Working in a large agency, what’s that like?

This question came from a younger colleague who’s a successful copywriter in my neck of the woods. He writes for international clients and major national brands in the tech space. However, his great reputation is a double sword – no large agency thinks to approach him.

He is also a young parent. So, in a volatile real-estate market, co-working is his natural choice. He shares office space with startups from IT and related industries.

A few of them have grown beyond that space, hired more people and moved on to seek seed funding, following the normal growth trajectory. That trajectory, however, is not a given for people in a creative line of work.

Turning a solopreuneurship into a small agency

Growing an agency means that the key creator has to give up on some of the creative work and delegate it to the new team members. He or she needs to take on a more managerial role and fully focus on business development, to ensure stability.

That’s not necessarily a path which every creative person wants to take.

So naturally, the question of closing down his solo act and joining a well established large agency cropped up several times in my colleague’s conversations with his peers. He said many of his co-working friends told him that he should just do it.

So, this is something he is pondering often. The question simply won’t go away. Thinking about it is eating up his time. This is what I told him about my experience.

Medium and large agencies aren’t very different

I have worked in a number of large newsprint & broadcasting organizations, movie businesses, top international development organizations, public institutions, as well as medium-sized agencies. I was able to answer his question in depth.

(If you don’t believe me, check out how well Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb – one of the most successful businesses of our time – explains it in a long interview for The Verge’s Decoder. It’s among the best lessons in leadership you will ever find.)

There are around ten essential functions in any business (including in institutions). My key conclusion based on that insight: even teams of ten people are swimming in the deep end of the pool.

They may look small. But they are on the cusp of adding support roles and forming departments. That means that, fairly soon, one part of the team will no longer know what all the other parts may be up to.

Dozens of people can assign work to you

In a bigger agency, the essence of your work shifts, by definition. That’s why your social skills need to be on par, or even better than your core competences.

I track and log everything. So I know for a fact that, in a large agency, around 30 people could give me assignments, at any point in time. And they wouldn’t coordinate those requests.

Regular work, day-to-day, means all tasks are listed in a joint Cloud-based productivity tool (the chalk-filled production board of yore). Any new tasks are briefly discussed in an all-hands meeting at the start of the day.

I’d have regular contact with marketing/brand managers, for needed details. Tasks would move from my turf to a designer’s. Everything would hum nicely – until a crisis occurs.

Large agencies, like firefighters, never rest

On some occasions, a client’s top person would call me directly, at the very end of business hours. Or an hour or so later, even.

A business letter, a call for speakers or some booth copy would urgently need revising. Never mind that I already turned off my computer and dimmed all the lights.

The reason I’d still be in the office at that late hour is that I’d normally wait for all the noise of the business day to cease. Only then would I be able to write in peace. (That’s another challenge of working in a large organization.)

Such urgent tasks have to be tackled immediately and with great care. My boss would not be aware of that extra assignment until the following morning, but there wouldn’t be anything s/he could do about it anyway.

A couple of hours later, I would catch a cab and arrive home, way too late for dinner. That’s often how work days end in an agency with many clients.

Small fires need attention too

The same prerogatives to jump the production queue, however, would belong to personal assistants of the agency’s big clients or of high-ranking officers.

They could ask for any odd thing, at anytime. It could be just a quick translation into French of some child’s school report. Or it could be a long back-and-forth to revamp a slide deck for someone’s first-ever presentation at the professional association of administrative workers’ annual conference.

Sure, some of those tasks had nothing to do with the actual business. But unless you’ve spent your life under a rock, you know one should do favours to all persons with clout.

The issue is in how many of those persons there may be in a large agency or around it. The bigger the weave, the more there are knots in it. And the less free time you will have.

So you need strong social skills, an ability to independently gauge priorities and a firm resolve to not drop any of the balls that fly at you from that lottery machine at high speed. Every day.

All this is as important as great creative skills, or the ability to think strategically, be innovative, be a self-starter, or whatever else was required in your job description.

Large teams become even larger

If a large groups’ internal marketing department does its job really well, or the external agency serves its clients superbly, over time that helps spur the growth of their clients. This means the amount of your work increases as well.

But the creative team or the production crew you’re a part of won’t necessarily immediately address that increased load with any new staff. They may not be able to.

First, there’s the lack of time for finding new creatives. Secondly, it takes much longer for that additional workload to be renegotiated in annual contracts with the clients.

So by the time the management has the time and the money for hiring new staff, you’re already doing the volume of work of two or three people. There’s usually a large gap between that new reality and any improved terms of engagement that you may wrangle.

Mind that gap. If it is longer than six months, someone up the food chain is buying a sports car.

Eventually, even your team grows fast

Sometimes an agency will start growing suddenly, adding people at a high pace. But in a rush to become a really large agency, they don’t always on-board new people properly.

Believe me, ballooning is not good for any business. But it’s especially not good for teams of creatives.

It can work to perfection in really large business groups or administrative organizations. A large entity will have or will hire dedicated change managers to smooth out the transition.

But creative teams are rarely that advanced. You can get complete chaos in your daily production, as the usual lines of communication and the decision-making mechanism get put to the test.

The daily work process starts dissolving, as new people strive to find their exact place. Most creative teams are usually so lean that nobody has the time to onboard the new members.

It’s hard to pump up a spinning wheel – gotta get off the bike first. And with an endless stream of client work, that’s not an option.

There may be newcomers oblivious to the setup and any existing procedures, who keep behaving as they did in their previous positions. That can quickly ruffle feathers.

Or there may be those newcomers who just sit and wait for detailed instructions – for some step-by-step procedure manuals that aren’t ever on file, because nobody has the time to write any of that fluid material down. Either way, it’s hard to grow creative teams without disruption.

It’s like adding new kittens to a colony of cats – there’s bound to be some showing of claws. Especially if any newcomers start intervening on the go in creative decisions they may not be qualified for. Work may suffer, yet nobody even notices it.

When you fight to do the work they hired you to do, that team has grown too big

In a very large team, a time may come when you just cannot do your job unhindered. You may find yourself defending your productivity against many internal headwinds.

Your computer may be subpar (they buy a lot of equipment, but other colleagues may need it before you). Key software licences you use may be allowed to expire. You may suddenly be moved to a much noisier space, or seated next to the resident bully.

Your “beat” can arbitrarily be assigned to an “underused” colleague, without notice. Or an inexperienced new hire can mess with your output, out of best intentions.

All of which is understandable, given the need in a large agency to appease many appetites and juggle many priorities. But it’s also really weird, because you are paid to produce your best work, not to ski around absurd obstacles, brought about by unchecked growth.

You need to grow with your team

Let’s not forget you’ll have enough external headwinds, to begin with. There’s a lot to keep track of and learn on the go – the successes of your team’s competition, any new trends in your line of work, all the key tools you need to know in order to do your job well.

All of the above applies equally to a solo-preneur act. But there is something on that list that makes all the difference: all of your clients’ niches.

Ah, the alphabet soup of niches! You need to know in detail as many industries and niches as your agency works in. That range can get unmanageable over time.

The businesses that the agency serves rightfully expect you to be well versed in their industry matters. But nobody on your own team ever stops to think how you can be an expert in all the fields that your spirited sales team can land.

Surviving in a large team isn’t thriving

There’s a point in a team’s growth when a mishmash of habits, idiosyncrasies and well-known customs has to give way to firm systems and rules. That’s the most delicate time to join a large agency, because major change is always unpleasant business.

But, say you are lucky and you are joining a well-oiled large agency. Don’t rejoice just yet.

Even established operations have their share of quirks. Things like company announcements, system shutdowns for maintenance, fire drills, unplanned pow-wows, or birthday celebrations – any of those can devour a couple of hours, daily.

Those are idle hours, but it’s hard to avoid them. And your work is still waiting for you to do it later.

It’s a numbers’ game. If your team reaches one hundred members, you’ll celebrate birthdays twice per week on average. So that’s when you scrap all birthday celebrations. And you know you’ve made it to the big league.

You may enjoy a level of financial security that steady work in a large agency usually guarantees over the years. But it requires navigating all the above challenges. And it can limit your creative options to only those called for at that particular place of work.

Keep in mind that the best agencies out there are not necessarily the largest ones. The most desirable teams are now those who tackle mind-boggling projects, using advanced technologies.

Those are often clusters of remote workers who rarely meet, but work together on shared files and produce stunning work. But that type of agency has a different set of advantages and challenges altogether.

The epilogue

My understanding was that all this was helpful and that my young colleague was able to resolve his nagging dilemma once and for all.

Do you have a nagging question about creative work?

Do you have a dilemma about your work, you career, your prospects or plans that you cannot resolve on your own? Don’t brood on it in silence and waste your energy and time. It’s likely we can help resolve it, with some first-hand insights.

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