At the end of 2019, after 14 years in the role, I stepped down from my job as CEO of Teneo. Prior to Teneo I had spent five years at Fishburn Hedges (now FHF), prior to that I was Head of Corporate Affairs for what is now part of Pearson, and prior to that I was in government.
So what, I hear you cry. And fair play if you do. The reason for that intro is that I’ve always been surprised at the number of people who describe themselves as either ‘agency’ or ‘in-house’ and who don’t seem to either desire to move between the options or who have a weird and wonderful set of misconceptions about the bit they’re not in. This matters as these myths and misunderstandings stop great talent from applying for jobs for which they are brilliantly qualified. And they result in some employers giving excellent candidates a wide berth.
So, for what it’s worth, having worked in-house, in government, and in agencies here’s my take on the relative upsides, downsides and watch-outs of all three and, ultimately, why you should try and get experience in all of them.
First, some myths to dispel:
- Skills aren’t transferable. If someone tells you that skills don’t transfer between agency and in-house (and vice-versa), dismiss it for the tosh that it is. The skills we acquire are eminently transferable both across our industry and across different industrial sectors.
- Working in-house will be easier. It isn’t. It’s different to agencies. But it is not easier. Many of my clients work very hard and very long often in complex sectors.
- Agencies are sweat shops. Some are. Most aren’t. The majority care a great deal about their staff because, put simply, it’s all they have. If you run an agency and you treat your staff like dirt, then you won’t be in business very long.
- Agencies want people who have contact books. If any agency is still trading on black book contacts, then consign them to the bucket marked 1980 and step away.
- Government is bureaucratic and boring. Some of it is. But that’s not unique to government. Get the right role and working in government can give you the opportunity to do something that genuinely makes a difference to society. I was lucky enough to take the Disability Discrimination Act through Parliament. It wasn’t perfect, but it definitely improved the lives of disabled people for the better.
Now here’s my take on the pluses and minuses of in-house, government, and agencies.
If you like to focus on a single business and get to feel really expert in that one business, then in-house gives you that. It also typically, though not always, provides better employment terms and benefits and, if it’s a big employer, the flexibility to move around the firm possibly in terms of discipline but definitely by location.
On the downside, you will be working in the comms function of a business the primary purpose of which might be banking, automotive, tech, pharma, telco, construction etc etc. In other words, you are working in support of the primary function rather than being the primary function. That makes you susceptible to budget cuts and headcount reductions and can mean your ability to truly influence things is at the margins. Big companies also have a habit of being process-led and bureaucratic, fiefdoms develop and it’s hard to not feel like a small cog in a giant wheel. If you aspire to truly move the needle, being a Comms Manager, for example, in a large enterprise might not be for you.
Agencies are typically smaller businesses that feel younger, are louder, less bureaucratic (bar the really big ones), and more entrepreneurial than, say, a FTSE-listed business. Their primary purpose is comms which means you’re doing comms in a comms business and that creates a sense of alignment and belief in both the discipline and colleagues. Having a diverse portfolio of clients means you should get to work on a range of companies, with very different challenges, and learn all sorts of things along the way. You’ll need to be butterfly-like to thrive and capable of hopping between different clients and sectors while bringing value to an often expert and busy in-house team. Some people love this; others don’t.
The downsides……agencies are mostly smaller businesses so don’t expect the infrastructure or HR disciplines you might get in a FTSE-100, some are ‘imprisoned’ by the founder who dominates in an unhelpful way, they can be repositories of ego if left unchecked, and the peaks of work can get high. In addition, as you get more senior, you’ll need to be a business winner and the proximity between your actions and the shape of the fee forecast gets very real.
It’s important to stress here that I’m talking about Whitehall rather than Westminster. There’s far fewer government comms roles around these days but there are still some which provide the opportunity to campaign on major issues that can range from smoking cessation and climate change through to army recruitment and bio-diversity decline. The biggest plus is that you might get to work on something that truly makes a difference to the nation.
As for the downsides……government roles don’t pay as well as in the private sector and you’ll need to be comfortable that every new Secretary of State and definitely each government will almost certainly want the polar opposite of what the previous lot wanted. You’ll also need to leave your personal politics and beliefs at the door. Flexibility of approach is key!
Obviously, any blog like this can only scratch the surface. The word limit is already completely bust. If you take anything from this, I guess it’s to say that there are pros and cons of each part of our industry but that the skills you acquire in one are absolutely transferable to another. The experience you gain by working across all aspects of our sector will make you a much more rounded professional and one that is able to operate comfortably in any environment. So, ditch the self-limiting labels of ‘agency’, ‘government’ or ‘in-house’ and give each a go. There’s something in every one.