Making the switch from client to agency life

Philip Martin made the switch from a life-long client-side career to join the agency DMA Partners as managing partner. He tells us what it was like.

Career history:

  • DMA Partners - managing partner - 4yrs - present
  • Amadeus IT Group:
  • Head of global marketing, Amadeus rail and ground travel - 1yrs 6m
  • Head of global marketing, Amadeus rail - 8yrs 8m
  • Head of product management - 2 yrs 4m
  • Business unit director - 4yrs
  • Unit manager, product management 1yr 4m
  • Senior functional analysts - 3yrs
  • Application development - 6yrs
  • British Airways - systems engineer - 2yrs
  • American Express - systems engineer - 4yrs

Why did you decide to move into your current role at DMA Partners?

I was at a stage in my life when I was at the top of marketing in my company and was spending increasingly more time mentoring and helping others, particularly in campaign delivery and social media. 

Because the company I worked at didn’t hire outside  - they moved people around - I started mentoring younger people through their marketing career. There wasn’t a strong marketing culture, it was very much pushed by product so I would even mentor project managers who didn’t have a marketing background. 

After a while, people started saying ‘go and see Philip Martin, he’ll be able to help you.’ I found that aspect of my role was really interesting and rewarding. Having the opportunity to give something back was a great pull. I found myself consulting more and more, so I thought, why not do it with different companies? 

When I started to look elsewhere for a bigger marketing role, I thought that my perfect job would be a move to the agency side, but I just didn’t think I had the experience for it. I was discussing this with the owner of the agency DMA Partners who said: ‘Why don’t you come and work with me?’ He knew I understood how clients thought and could impart my knowledge easily, which they  saw as extra value. 

It felt like a nice seamless move because we’d already worked on numerous campaigns together, and I knew we complemented each other. DMA is a small company which was another pull for me. It meant I could be much closer to the rest of the group and work with designers, copywriters and ideas people - they’ve got such a different perspective.

How do the skill requirements differ from client-side to agency?

I think there is a difference. You will have a learning curve, don’t expect to just jump in. What I’ve learned, and been learning for the past four years,  is that a key skill at an agency is having a consultative approach. So it’s not telling people what to do, it’s asking them what they need, and what they want. This is where the mentoring skills come through.

You start to build empathy, which as a corporation you’re pretty poor at. You start to put yourself into the client’s shoes because at the end of the day, you’re working with an individual and as an extension of their team. You’re trying to understand their pains and how you can help them reduce their stress levels. It’s a lot more than delivering creative work. It’s about helping someone get through their career, because they’ve got other problems and that’s why they’re outsourcing to an agency. 

Have you planned your career?

I can’t say I’ve planned it at all but it seems to have worked itself out. At the beginning, I was at uni doing environmental science and wasn’t marketing at all. When I was younger computers and technology were just starting to develop. My idea was to get a skill I could use, so I learned how to programme and then worked as a developer. It really wasn’t for me but it was a way of gaining a skill that I could later reuse. For me, marketing as a profession was based on skill, and I had that skill. I understood tech and I stuck with tech.

Who do you talk to about your career?

I can’t think of anybody who I’ve spoken to about my career. I’ve always quietly made a decision myself. I’ve spoken to my family but by then I’m half way down the line and my wife says ‘What? We’re moving to where?”

For example, when I left British Airways, I really wanted to try something different. This big start-up called Amadeus turned up and they didn’t have a system in place at that time. It was in the South of France and they were going to pay me double my salary. My wife was doing French at university, so that was great for her. Within three months, we’d moved. We were expecting our first child at the time. I remember my dad rang me and asked what the hell was I doing.

When something seemed to fit, I just went after it. It gave me the opportunity to find out what I could do and to push myself.

I’ve done lots of different jobs within Amadeus. It was almost like I wasn’t in one company. I kept moving to learn different skill sets. I always sought something new. You have to be fully committed to roles like these. You’ve got to come out of your comfort zone. 

What gives you job satisfaction?

Having the ability to keep motivating the rest of the team is important. If they’re not happy, I’m not, because it means we’re not doing the right thing or finding the right roles for people.

At a personal level, I’m looking for something that’s a bit stretching. Moving to agency-side at my time in life could have failed. Then, I would have been looking for a job in my fifties. But I’ve always applied for jobs that I had 50% of the skillset for. The other 50% I would learn and expand my CV and myself.

It’s frustrating when you move into a role where you’re doing the exact same thing as you were last time. For example, at a big corporation when you have a reorganisation, you’re reporting into a different person and that person is then re-evaluating you again for the same job. That is not job satisfaction.

Were you worried about starting the new agency role?

I was definitely worried. It was the biggest move for me, because I’d been at Amadeus for such a long time. When you work in a corporation, you can get stuck in the corner a bit and think you’re never going to move, but you have that safety.

When you leave a company like that, you feel like you’re out on your own, you feel a bit naked. You have to pull in everything that you know and more.

What were the biggest differences?

The biggest difference for me is speed and time of delivery. At agencies, it’s very rapid. This means the thought-process is difference and we have tighter processes. There’s no hierarchy or politics as such. We encourage everyone to come forward and make decisions.

Moving to an independent agency gives you a lot more freedom but also more responsibility. You can’t just sit back and say you’ll have a meeting in two weeks, because you’ve got a client that you’re trying to quickly turn things around for. You have to make quicker decisions. You’ve got to work different hours, you’ve got to fit in with the client.

Client-side it takes a long time to make decisions. Previously, we’ve had up to 20 sign-offs for a campaign. It goes around the houses, so by the end of it, the campaign idea has been watered down to much lesser effect. There’s hierarchy, politics and quite a few big egos. 

When I was working in a corporation, it would be very rare that I was working with senior people in the company. However in an agency, we are working with those people all the time because they value what we’re doing. The position I was in has been elevated because I’m in an agency. They take my advice much more seriously. 

How did you adjust yourself to your agency role?

I was slow to react. It’s difficult to get out of that corporate mindset sometimes. I wasn’t thinking like a consultant, and I wasn’t asking enough questions. 

My business partner threw me in at the deep end. I tried out different aspects of the role, a bit of copywriting, a bit of creative. Eventually, we figured out where the best fit was but it was a trial and error. What’s nice in an agency is that if you try something and fail, it doesn’t matter, because you can always pick it back up.

Eventually I focused on the business development plus sales and marketing. I can explain what the agency does better than someone from an agency background.

What would you say to someone considering moving client-side to agency?

It's great experience. You get a huge amount of fulfilment because you’re helping someone do their job better and succeed. Knowing what the person you’re helping is going through can be very rewarding because you’re reducing their stress. They’re getting compliments from their bosses, and the marketing arm is getting more business value.

If I could start all over again, I would definitely be a bit stronger. Don’t be afraid to speak up about what you see. Just make sure you get your point and opinion across at an early stage.

What client-side skills were transferable to your agency-side role?

Definitely expertise and knowledge about the job as a client-side marketer. Understanding how the Head of marketing is thinking and their challenges are paramount. That gives the agency great value straight away.

What are the benefits and challenges of being client-side?

If you like meeting people, it’s an opportunity to meet different cultures and learn so much about different people. I enjoy sharing that - you find lots of people who are similar to you and work out problems together. 

You have the backing of a large machine. You know you’ll be able to do things if you’ve got a large marketing budget. There’s also travelling and meeting different companies plus opportunities to live abroad.

What is sometimes taken for granted is the HR department. They will help you with your career as well. They’re there to listen and help you. They’re neutral within a company, which is quite useful.

You’ve still got to deal with politics all the time. You’ve got to deal with competition internally, and sometimes with re-organisations. If there’s a re-organisation, don’t be afraid of it. Take it as an opportunity. Understand why it’s happening and where you can fit in.

What would you say to those in agencies who are considering moving to client-side?

It’s a bit like taking a brief really. Find out what value you could bring to the job and focus on that value from the beginning. People from agencies can offer experience of different companies. They know what briefs are coming in and what companies are asking for in terms of campaigns. That is gold dust when you’re moving into client-side, because sometimes, you don’t get a budget for agencies, so you have to come up with ideas internally. There’s a lot an agency person can bring into a marketing department. It would be a nice asset to have.

Did you prepare your successors for when you left Amadeus?

We’d earmarked some people for succession but unfortunately, one of them left before, and another one left at the same time as me.

What happens nowadays is that they transfer the marketing job to sales, and that’s what they did. A salesperson took over as Head of sales and marketing. It’s an opportunity to synergise the sales and marketing relationship but it’s the worst case scenario for marketing.

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