The things that I’ve learned in agency life

Seven years ago I wrote about lessons that I’d learned in agency life. I wanted to think about how well those lessons stack up now.

Work with at least one thing you are passionate about. I once read what was reputed to be a Japanese proverb: in order to do great work you have to burn yourself in the subject. The point is it makes that our great work has part of us and we ‘live’ it.

I worked on data work that didn’t set my world alight and mechanistic launches for Chinese multinational companies. The thing that kept me going was edge projects.

Conversely; it’s not ER, it’s PR. Conversely, perceived client service pressures often create an artificial sense of urgency; this burns out teams and results in over-servicing because you don’t get a chance to reflect and work smarter.

If anything, this has gotten worse. Competitive pressures have brought a lack of prioritisation into focus.

Get technical. Understand what your client does, understand the dynamics of their business. You don’t need know how to programme but you do need to know how to specify buying a site and understand how it will benefit your clients business. Technical people will often tell you what they think you want to hear rather than the unvarnished truth.

I’d add getting some data skills now – at the very least knowing how to run sorts on Excel.

Prioritise. At a personal level, I draw up a double page of a notebook with five headings: calls, meetings, drafts, checks, other and run my day from it. With client projects I says to the teams I work with ‘cheap, fast, good’ – pick two when discussing what they want to achieve. The culture of client service in PR agencies often means that everything is considered important which isn’t true.

This is an evergreen issue.

Show the sausage factory. Much of my time as an agency-side PR person has been justifying what we’ve been doing. One of the best things that has come along over the past decade or so was collaborative platforms that allowed for real-time reporting and document sharing. I was one of the first European beta testers for WeberWorks an intranet developed for The Weber Group and then taken forward by Weber Shandwick. Whilst it strips the mystery away, it also helps deflect pointless phone calls, month-end reporting panic and document formatting issues.

Funnily enough, this mirrors much of what we tell the client about the effect of the social web. Slack, Facebook for Work, Percolate publishing managment all make this easier.

The only thing that matters is results that deliver value for the client. Everything else is window dressing.

What I’ve found with clients is that more data-centric marketing has meant obfuscation.

Data has meant that the objectives drift because of the data that’s easily presented. I spent six months working on a project for a pharma company going through each business area (what they call franchises). In each one, we’d work to get consensus on the business objectives. From that we’d work out what was the stakeholder behavioural changes required. The key technical part of the work was boiling all this down into dashboards that presented the critical KPIs. But also allowed the audience to delve deeper into the number if there were so inclined. Before this, marketers had instead received monthly 60-page PowerPoint presentations. Your guess is as good as mine about how many of them were read.

A second effect of obfuscation: B2B marketers drive to outsource their marketing strategy to technology platforms. Marketing automation has a focus only on the short term. Rather than a mix of short term lead conversion and longer term brand value creation.

You are only a strategic advisor, if your client trusts you and sees you that way. A lot of the time this role is often filled by the advertising agency planning department or the media buying agency.

Brands that sound sexy or cool, generally aren’t sexy or cool to work for.

Don’t drink the client kool-aid: believe and be passionate about a client’s brand on your own basis and by your own insight. Being able to provide an external insight based on empirical feedback is invaluable if you aspire to the strategic advisor role.

If Brexit and Trump taught us anything, it is that ‘real people’ and the ‘advertsing-marketing’ complex know little about each other.

Don’t be afraid to fail, just be sure to set expectations realistically in advance and learn from your mistakes. One thing I learned from freelancing at Firefly was the way they captured feedback from client pitches and learned from it in the new business process

Great ideas are worth keeping. My boss at Pirate had some stock creative ideas at hand that he kept until he found the right client to execute it with. Great ideas will have their day in the sun

As a junior person, try and work with people that you’ll learn from, strength of character is no substitute for mad skills

Employ people who can replace you, that is the best way of being able to move up through the ranks in an agency. The number of people that I worked with where their career hit a brick wall when they where found to be ‘too valuable’ in their current role, particularly on key accounts is surprisingly large

If you can’t change the people around you, change the people around you. Life is too short and your colleagues will spend more time with you than loved ones in any given week. If the chemistry isn’t there, move on, people are far more important than the brand name on the front door

Organise your address book. Your contacts in terms of industry contacts, suppliers, current and former clients and influencers (media, analysts, bloggers, celebrities, stylists, artists etc) is your currency as an agency person. Start early and keep it up. I spent too much time keeping my address book and armada of Rolodex frames up to date and an archive of old business cards as an analogue CRM back-up

Read widely. Clients don’t exist in a vacuum, having a wide range of reading material helps out in both social and professional circumstances

Experiment. Its a great way of getting ideas. My career in digital started off in anger experimenting with social tools, this then helped promote a rather dry book on futurology and Aljazeera’s first interactive news service in English

Try and meet the people that you work with at least once in person. It helps immeasurably when you are dealing with these people electronically. You are more than a disembodied voice on a conference call or an email address. It really helps to cement long-term relationships

Be loyal: long-term relationships with journalists and suppliers can help dig you out of holes. They are likely to last much longer than a client business

International travel isn’t glamorous

Have a go-bag. I have a bag with aircraft laptop adapter cables, Fujifilm plug adaptors, my passport, a USB 3G dongle, a pair of socks, a set of boxer shorts, a t-shirt, a set of Oakley glasses, an empty Travelex zip-lock back for currency – handy for receipts, a pack of wet-wipes and an antiperspirant.

I am doing a lot less foreign travel now, but these life hacks are still handy

Avoid big international trade shows: 3GSM, CeBIT etc. You will be living a vast distance from the event or sharing a bed with a colleague in a rented bedroom. You will spend long hours on a stand tracking down journalists. Your efforts will be unappreciated. Thankfully, these events seem to be on the wane

Despite what you may think, working in-house isn’t easier than agency life, its just different. I worked more hours in a week in house than I ever worked agency-side apart from a brief period during the dot.com boom

People understand through stories

Write notes in a book style notebook rather than a reporter style notebook, clients and interviewees like to feel that their pearls of wisdom are being captured

About 70 per cent of most corporate PR campaigns are about ego

Mature but don’t grow up – agency life is a young state-of-mind.

There seems to be more of a HR obsession for hiring people with less than ten years experience to optimise the churn and burn model.