So you’ve made the leap.
You’ve landed yourself that job at a creative agency and are looking to start things out on the right foot.
Whether you’ve worked in agencies before and are moving on to a new one, or whether you’ve previously been freelancing, working at home on your couch wearing PJs, the move to a new agency can be a steep learning curve for some.
I have this friend (let’s call him “Bob”). Bob decided to make the move from freelancing to working in an agency, largely because this particular agency did very interesting work, plus there was the allure of a regular paycheck.
Bob was interviewed via Skype as the agency was in a new city for him. The first time he physically met his new employers was literally his first day of work. This is what he told me:
“Mate, I kind of assumed they’d be like other, less formal workplaces I’d been into, right? So here I am in my skinnies and boots, ready for my first day, and the first thing I notice when I walk in the door is how well-dressed the two at reception were. I wasn’t too alarmed at first… until I was taken to meet my new boss. Yep, full-on Armani suit and loafers. I was introduced to other creatives – also formally dressed. I could have crawled into a hole…”
Translation: Bob was dressed in the kind of casual garb often favored by creative types (skinny jeans). Honestly, he was probably relying on some kind of stereotypical idea of what agency creatives might look like, but stereotypes are less than helpful when you’re faced with a first day which looks different to what you had imagined.
For the creative out there who is moving into agency life, what should you know in order to find your footing at your new job?
Bob struck an agency which was entirely formal in terms of dress code, but agencies could fall anywhere on the entire spectrum from casual to formal. Some are entirely casual, while others have customer-facing employees and execs dressed formally, while your “back-room” type creatives often dress casually.
The main point you should take onboard is that you really should find out about dress code ahead of time in order to avoid a faux pas. Make this one of the questions you ask before turning up for your first day.
If you’re being interviewed in person, conservative wisdom would have it that you dress “smartly”, if not entirely formally. Even if the agency turns out to be less formal on dress code, it’s commonly acknowledged that interviewees will probably dress smartly anyway, so you don’t need to feel awkward.
Another agency friend of mine had an interesting piece of advice when it comes to company culture: “If you’re evaluating whether or not you want to work for an agency, don’t base your decision off the clients, the partners or their mission statement. Take a good look at the people who are actually working in the trenches and the company culture overall.”
Let’s face it, a company culture is an ingrained kind of force which will either motivate you or drag you down. Nowadays, who honestly wants to work for a Mad Men kind of company?
Again, agencies will vary across a spectrum in terms of company culture, but what my friend said makes sense. If you’re working with an energized, team-oriented, creative bunch, it can make even working with the most difficult clients more bearable.
On the other hand, many agency employees have reported high-stress environments where team members were “back-stabby.” Some talk about a gender-bias favoring males, particularly in senior positions. A well-known study in the creative industry (discussed here by Fast Company) found that while women control 80% of consumer spending in North America, only 3% of Creative Directors are female. Some female creatives have reported that this can lead to “Mean Girls” type behavior from females who have “made it.”
For a good look into different agency cultures, check out Steve Taylor’s The Great Agency Adventure, where he embarked on a 14 month journey, in 14 different agencies, all in different cities. Taylor chronicles the different cultures he found in each and it makes for interesting reading.
Some agency cultures are very much that pressure-cooker environment we commonly here of, but others, especially outside of bigger cities, focus on work/life balance and promote family-friendly policies. Still others operate much like the Silicon Valley startups you hear about: cafeterias with food provided, massages and office sports leagues being features.
Beware of The “CLM”
Creative agencies and alcohol often seem to go hand-in-hand. Most employees have reported that Friday drinks are not uncommon, or even on any other day after 4pm. There are also often parties celebrating successes or simply bringing the team together.
It may seem obvious, but don’t be that guy or girl. The one who has a few too many on the first work “do” and makes some kind of Career Limiting Move (CLM). Play it safe on those first few events and notice how they usually play out. What kind of example do managers set? It’s not that you always want to take your cue from them (especially if they don’t do well), but more that you don’t want to stand out as the one who is an alcohol-fueled mess.
Whatever you do, just don’t do anything that will interfere with your work output or the quality of that work.
Along similar lines, be aware of what norms are for language used around the office. If everyone else is keeping it P.G., you don’t want to be the one swearing like a sailor. It will be noticed and if it’s an issue, it can look bad in terms of your likelihood of advancement.
Expectations and culture go hand-in-hand. If you’ve ever experienced the kind of environment which glorifies those who work long hours without taking breaks, you’ll have a sense of this. However, there are also those on the opposite side of this, where working too many long hours is frowned upon because they do actively advocate balance.
Work Hours And Breaks
If you’re entering an agency fresh from the relative time-freedom of freelancing, it can come as a shock to the system to find an environment which is more regulated in terms of how you spend your time.
Hopefully, someone takes the time to orientate you well and lay out any expectations such as work hours and acceptable breaks, but otherwise this is something to ask. You may like to take the subtle approach and observe what the norms are for others — it’s often awkward bringing up the question of breaks on your first day! It doesn’t hurt to simply ask “what are the expectations around work hours?” though.
A common occurrence across creative agencies is the infamous “all nighter.” This especially may occur the night before a major pitch to a client and it tends to be expected that those involved are available. In return for this effort though, it’s often normal to come into the office a few hours late each day for the next few days after the pitch (not to mention the celebration when the pitch was successful!).
Chain of Command
Another thing to be aware of, especially if you’ve come from a “business of one” to agency life is that you’re probably not as free in terms of your creative decisions anymore. There is often a “chain of command” which you need to be aware of for getting ideas approved.
Sometimes it looks something like: You > Your Supervisor > Creative Director > Account Manager > Upper Management.
This can of course add considerable lag to what you’re used to, between generating ideas and getting final work done. When you’re first starting at your agency, you’ll want to find out exactly how “chain of command” works in terms of getting approval — it’s considered bad form to skip someone in the chain and head up higher.
It’s difficult to know how well you’re doing if you aren’t aware of how you’re being measured. Good agencies should have developed KPIs so that can keep a close eye on your performance, but if how you are measured is unclear to you, make this one of the questions you ask from day one.
You want to start off on the right foot, and that means being aware of and doing something about the measures which count. In the end, your agency wants you to deliver good results, so make sure you know where to start.
You could be like “Bob” and kind of wander into your first day at an agency making a few assumptions about what’s expected, or you could ensure you start out on the right foot by understanding what’s expected immediately.
Ask the right questions prior to starting with regard to expectations, dress code and culture. Dig deeper to find out more about the people who actually work for the agency – these are the ones who’ll affect your entire experience, so it makes sense to understand culture first.
Starting out on the right foot means understanding the inner-workings of the company and being able to comply with their expectations and culture. Finding this information out early not only gives you a better idea of whether you’ll fit, but allows you to slot in from day one.