Client-side vs agency/consultancy

Blue Skies just sent me a really interesting little trends email on recruiting in the creative and communication industries.    In essence, agencies (being the efficiency-seeking machines they are) led the industry in making redundancies where necessary; now more in-house people are seeking agency-side roles; but there are few senior agency roles out there, and apparently agencies aren’t expressing interest in “such candidates.”  Agencies are seeking doers, or those who can think AND do.

I couldn’t help but wonder about links between this and the conference industry (you may recall this diatribe) and its “anti-agency/anti-consultant” bias (that is, unless they have their wallet with them and are interested in sponsoring, whereupon the bias mysteriously vanishes like an Arizona frost).  Apparently, “delegates” want to see “real life” stories, not agency sales pitches (which sounds sensible to me).  On the other hand, in many cases it is the partnership with a great agency that creates great work.  I am thrilled when clients present the work we’ve done together – we manage to get them on platforms to do so, in fact, whenever we can.

There is a sort of Mexican stand-off in many ways.

The agency stereotype might well be that in-house people have to spend 90% of their time dealing with politics, organisational issues, day-to-day management and crises, and are therefore pretty spent and unable to do their best work by the time they talk to agencies.  They are  hemmed in by influencers and agendas, so work always seems to get watered down and “committified” into a dull gray from its shiny silver beginnings.  They also always want to get moe for their money, and in hard economic times this can get even worse.  Worst case scenario is therefore a stressed-out person with no money and little room to maneuver, trying to nevertheless do great things that will deliver results and get them noticed.

The in-house stereotype of agencies and consultants may be that that agency people just “don’t get my world” and aren’t pragmatic.  Purists and theoreists at best, snake oil salesmen at worst, all they care about is winning creative awards and having case studies to shop around elsewhere, not to mention once they WIN the work it seems awfully hard to get the best out of them when they DO the work.

To some degree these are probably both true, in some cases.  Obviously, partnerships are what makes the equation work.  It falls over and these stereotypes generally come alive when the client-side person treats the agency as an order-taking supplier, and the agency feels that client as a clueless box-ticker more interested in hitting the deadline than in actually achieving the desired results.

What was my point again…

Oh yeah.  Would I hire an in-house person to come come and work on my team?  Hmmn.  It would really depend.  Agency work, to me, is about having a range of experiences that can help the agency’s clients, and it is not likely that many people with a long-term, purely in-house perepective would bring the right skills and consultative delivery abilities to the table.  It’s about “the job at hand” and not the career. It’s the variety that both powers it and makes it interesting.

Having been client side, would I hire an agency person as a Head of or Director position?  It would really depend.  The last thing I want would be a genetically over-opinionated person used to always doing their own thing and trampling all sense of organisational and corporate protocols.  On the other hand, that might be refreshing these days.

Ultimately, it would come down to how they answer one question: “How would you determine how many ping pong balls fit inside a Boeing 747?”  You can get the measure of any candidate with that one.


4 thoughts on “Client-side vs agency/consultancy

  1. Kevin,
    Brilliant. I think I follow. The answer I know is 23.5 million. So that makes me a prime candidate for you, no?
    At least that’s the answer I got by googling the question. I understand that’s a key skill in the new job market.
    Here’s a new one for you: We ONLY hire people with in-house experience.
    Unfortunately, we haven’t either hired or fired anyone in a very long time. Consultancy is affected by poor economies much, much faster than other businesses. Because the tap can be turned off in a matter of minutes, whereas full-time employees are harder to get rid of.
    That’s why people hire consultants. (You thought it was for our brains, didn’t you?)
    I’d like to see more consultancies get better at Keynesian economics. That way we might last longer in lean times.
    Yes, I can have a dream too.

    1. OK. Revisited Keynes (Google is handy, isn’t it?) since my last encounter was probably in grad school macroeconomics in, erm, 1990…

      If (and it’s a big if) I understand your comment, I think it’s brilliant.

      Insufficient spending by government [and clients/businesses?] (who Keynesians would argue should invest counter-cyclically, as opposed to classicists), unemployment driving excessive savings (and thus reduced spending), means cutting investment and saving exacerbates rather than helps the problem we find ourselves in.

      In other words, we scare ourselves into doing exactly the opposite of what we should be doing when times are bad, and kid ourselves into doing exactly the opposite of what we should be doing when times are good.

      Can consultancies get better at this, I wonder? Would love to discuss this since my head is now spinning a bit from John Maynard…

    2. Another aside … I find the best way to understand economists is to read their critics and how they attack the argument … interesting that some of the critics of Keynes say things like “Keynesian economics required remarkably foolish and short-sighted behavior from people, which totally contradicted the economic understanding of their behavior at a micro level.”

      Foolish and short sighted behaviour that contradicts ‘economic understanding’ of their behaviour?

      Sound familiar to anyone we know?

  2. Excellent as always, David! Totally agree: you gotta have in-house experience to be a good consultant/agency person.

    I’ll have to do some thinking about the Keynesian thing…

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