Marketing agency versus client-side: Which is better?
Alex Clarke quizzes two senior marketers – one who’s moved agency to client-side, and the other vice versa – to find out whether life is better on the other side of the fence
From marketing agency to client-side
Gemma Telford, EMEA partner marketing manager at Palo Alto Networks, made the leap to client-side after setting up and, ultimately, selling her own marketing agency
You did what many marketers dream about and set up your own marketing agency: why did you decide to sell up and move client-side?
I set up my agency after leaving another agency role back in 2013, and it grew really quickly! We received some GrowthAccelerator funding in year one and were nominated for ‘Agency of the Year’ at the B2B Marketing Awards 2012. The problem was that I’d set up the agency on my own and with no financial backing. So there were some things I lacked – mainly experience in running a business – and deep pockets. So, when my biggest client suddenly took all the work inhouse without telling me, it really hurt us financially. I took the decision to quit and get a ‘proper job’ where I had peers and where 100% of everything wasn’t down to me alone.
Do you have any regrets about selling your agency?
I can’t regret any of it because it taught me so much in lots of ways, but I definitely have a few more grey hairs than I used to! I found running my own agency exhilarating and exciting, and it taught me so much. But on the downside, it was lonely, it could be very stressful at times, and I wasn’t good enough at mastering some of the processes involved. Having said that, I’m still so glad I did it. I know there are people in my team who I gave a chance to and have gone on to do great things, and that gives me a warm glow inside.
Aside from the loneliness, what was the worst thing about running your own agency?
It has to be clients that don’t treat you with enough respect. Some think you should be grateful for the work and should be at their beck and call, but I’m not interested in working like that. If it’s not a partnership with respect for both sides, you won’t get the best from your agency.
However, the best thing is the freedom to choose who you work with and which projects you do. If a client doesn’t pay, or doesn’t respect the effort you put in, you can choose to sack them… which is quite refreshing!
And now you’re on the other side of the fence, what’s the best thing about working client-side?
The good thing about being client-side is knowing the money is coming in every month. But it does mean people who’ve never worked for themselves don’t appreciate that monetary security, which I think makes them more complacent – they ‘settle’ more easily. Another benefit is that I’m now part of a team of peers, which is something I definitely missed when working for myself.
How did you find the transition overall?
I’m lucky enough to mainly work from home, so I still operate in a fairly self-contained way. However, I do miss the team around me, the jokes and humour in the office, and the coffee and cakes! I’m probably more productive now, and do go into the London office pretty regularly, but I don’t get quite the same feeling of ownership and shared success that you get from being surrounded by a team you recruited and helped develop.
What did your move from agency to client-side teach you about B2B marketing?
Working for an agency, you’re always under pressure to perform. You have to work harder at building your relationships. You have to always be selling. You also need to keep up to date with the latest techniques, approaches and make sure you’re always relevant and at the cutting edge. It keeps you sharp. Client-side the pressures are different but often more to do with workload. However, it’s been good seeing things from the other side of the fence!
How has the move changed the way you work?
It’s refreshing to know the marketing you’re delivering is having an impact at the coalface. Agency-side, even with the best intentions, the laser focus on ROI can often be missing – and I’ve also seen agencies focusing too much on the ‘fluffier’ elements of branding and messaging, and losing sight of the fact that no matter how gorgeous the font, people will always be more interested in results.
Apart from the coffee and cakes, is there anything else you miss about working in an agency environment?
Bizarrely, I miss the lost opportunities. If I saw the potential to do something better or differently when I was running my agency, I could just do it or change it straight away. Now, I might have to bite my tongue or accept that I can’t make an immediate change – I can only make suggestions. I don’t miss the sleepless nights though.
From client-side to marketing agency
Heather Barnett, associate director at The Marketing Practice, previously plied her trade as head of marketing at B2B education software company RM Results
Tell me a little about your time in client-side marketing
As head of marketing at RM Results (part of RM Education), I was involved in setting up and delivering the marketing strategy for the company to sell software and services into exam boards in the UK and around the world. When I joined, there wasn’t a marketing plan, or even any dedicated marketing staff – and over the four years I was there I grew the department to a team of three with an annual budget five times bigger than what was allocated to me in the first year.
With such an impressive track record, what prompted your move to agency land?
I’d been in my previous role for around four years and felt I’d done all I could there. I was about to start looking for another client-side role when someone I knew from The Marketing Practice (TMP) suggested I come in for an interview. I’d never thought about working for an agency, but when I read the associate director job description, I realised it was pretty similar to my current head of marketing role – only I’d be doing it from the outside rather than the inside, and with bigger clients.
You mention that you’d never considered working for an agency. Why do you think this was?
I hadn’t thought of working for an agency because I didn’t think there was a role I’d be interested in doing. I’d worked with smaller agencies than TMP that didn’t have an equivalent associate director position, and I always thought account management was mainly client relationship and project management. However, at TMP, the associate director owns the client brief – you’re responsible for understanding the marketing challenge and leading the strategy, which is the bit I love.
And what do you enjoy least about working agency-side?
The worst thing is not being able to call the shots. In my client-side role I had the final say, but in an agency – no matter how strongly you feel about something – the final decision sits with your client, and you just have to do the best job you can of putting your case forward.
On the other hand, being in an agency surrounded by other B2B marketing fanatics or getting positive feedback from a client is a great feeling. But actually, when I think about it, the absolute best thing is the same as it was client-side – seeing tangible results (e.g. leads) from work that you and your team have produced.
And what did you hate the most in your client-side role?
The worst thing about client-side marketing is that 90% of the company probably don’t really get what marketing does and certainly aren’t interested in it, which often means there’s not a lot of scope for best practice sharing.
What did you find most difficult about the transition?
It was a really steep learning curve! I went from being the most senior marketer at my company to finding I was surrounded by B2B marketing boffins – it was like going from primary to secondary school. I had to learn to work more collaboratively and use that combined brainpower to my advantage.
How do you approach things differently now?
At an agency, chances are whatever your campaign or programme, someone will have run something similar in the past. There’s a corporate memory you can draw on, so it makes you work in a much more collaborative way. Agency marketers have honed their methodologies over the years – demand generation programmes here are run like military campaigns, and involve a level of detail and coordination that I’ve never come across before.
And finally, is there anything you miss about working in a client-side environment?
Getting to boss agencies around, of course…