Agency Survival Guide: What You Won’t Learn in Business School
In my formative teenage years, my idea of a work environment was shaped by my favorite TV shows. I religiously watched “The Office” and “Workaholics,” both of which had the same sort of blandness to their office spaces. Everyone stayed in their cubicles, upper management had their own offices (which you’d never want to find yourself in), people wore skirts or ties every day, and employees would count down the minutes until they put in their eight hours and could go home.
However, modern marketing agencies have none of the above. There are friendly animals running about, shorts and flip-flops are acceptable clothing, people talk in three-letter abbreviations that mean nothing to anyone outside of the company, and alcohol is readily available on a Friday afternoon to (responsibly) celebrate a week well done.
Neither environment is “bad” per se, but when you grow up with preconceived notions of the working world, stepping into an agency can cause radical culture shock.
But fear not! I’ve put together a list of things to pack in your Agency Survival Suitcase (and what you should leave at home) for navigating the beautiful, yet challenging agency terrain. Pay attention, because these aren’t tips you’re going to learn from a textbook or a professor, and they’ll be important to your survival and well-being during your agency adventure.
Let’s get started.
What You Need to Bring
An Open Mind
One busy Friday afternoon, I was just about to wrap up a call when my client requested a number of time-intensive deliverables to be completed on a very tight deadline. Going back to my desk, my anxiety skyrocketed as I thought about what the next few days would have in store for me. I was so focused on the work ahead that it took me a good five minutes to notice none of my coworkers were at their desks.
I realized everyone had gathered in the company’s event space, so I headed over, figuring it was probably important if everyone had put aside their work. Turns out, the important reason everyone stopped working was National Juggling Day, and one of my coworkers had it in her heart to celebrate by teaching us all how to juggle.
My first reaction was frustration. How could everyone be wasting their time juggling when I had so much on my plate? I was about to turn back to my desk when my manager waved me over to see if I was coordinated enough to keep three balls in the air.
It was quite the predicament — I couldn’t say no to my manager, I’d just started at Nebo. I didn’t want her to regret hiring me. So I begrudgingly went over and joined the juggling training.
It might sound stupid, but the more I failed at juggling, the more fun I had. I went from being a grouchy workaholic to having fun with my team in a matter of seconds. No matter how much work everyone had on their plates, we all forgot about it for 10 minutes to take a juggling break.
I went back to my desk feeling refreshed. Not only did a small break help me start my work without the earlier anxiety, but it also helped me bond with my coworkers.
There have been many situations before and after National Juggling Day that forced me to keep an open mind in order to participate. And every time I do, I feel better, and my work benefits.
Your comfort zone will be challenged in an agency culture, but an open mind will allow you to step outside it and reap the benefits.
(Side note: I can’t juggle. No one could. It was a disastrous display of incoordination.)
You’re going to get frustrated in an agency. Whether it’s a coworker, your manager or a client ask, something is going to push your buttons. And when they do, bring out your smile. Not only does it trick your brain into thinking you’re happy, but your peers and management will respect someone who responds to a stressful situation in a positive matter.
Don’t let what frustrates you defeat you. I’ve let those negative feelings overwhelm me a number of times, but it never did me any good. All it did was negatively affect my quality of work, my perception of myself, my attitude toward my coworkers and my relationships outside of work.
The times I didn’t let the negativity get to me, however, I earned respect and recognition from my managers and felt much better about myself at the end of the day.
It seems simple, but when it hits the fan, putting on a smile can seem impossible. But the more you do it, the easier it will get, and the better you’ll feel.
There are dozens of different job titles people can have in agency life, but one that you don’t see on a business card is “Career Learner.”
The landscape of digital marketing is changing by the day. That sentence has been used so much that it’s almost cliché, but I can’t think of a more honest way to say it. You never know when Google is going to come out with a new, more interactive format for their text ads, or if Facebook might decide to get rid of some of their targeting options in an attempt to gain acceptance from a privacy-frightened world. Maybe one day Snapchat will allow an inappropriate ad on their platform that causes a highly influential celebrity to delete the app, and millions of teenagers will follow suit. Now your Snapchat ads have half of the impressions you predicted.
There are no warnings for challenges like these, but it’s important to respond with questions. Question the impact that changes in the industry could have on your campaigns. Question if you should update your ads or campaign settings to the platform’s newest offerings. Question whether or not you should be looking into other platforms to improve the performance or capture a new audience.
But questions without answers are no good. And don’t just IM your manager and teammates all day with question after question — no one appreciates that. Instead, do some independent research and try to figure out the answers on your own. Read articles, case studies and industry blogs. Watch YouTube videos and webinars. Imagine coming to your manager with an answer to a problem they haven’t even thought of yet. Talk about quickly gaining respect!
So stay curious. Spend a few hours each week keeping up with the latest news and trends in your industry. Clients hire agencies to be industry experts, so be curious, ask questions and uncover answers.
What to Leave at Home
Believe it or not, you won’t know everything when you graduate from marketing school. I know your prestigious university has been telling you for years that their program is the only one preparing you for the outside world, but that’s not the truth. You will have a lot to learn from everyone, no matter what their job title is.
When I first started working at an agency, I definitely brought my pride to the office. I’d just graduated from the University of Illinois’ advertising program, which is amongst the top three advertising programs in the nation (not to brag). I thought I had a leg up on the competition.
Reality hit me, fast.
I was in a meeting with my manager to go over my first campaign targeting strategy, and one of the interns was sitting in on the review. I thought it was an opportunity for the intern to get a feel for what full-time team members do day-to-day and that I could teach her a lot.
Boy, was I wrong.
This intern had been working at Nebo for four months, and she unintentionally tore my strategy apart. In her four months, she’d worked on a few strategies of her own and had figured out all sorts of techniques on the job. My mind was blown. There I was, supposed to be prepared for the agency world, but I was learning from an intern who wasn’t even out of college yet.
I admit, I was embarrassed, but I shouldn’t have been. The intern was a very smart and capable digital marketer who had more agency experience than I did, despite not being a full-time employee. She was trained in a way that I wasn’t.
Once I threw away my pride, I learned a lot from her and she contributed to my success. Everyone at an agency is part of a team, and all team members are needed for the agency to perform at its full potential. That means that you must be willing to learn from anyone. From CEO to intern, everyone is going to have knowledge on something that you don’t. Leave that pride at home and embrace the knowledge from every member of the team.
It’s our job to put measures in place to proactively limit mistakes, but inevitably mistakes will happen. You’re also going to have some weeks where your work doesn’t perform well, and you’re going to have to communicate that internally and with your client.
Now listen closely, because the way you approach these situations is vitally important to your survival in an agency environment.
The first thing you must do is go to your (project) manager and tell them exactly what happened and how it impacted performance. Don’t sugar coat it, be 100 percent honest. Then tell them why it happened.
One thing you should never do is point fingers and blame other people. Ultimately, you’re a team, and everyone is responsible for the team’s mistakes. If there is one person who is primarily responsible, it’s okay to pull them aside and inform them, but don’t belittle their ability or put them on blast in front of your managers. Team chemistry is everything in this industry, and all members need to be able to work together without resentment in order to reach their full potential.
Next, tell your managers what you’re going to do to ensure this mistake never happens again. Maybe the solution is a simple one and only calls for an additional layer of review. Maybe it’s more significant and requires the creation of a brand new process. Whatever the solution is, come to the table with a detailed strategy to show your managers you’re taking the mistake seriously.
Then the client needs to be informed. This may be on you, your manager or your PM. Small mistakes like a typo in an email may not need to be communicated, but most situations will require letting the client know, at least in some capacity. It’ll feel daunting at first, but tackle telling the client the same way you did with your manager and you’ll be fine.
The final step: never make the same mistake again. Mistakes are a great opportunity for you to learn and grow. But making the same mistake twice shows you’re not learning from the experience.
Owning your mistakes, communicating them and growing from them is a recipe for turning a negative experience into an opportunity to gain trust from your managers and clients.
There are some things a degree can’t teach you, but figuring these things out isn’t that complicated. Be authentic, be a team player, work hard and learn from your mistakes. You’ll be surprised to see how easily people will admire and respect you.
Good luck and have fun, because the agency adventure is one you’ll never forget.