Last October, as many of you know, I made the move from search marketing agency Distilled to become the Online Marketing Manager at hotpads.com, the nationwide rentals brand of the Zillow Rental Network. I’ve been at the job for four months now, and a recent conversation with Jonathon Colman (another Bay Area transplant) has made me take some time to reflect on the difference between agency and inhouse life.
Here are the main differences I see between agency and inhouse life.
Access to Decision Makers
In an agency, you are constantly viewed as an external member of the team, or in my least favorite term ever, an external “solution”. Even in agencies that pride themselves on getting close to their clients and working to affect change (two terms used constantly internally at Distilled, and I love them), you are still not able to build the close relationships through serendipitous conversations and lunches that happen when inhouse.
Inhouse, you have much more access to those who are able to make decisions. Even if you are a fairly junior member of the team, you will likely still have access, within one or two steps, to the top of the chain in your business unit. The marketing team at HotPads (which has four people including me, and growing) has direct access to Zillow’s CMO, who is my boss. If they wanted, they could directly email her and ask questions (though they normally will go through me and we will approach together). But that access is (usually) much tougher to come by in an agency.
Now that I’m inhouse, I’ve found that I spend less time trying to simply reach the right people, and more time actually building relationships with the right people and getting things done internally.
Accountability To Results
Agencies are often brought in to fill a gap or to help out the inhouse team when a problem is out of their ability level or the team is too busy to come up with new ideas. The agency will usually be the one to think big and come up with ideas, and then the inhouse team is left to execute most often (and in my experience, agencies are most successful when their client has a strong inhouse team). Because of this, the agency is often not held to achieving results quickly because of the added steps of delivering work to the client, interpreting it for them, and then relying on the inhouse team to implement.
Working inhouse, this is not true at all. If I went to my boss and said that it will be at least 6 months before we see a positive impact through my and my team’s work, I’d be laughed at. When inhouse, you are responsible for the results, not just delivering work. You could argue that agencies will not be kept onboard if they are not getting results, but in my experience an agency is rarely let go because of a failure to deliver results.
Kill Your Pet Projects
I’ve always championed content, especially writing. I’ve recommended that clients create and invest in blogs to drive traffic. I’ve executed on large content pieces and outreach. All of this is well and good when you’re an agency hired for these purposes, and longterm I still believe that they work and I will continue to invest in them.
But when I moved to HotPads and soon found myself owning the inbound channels, building out a team, and researching online opportunities for other businesses, I quickly realized that I had to focus on what moves the needle now, while still looking to the future.
I wrote a number of posts on the HotPads blog, but after a month or so I realized that the three or more hours I spent writing a blog post that might get 400 visitors was probably better spent diagnosing a technical SEO issue that would get us an extra 100,000 visitors. The trade-off was easy to make.
At heart, I’m not a specialist. I know a lot about SEO and am very good at it, but I’ve never been the type to be a specialist. It’s a specialist’s job to focus on one area and grow that. It’s a strategist’s job to see the opportunity and figure out how to get there. Inhouse I’m a mix of the two. At Distilled I was a strategist. Depending on your level at the agency or inhouse, this could be true for you as well.
Ways of thinking change when you’re accountable instead of a third party vendor, and if what you’re doing is not getting the desired results then your inhouse career will likely be short-lived.
Depth Not Breadth
Mike Tekula wrote a great post on the Distilled blog in December 2012 about a t-shaped skillset. He illustrated it thus:
I think this is a really helpful way for agency marketers to think about building their skillset, but the inhouse life is slightly different if you are not a head/director/VP level. As an inhouse marketer joining above an entry level position, you are already expected to know your job (and continue growing in your abilities) and continue to go deeper in their area of expertise. Unless you’re a director/VP level, the expectation is that you will be the subject matter expert in your area that the higher-ups can lean on for solid advice.
Agencies are known for less of a work/life balance than an inhouse job, and in my experience this is true. Most of my agency friends work at least 60-70 hours per week. I had weeks at Distilled where I worked 80+ regularly, and probably did that at least once per month during my whole time there.
Inhouse life has afforded me more of a work/life balance in my new home of San Francisco. While some of this may be attributed to moving from the 9-8 New York workstyle to the 9-5 San Francisco style, I still see my agency friends in San Francisco working (at times many) more hours than I do.
I’ve credited a lot of this with the difference in how a day at my inhouse gig is from a day at an agency. When managing multiple clients plus team members, the interruptions come fast and furious in an agency. According this Gallup poll from 2006 (http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/23146/too-many-interruptions-work.aspx#2), it takes over 20 minutes to get back on track after an interruption.
Working inhouse, I find I have better planned days, fewer frantic moments of diagnosing issues, and thus I am able to concentrate and get my work done quicker than in an agency. Because of that, I work fewer hours and have more time in my evenings.
This isn’t to say that inhouse life is any less busy. In any given day I’ll be helping other team members with their job, communicating with internal stakeholders, giving SEO recommendations, and chatting with other managers about the office and teams. The difference lies in how frantic the day is and if you could be called upon any second with an issue. That happened all the time in an agency. Inhouse, this happens way less.
So What’s Better, Agency or Inhouse?
There is no “better” in my mind. Rather, I’d encourage you to think along the lines of “what’s best for me at this point?” I think everyone should work both at an agency and inhouse during their career,because you learn different skillsets that will help you out down the road. Without my years at Distilled, I would not have been prepared for the challenges of working inhouse, and vice versa when I went from inhouse to Distilled in the first place.
Have you worked both inhouse and in an agency? What do you find to be the main differences?