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Working on the Brand Vs in the Brand

Having now been in digital marketing for over 10 years, I've been asked many questions from graduates and people wanting to kick off their career in the digital industry; none more pressing or prominent then "Where should I work, on the agency side or the client side?"

What do you want?
In order to find your answer, you really do need to outline your career objectives, not the type of objectives you might put in a resumé, but your 'real' career objectives:
  • salary
  • experience
  • working for a desired brand
  • making a difference
  • shaping a brand's online presence
  • building a portfolio, etc.

Be under no illusions, if you want all of the above, you will have to build a solid foundation with one primary objective (albeit more of a 'must do'), work hard and work smart.

I've worked for both a digital agency for a few years, as well as within marketing teams on the client side, and I can positively tell you that you would be best served aiming to work for both, at some point.

Kate Perkins, Relationship Manager at LinkedIn says "Most people want to work client side, especially if they've already had experience working for an agency. It's rare for candidates who work client side, to want to switch to an agency."

Claire van Tonder (@clairevantonder), Senior Consultant - Digital, Marketing & Communications at etica search says "Within the Digital sphere, the current candidate market is showing a propensity to shift their career decisions to client side opportunities due to several factors such as corporates being viewed as more stable working environments; greater succession planning and more defined career paths; higher salary bands and benefits; and better work / life balance when compared to agency offerings.  That said, agencies are still viewed as providing highly innovative, dynamic and technologically advanced environments when compared to many corporations who are still playing catch up with respect to their digital platforms and go to market propositions."
Which side is more valued?
This depends on who you ask, my thoughts are that agencies give more value to people who have worked on the client side and clients give more value to people who have worked on the agency side. The grass is always greener apparently.

Kate Perkins, Relationship Manager at LinkedIn explained "If someone has agency experience as well as client side to me this is a massive value add as it enables them to have a full understanding of the whole process."

Claire van Tonder (@clairevantonder), Senior Consultant - Digital, Marketing & Communications at etica search says "This often comes down to the individual hiring manager and their self-formed perceptions and views attained through their own chosen career path and experiences, coupled with the knowledge of what is required from their organisational viewpoint.  Agency experience is certainly highly valued as the environment is recognised as dynamic, forward thinking, progressive and ‘ahead’ with agency talent gaining exposure to a variety of industry sectors through diverse client portfolios. That said, clients can be apprehensive when it comes to agency candidates attempting to make the transition to client side due to past experiences where the transition and integration from a stakeholder management and platform perspective has provided its challenges.  Largely due to agency individuals being used to working in smaller (and sometimes more decision environments) where complex, cross-functional organisational influence isn’t as paramount to execute with speed to market.  This in turn can cause misalignment and reflect a lack of business understanding in terms of process and channel fulfilment.  Agency candidates however who have previously successfully made the transition into corporates are very much in demand."
What you should do?
I recommend and incidentally what I did, is to begin with an agency, despite that the salary may not be great (on account of you being fresh to the industry) you end up working across a variety of companies, exposing you to various:
  • products & services
  • brands
  • clients
  • projects
  • tasks 
  • industries

If you simply go with the flow, the learning curve is so steep, it's fantastic if you enjoy the line of work. A word of warning though, it can sometimes be overwhelming, so be prepared to give a little blood, sweat & tears.

The connections you make in an agency are priceless, remember not to burn any bridges, these relationships will ‘shape the way you move’ as they say. Agencies experience a high turnover in staff, generally because the hard workers will either get poached, staff realise that they can be of more value on the client side or the lack of money has finally taken its toll.

After agency work, you’ll get an idea as to what sort of industry you want to work within, either way, it'll be great if you can match up to a company that is either on the rise or one that will allow your work to have the most impact.

You’ve now worked for both an agency and the client, what now?
Fast forwarding 2 or 3 years down the track, where you now have a couple years in an agency role under your belt and some experience on the client side; you’re now able to do 1 of 2 things, depending on your (now slightly different) career objectives:
  1. Create your own 'start-up' business with a like minded partner who shares your passion and enthusiasm
  2. Accept a healthy pay check from an agency and/or a brand who wants you to manage their online brand & presence.

The best transferable skills are?
The 2 most valued skills wherever you chose to work is the ability to produce a clear and concise strategy and the ability to digest and interpret stats. So, be sure to get as much experience doing those as much as possible, even though they’re not the most exciting tasks, they really are the most transferable!

Lastly, travel. Travelling the globe (if you're able) gives you a great view of how the world, business and people work. Never underestimate the value of being amongst diversity, various cultures, brands and varied consumer behaviours across countries.

find the area in which you have the most passion, question whether you want to make it a science, WORK HARD and the rest will take care of itself.

p.s. taking risks (while you can) is encouraged.


  1. As someone just starting out I just want my foot in the door, should I even care about the industry I'm targeting?? I just want a job in digital marketing.


  2. Hi Anonymous/Joseph

    I understand the frustration of simply trying to get your 'foot in the door' but I can assure you that staying strong and refraining from simply applying for any job will pay dividends for your career in the long run. If you desperately want experience and are able, I recommend volunteering at an agency.


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