going during tougher times.

Rather than debating agency vs in-house, I’d argue it’s more important to consider what you want, where you are in your career and personal life. Either environment could offer you what you need, so don’t rule out one side and always stay curious.

What’s your take? Did I capture the typical arguments fairly, or did I miss something? Would love to hear your view!

Written by
Samuel Russin