Real Talk: Advice for Living Your Best #AgencyLife

I have spent my entire career working at agencies. I knew nothing when I started, and I still don’t know much. However, I have learned several important lessons along the way. I wrote this post to pass along some of those lessons and inform young marketers who are currently working at an agency or thinking about going to work at an agency. These are some hard-learned nuggets of wisdom that I picked up along the way during my journey in the agency world. Let my L’s be your W’s.

Table of Contents

  1. Your manager is critical to your success. Find a great one.
  2. No matter what anyone tells you, *YOU* are responsible for your training.
  3. Be the dumbest person in the room.
  4. Create a plan for your career before someone else does.
  5. You will hear lies. Hopefully you won’t tell them.
  6. Build relationships and results. You’ll need them.
  7. You will get overwhelmed and stressed out.
  8. Don’t eat the free food and snacks.
  9. Find a trusted colleague who will tell you the hard truths about you.
  10. Not all work looks the same.
  11. Your salaries, raises, and promotions probably won’t be directly based on revenue growth and financial performance, but they should be.

#1 – Your manager is critical to your success. Find a great one.

During my career in digital marketing, I have interviewed hundreds of people. For a little background, the majority of those interviews were in a relaxed setting with several of my colleagues and the candidate.

Interviews are enlightening, primarily because of the opportunity to meet people from extremely diverse backgrounds with an even wider range of skillsets and experience. Interviews are also a fantastic opportunity for applicants to ask questions about the company, the team, and the manager for whom they would potentially work.

Prison Mike (The Office)
“I never got caught neither.” – Prison Mike

In all the time I have spent talking with applicants, not one has ever asked about their potential manager. Interviewees ask mainly about the company, the work and responsibilities of the desired role, and the team they would potentially work on. Yes, these questions are important, but they do not address perhaps the most important factor of any agency job.

If you are interviewing with or working at an agency, please understand that nothing has more of an impact on your career goals than your immediate manager. This is a person you will work with every day. It would behoove you to ask about them.

I have had some truly exceptional managers in my career. I earned their trust, and they became my champion. Your manager needs to be your champion – a person who will hold you accountable as well as go to battle for you when necessary.

Here are some questions to consider asking:

  • Who would I report to?
  • What are their roles and responsibilities in the agency?
  • How long have they been at the agency?
  • How many people do they manage?
  • Which marketing channel(s) do they specialize in?
  • Which accounts do they work on?
  • Tell me about a few of the recent projects they have managed in the last year.
  • Are they known for adequately training their direct reports?
  • How many people on their team have been promoted in the last year?
  • How many people on their team have left the company in the last year?
  • Tell me about a specific internal project they were responsible for in the last year.
  • Is my manager critical to the agency’s success?
  • Can I meet my potential manager during the interview process?

These are just suggestions. You don’t have to ask all of them, and please do not launch an all out barrage of fifty back-to-back questions. That would not be good.

Don’t be surprised if these questions catch the interviewer off guard. It is very likely that your interviewer will have never heard these questions from an applicant. They might not be able to answer them on the spot. It’s okay if they don’t have immediate answers, but don’t let them off the hook. Instead, let them get back to you via email or phone. Let them know that your potential manager is one of the most important aspects of your decision-making process.

You are there to sell your skills and experience and how you can strengthen their agency. It’s not unreasonable to ask them to essentially sell the agency to you and how working at their agency can strengthen you. In my opinion, the number one selling point isn’t the perks. It’s not the way the initial visit makes you feel. Perks are meaningless. Feelings can be biased and/or manipulated. The biggest selling point should be who you report to, who will help you grow, and who will be your champion within the agency.

One of your interview goals should be to find out about your manager. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. Just ask a few questions.

My hope is that you find a job where you report to an honest, direct communicator, someone who is an experienced leader with a track record of growing great teams, managing talented people, and promoting based on measurable success.

Side Note: No manager is perfect. You are not going to find a unicorn. Hopefully these tips help you find a great manager. By the way, when you become a manager, be even better than the one you had.

#2 – No matter what anyone tells you, *YOU* are responsible for your training.

You are responsible for your training. Let that sink in. Read it again if necessary.

This might be a polarizing take, but this statement has proven to be true time and time again, both for me and for most of the people I have worked with.

Digital marketing requires a level of curiosity, inquiry, and go-get-itness that most people simply don’t have. You will hear new hires complain that no one is training them. You will *literally* see people sitting at their desk with nothing to do – AND THEY WILL SIT THERE DOING NOTHING FOREVER (or until someone important notices).

First, don’t expect anyone to train you. Expect to be relentlessly training yourself. Second, for most people, the agency world is sink or swim. It’s a harsh reality, but my experience is that people will only want to help people who are trying to help themselves. In one sense, you have to prove that you deserve their training. Prove to them you are worth their time and effort. Even then, they will only have time to teach you so much. They can only lead you so far. No one has time to hold your hand through everything, so you will need to be resourceful.

The solution is to find a way to learn. Make someone teach you. Be the squeaky wheel. Find someone who knows more than you do and put a training session on their calendar. Do whatever it takes. Find a way to learn. Find a way to teach yourself. Find what works for you, and then challenge yourself to learn more. One month, I challenged myself to learn a new Excel formula every day. I failed that challenge, but I ended up learning ~10 new things. Maybe I won after all. 🤔

Pro Tip: Nothing is as effective as working on real accounts and campaigns. I learn a lot from blog posts and forums (not so much from videos), but the only way to truly learn digital marketing is to actually do it. Dive in!

#3 – Be the dumbest person in the room.

I love learning from people who are more experienced than me. Because of that, I love being the dumbest person in the room. It essentially means that I have found my way onto a team or a project that is being run by smart, experienced people who can directly or indirectly teach me something. Furthermore, being included in different projects and teams means you will inevitably meet new people and hear new perspectives. That is always a good thing.

If you are always the most experienced and/or most skilled person in the room, you are in the wrong room. Find your way into meetings where you are not the smartest, where you are not the most experienced, where no one cares what you have to say. If you are used to being the expert in the room, being a nobody can feel strange. It’s humbling and rewarding at the same time.

Find opportunities to be on projects where you have zero confidence and even less ability. These types of projects are your opportunities to learn new skills. This has worked for me many times over the years. Nowadays, most of my time is spent learning new things, so in a way I have taken this advice to the extreme.

Side Note: This is also an effective tactic for training yourself. 😉

#4 – Create a plan for your career before someone else does.

I started working at an agency when I was 26-years-old. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. At 26, I also had no idea what I wanted to do with my career. I had quit my job as a teacher and found a job as a digital marketer. I was sitting at a desk where I was paid by the hour, and I had no idea what I wanted long-term. A few years later all of that changed when I created a vision for my career.

What I discovered about myself is that I preferred to work with brands and clients who moved quickly in the digital realm. Furthermore, I wanted to be in a role where I could actively be part of the implementation of the strategies I helped create. It’s funny to look back and realize how fast things moved once I figured out what I wanted.

Up to that point, if anyone had asked me for a career plan, I’m sure I did my best to fill it out just so it got done. I’m sure I put some thought into it, but I certainly didn’t know what I wanted to be doing in 5 years, much less 1 year. I was not certain about this, but I felt that not having a career plan was common among my similarly-aged peers in the industry.

As it turned out, five years after I left my first agency job, I was now managing a team of seven (eight including myself). When HR began to talk about career plans, I got super nervous because I had never written a career plan that had been approved by anyone in the company I was working for. Additionally, I had never attended any formal training on how to help others create career plans of their own. (Tangent: I often wonder if anyone in the agency world has ever had any formal training on helping their direct reports create short and long-term career plans. If so, I can’t imagine that it’s a large percentage.)

With absolutely zero training, I spent some time researching how to help other people find a vision for their careers. Based on my research and my personal feelings on the topic, I made it my mission to help my team members identify their strengths and pursue a trajectory of roles that would continue to build their skillsets, so that they would continue to be an asset to the company and so they would also find fulfillment in their work, which primarily consisted of delivering results for clients and contributing to the agency. I have no idea if I did a good job or not, but hopefully my team members know that I made my best attempts and truly cared about them.

If you’re still with me, I hope you can appreciate the level of stress that can come from being responsible for someone else’s career. It’s not something I take lightly. It’s a complex responsibility with long-term ramifications, both in someone’s personal life and professional life.

With all of that said, let’s talk about what it’s like in the agency world if you don’t have a plan or a vision for your career. Most importantly, you need to know that not having a plan for yourself causes some weird sh*t to happen. I don’t know how to explain it, but I have seen it many, many times. It’s some psychological reaction that I’m sure has a name. Ultimately, if you lack a vision for yourself, other people will assume the authority and begin to create one for you.

You don’t want to be in a role where someone else – who likely has no idea about your goals and dreams – is unilaterally creating a plan for something as important as your career. It is absolutely maddening when someone else tells you what you like, what you don’t like, what they think you should do, what they think you should not do, etc… #yuck 🤮

If you have a specific plan for your career, awesome. Live your best life already. On the other hand, if a vision for your career has yet materialized, my advice is to find someone in your company (hopefully it’s your direct manager), and work together to create the best plan for your career that you can articulate at this point in time. Even if the career plan turns out to be only partly inline with your dreams and goals, it will at least push you closer to finding your true north.

Side Note: Planning your career is not a simple task, so do your best to go easy on yourself and your manager during this process.

#5 – You will hear lies. Hopefully you won’t tell them.

Disclaimer: It is not my intention to accuse or indict all marketing agencies. My intention is to prepare new marketers for what they might experience while working for an agency, typically during sales pitches.

When you work at an agency, at some point you will be approached by a vendor who wants to sell you a platform, a toolset, a software, etc… Vendors will bring their best and brightest people who are trained in their products and also in selling their products.

A lie with a purpose is one of the worst kind, and the most profitable. – Josh Billings, American humorist

In many pitches, I have heard vendors make false claims about their respective product’s abilities. They are generally subtle about it, it’s often a game of semantics. They might fudge a number here or a launch date there, so keep your ears peeled.

During a pitch, you might hear one of your colleagues challenge a vendor’s claims, and then the vendor might backtrack and say something like “Oh, I didn’t mean that we have that feature now, but it is a feature that is expected to be released next quarter.” When I hear a vendor walk back a claim like that, I immediately get suspicious of their entire product suite.

Sadly, on one occasion a vendor directly lied to me. After the contract was signed, I found out one of the key features of their tool — the one I specifically told them that I needed which they said was already in production — would not be available for several months. 🤬

Over the years, I became accustomed to the art of lowkey bending the truth. If you sit in enough vendor pitches, you will begin to notice when it happens, too. For the record, not every vendor is like that, but listening to vendor pitches certainly taught me to keep my ears active during a pitch. (BTW sitting in on vendor pitches is a great way to learn about how other people pitch.)

Now let’s switch gears and talk about agency pitches. I might get some flack for this one. Oh well. Let’s talk about it.

The White Lies Agencies Tell Clients
From: The White Lies Agencies Tell Clients (DIGIDAY)

Selling marketing is very different than doing marketing. It’s extremely competitive out there, and because of that, I believe that every agency will do anything and everything to win a pitch. Because of this, you might will hear people in your agency bend the truth. 90% of this is answering in the affirmative when the client asks if you can do something or solve one of their problems. “Can you solve world hunger?” Of course we can.

The other 10% consists of comments that aim to make the agency seem bigger, more reputable, and more established. For example, a team of 4 becomes a team of 8-10. A company of 30 people becomes a company of 40-50 people. One employee in an apartment in Portland becomes ‘our Portland office’. “We have this awesome tool that has been live for months (maybe 1 month) and recently produced eye-popping results for AcmeWidgets.com.” And on and on and on…

When I think of why people might bend the truth in sales pitches, some popular sayings come to mind: “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there” and “It’s survival of the fittest!” In some ways, those fit the occasion. However, those sayings imply an alarming level of desperation. I believe I can offer a good theory as to why the truth gets bent in sales pitches. Let’s see if I can explain it.

If there was a video of me and my colleagues in sales pitches, it would look like a table of bobbleheads, where everyone on the agency side is nodding “Yes” to every question asked by the potential client.

I believe this nodding phenomenon occurs because if, during the pitch, you say yes to a million questions but no to one question, the prospective client will remember the no. That is what it feels like when you are in the room. Although based on conversations I have had with in-house marketing decision makers, the feedback I have received is that 99% of the time their decision comes down to cost. I have been told that most agencies are the same, so the cost is the driving factor of who wins the pitch in most cases.

In my experience, agency marketers say yes because what the client is asking is possible. Their challenge is something that the agency can solve. It’s actually doable — even if the agency has never done it before.

Even if I have no idea where I’m going or how to get there, I prefer to say yes, instead of no. Opportunity favours the bold – this is a lesson that I learned early on, and have used to guide the Virgin story. If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later! – Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Group (source)

If you happen to witness this nodding phenomenon or even the bending of the truth during a sales pitch, be assured that it is most likely happening because your agency leadership sees a problem they can solve for the client. The tool or feature may not exist right now, but it is possible. These moments are actually opportunities to do something new and meaningful for the potential client. The intention is usually a good one.

If you witness an outright lie where there is no actual intention of solving anything for anyone and the only reason for the lie is to get business, you can almost count on that relationship going south if the client signs with your agency. Relationships built on lies don’t go well. I’m sure it happens, but it hasn’t been my experience.

Side Note: I am in no way defending or condoning deception of any kind. I just want you to be prepared for the things you might see in the marketing world. Hopefully, if you do witness these things, you have a better understanding of why it’s happening.

#6 – Build relationships and results. You’ll need them.

Relationships and results are the most important part of your career. If you work at an agency, everything you do should be based around relationships and results.

Build and maintain relationships with your team members and your manager. Do the same with some of the people who you don’t directly work with. If possible, build a relationship with upper management and the leaders of the company.

Build relationships with your clients. Email them. Call them. Send them notes to let them know you are working on their project. Send them quick updates with some positive trends you are seeing. Send a quick status update to let them know you completed a simple task for them. Send them industry articles about topics that are relevant to the project you’re working on for them. Clients love the communication, so communicate with them often.

When it comes to results, you only have one option: produce results. If you can’t produce the results for which you have been hired, you’re gonna have a bad time.

The reason I put relationships and results as the top priority is because they will absolutely be needed when things are not going well. When results are lagging, you will lean on your relationships. If you’ve built a good relationship with your client, it will make those tough times a little easier. When relationships are bad, hopefully you can lean on your results. If you don’t have a good relationship with your client and the results are bad, well, you can probably predict how that movie will end.

#7 – You will get overwhelmed and stressed out.

Working at an agency comes with many responsibilities. Here is an abridged list:

  • Train yourself.
  • Train your team members.
  • Plan your career.
  • Help plan your team members’ careers.
  • Develop strategies for clients.
  • Create project plans for clients.
  • Manage projects for clients.
  • Attend internal meetings.
  • Manage internal projects.
  • Lead client calls.
  • Sit in on client calls.
  • Produce results for your clients.
  • REPORTING! (FYI it never ends.)
  • Drive and maintain client relationships.
  • Travel to see your clients.
  • Continuously remind your clients why they hired you.
  • Write RFPs.
  • Build pitch decks.
  • Be part of pitches to get more clients.
  • Build your network of industry friends and colleagues.
  • (Placeholder for all the ones I forgot to list)
  • Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

The responsibilities of working at an agency are many. It’s a lot to ask of someone, and some days you will wonder how you can get it all done. You’ll work some nights. You’ll work some weekends. Some weeks you’ll work 40 hours. Some weeks you’ll work 60-80 hours. It comes in waves, so enjoy the slow times.

"I have eight bosses, Bob. Eight." - Peter Gibbons (Office Space)
“Hi, Bob. Bob.” – Peter Gibbons

Working at an agency can make you feel like you have several bosses because every one of your clients is technically your boss, too. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about that viewpoint, but for me, it’s a real thing. You have to keep your agency-side boss(es) happy while also keeping your client-side boss(es) happy. It can be a lot to manage, but hey — If I can do it, you can definitely do it.

Make no mistake – #AgencyLife can be overwhelming. You will get overwhelmed. However, you will learn to live with the pressure of all of these items weighing on you every day. Somehow, it’s easier than it looks.

Should you succeed in your role at an agency, you will build excellent time management skills, a solid professional network, and a wealth of marketing experience — all of which go towards a fantastic résumé.

#8 – Don’t eat the free food and snacks.

Some background: I have a very real problem saying no to free food, and I have struggled with my weight ever since I can remember.

When I first started working at an agency, I weighed 230lbs. Within a couple of years, I ballooned to 290lbs. Through a lot of hard work, I eventually got up to 315lbs. Then I lost 90lbs. And a couple of years later, through even more hard work, I gained it all back. Since then, I have bounced back and forth between 250lbs and 290lbs. It’s a never-ending struggle for me.

My vice is Dr. Pepper and sweet tea.

I’ve always worked at agencies where there is a never-ending supply of sodas and other assorted delicious goodies. Add to that the vendors who cater lunch and bring in the most delicious treats every few days. Add to that the sedintary lifestyle where I’m glued to a computer screen for 8 hours a day. Add to that my amazing ability to avoid the gym for months (or even years) at a time. It all creates the perfect storm for a person like me, who, again, cannot say no to free food.

My weight is my responsibility. I can’t blame anyone but myself. After all, it’s not the agency’s fault that I can’t stop myself from going to the office kitchen multiple times a day. I have to make a conscious effort to stay away from the free food, and there is a very important reason as to why.

Marketing is all about presentation, style, and charisma. For some, marketing is also about the work. But it’s mostly about presentation. After all, we basically have to sell ourselves every time we talk to a client, see a client, or meet with a prospective client. Presentation matters.

There are probably a ton of studies out there that provide more evidence to this wild theory of mine, but it seems to me that people are nicer to me and treat me better when I am in shape. I can almost guarantee that it has something to do with me being happier when I’m in shape and consistently exercising. It all goes hand in hand. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is true for me.

For me, it pays to be healthy and to have my weight somewhat under control. I’m happier. My clients are happier. My manager is happier. My family is happier. Good health makes a difference in every aspect of my life.

If you also work in marketing and have trouble keeping your weight at a manageable level, please learn from my failures and find alternatives to the carb-rich food and snacks at your office. As you get older, the habit gets harder to break, and those empty calories get tougher and tougher to burn off.

Bottom line: If you work at an agency that provides free food and snacks, be careful. While the free food is technically ‘free’, there is a cost.

#9 – Find a trusted colleague who will tell you the hard truths about you.

In case you don’t already know, you are a beautiful person — inside and out. But you have massive flaws. Seriously. Huge ones. Many of which you are not even remotely aware of. Many of which will negatively impact your career.

Peter, you suck! (Forgeting Sarah Marshall)
It me.

Sure, you probably know about some of your flaws, but you’ll never know about the majority of your flaws unless someone tells you. And let me tell you — when you are face-to-face with someone telling you about your flaws, it sucks. It’s the worst. But you need it. If it’s coming from someone you trust, it’s a lot easier to take. To that point, I recommend finding someone that you trust.

Hopefully you have the courage to ask your manager about your flaws. Invite them (or someone else) to tell you all about things that you need to work on. One time, I asked my manager what people say about me when I’m not around. That was not a fun experience, but it helped me grow and get better.

“Why would I want someone pointing out my flaws?”

You do not want to end up in a situation where people only tell you what you are good at. That situation is great in the short run. “Everyone is so nice to me. They only have glowing reviews about my work.” I wish it could be that easy.

If you are only getting the positive feedback, over time you’ll begin to feel like everyone is blowing smoke up your a** because they are not providing you with the complete picture. By not giving you the tough feedback, they are not pushing you to be better.

Trust me: You should want to work with people who are honest and direct and have the courage to bring up the uncomfortable truths with you. The alternative is miserable because they will very likely talk about you rather than to you.

It says a lot about a person who has the courage to ask for tough feedback. It also says a lot about a manager who can give tough feedback and then coach their employees to get better and grow.

I once heard someone say, “If it’s easy, it ain’t growth.” That is perhaps the most succinct way that I know to tell myself to embrace the tough times in life. Those are the times when I grow the most.

Pro Tip: Allow yourself to be human. It is okay to be flawed. I know I am. It’s just part of being human. The world would be totally boring if we didn’t have drastically different personality traits, backgrounds, communication styles, etc… Embrace your humanity. It’s who you are. But — by all means — make an attempt to grow. Life is better when you’re learning new things and pushing forward. 😊

#10 – Not all work looks the same.

In my first couple of years working at the agency, I didn’t really think about raises, promotions, salaries, or incentives. All I thought about was the work.

I was being paid hourly to do work. It’s a very simple concept. Show up. Do your work. Get paid. It reminded me of working with my dad (he’s a general contractor). Showing up to do a job and then get paid was a very easy concept for me to grasp and appreciate. Eventually, I got hired full-time at the agency, and I was given a salary. Even with a salary, the concept remained the same to me: Show up. Do my work. Get paid.

‘Work’ can be a difficult word to define at a rapidly growing agency where everyone is encouraged and expected to jump in and help when needed. In fact, I’d say that it is difficult to define roles and responsibilities at growing agencies due to the constant change.

In every role I have ever had at an agency, the workload always increased over time, which I figured was another side effect of working at agencies that were always growing.

In my first few years, I was able to glean two important insights about working at an agency:

  • With clients, if the scope of work ever changed, it only broadened; it never narrowed.
  • Internally, my scope of work always increased, regardless of whether or not I got a promotion or a raise.

For a teacher like me, I was having to piece together the in’s and out’s of the agency world. I could clearly see that the amount of work I had to do was strongly correlated to the length of my employment at the agency. I was continuously asked to do more and more, and it came from both directions.

Internally, I was expected to manage, lead, and sell more accounts. Externally, my clients were asking for increasing amounts of deliverables and communication. This goes back to the idea that at agencies it can seem like you have several bosses.

Simply put: More experience leads to more work.

But not all work looks the same.

At 26, as an Account Manager, I could look at some of roles directly above me and get an idea what they did. I worked with Account Leads and Account Directors on a daily basis. I pieced together some of their responsibilities just by observing. From my perspective I was doing more of the actual work, while they were doing less work but more communication. That all made sense to me because Account Leads and Account Directors bore the majority of the responsibility for client relationships (see Tip #6).

However, as I looked up the chain of command, things because muddier, mostly because I had very little visibility into those upper level roles.

I had no idea what a Director did. I could see they were heavily involved in client relationships and business development, but I didn’t have much visibility into their daily tasks. I had even less idea what a VP did or what a Chief Officer did. I saw these people in the office every day, but I didn’t know anything about the finer details of their roles and responsibilities. What did ‘work’ mean to them? I had no idea.

As I moved up the chain of command, I got to see much more of the upper management world. My thoughts went from “What do they do during their workday?” to “Holy crap. These people do a type of work that I would find mentally exhausting.”

The Relationship Between Money & Problems
Perhaps Biggie was right all along.

The people at the top levels of a company have more pressure and stress than I could have ever imagined. It also appeared that they changed jobs more often (maybe even got fired more often) than people who were further down the ladder. While the money can get much better the higher you move up the ladder, the levels of pressure and stress rise in direct proportion. #MoMoneyMoProblems

Agencies are not easy. They are made up of people. People are awesome, but people can also make things extremely difficult. Personalities will clash. Emotions can sometimes get the best of us. Internal politics can also add another challenging dimension. The people at the top of agencies have to deal with all of this, while also trying to keep the ship on the right course. It’s not easy.

Finally, one thing I picked up on over the years is that upper level managers who are truly great at their job can often make it look easy and effortless. You might work with someone like this. It might seem like they do nothing. You might hear people say, “What do they do all day?” For the truly exceptional ones, I can promise you that they do a type of work that younger, less experienced coworkers would not understand. If I had to describe this type of work, I would say that it is 100% based on relationships and connections — which took them an entire career to build. In terms of their value to the agency, their ‘work’ is often invaluable.

On the other hand, you might also work with upper level managers who actually do nothing. And they look like they are doing nothing. Some of them don’t even try to hide it. Sadly, I don’t know the best way to distinguish the truly exceptional ones from the others just by looking. But trust me — you’ll know it when you see it.

If you are in your mid-20’s and stressed AF about all the work and reporting you have to get done and you are looking around at all the leaders in your company and wondering WTF are they even doing, don’t get discouraged. Take a step back and realize that you don’t know everything and that you may not actually be more stressed out than any of those people who make all the money. Hopefully some day you’ll get your chance to be one of those people at the top, and then all the younger people will look at you and ask the same question. For now, calm down. It’s the circle of life, Simba.

#11 – Your salaries, raises, and promotions probably won’t be directly based on revenue growth and financial performance, but they should be.

For the shocking conclusion to this post, I’d like to discuss money. It’s a sensitive topic, so let me preface it by saying these are my experiences, observations, and conjectures. Not every agency is the same. Results may vary.

Real Talk: Salary edition

To understand how I think about salaries, you must remember that prior to working at an agency, I was a public school teacher. As a teacher, I made ~$38,000/year. My salary was determined by the upper management at the District level. Wait. Actually, I don’t know who determined my salary. Maybe it was the superintendent or the school board. Oh who cares?

Anyhoo, my salary was public information. It was strictly based on my degree and how many years of experience I had. I knew it was pretty much set in stone. I could not walk into the principal’s office and demand a raise. I don’t think he had any control over that. Point being: I come from a profession where salary was set by management, it was non-negotiable, and most relevant to this story, it was not based on performance.

When I started my first role at a marketing agency (I was 26), my first salary was less than what I made as a public school teacher. I knew there was much more opportunity in the “business world” than there was in the world of public school education, so I didn’t mind working three more months per year for less money. I saw the move as an opportunity to learn something new and potentially make more money in the long run. (Side Note: I didn’t make more than $50,000/year until I was 32 – after I left my first agency. Take that for what it’s worth.)

Today, I look at salaries very differently. Working at agencies for over a decade can teach a person a lot about how salaries are determined. Long story short: I think it’s mostly arbitrary. Experience and timing are probably the biggest factors.

First, there is a market rate for every role at an agency, but it’s really more of a market range.

For the lower level roles — account coordinators, managers, and leads — the market range tends to be based on age and experience. The range for these positions is not very wide. If you pick two account managers at an agency and both have similar experience and skills, their salaries are likely to be relatively similar. I don’t think you’ll find two account managers with similar experience who have salaries that differ by $20,000. I’m sure it happens from time to time, but I think that scenario would be out of the ordinary.

One thing I will tell you here is that if you work at the same agency for several years and if that agency is consistently growing its client base at a fast rate, you will almost certainly end up meeting new colleagues who got hired based on your agency’s immediate needs. In those cases, the agency will be willing to pay much more than the actual market rate because they *really* need someone to fill a position for a new account. They needed that person yesterday, so they will be willing to pay more.

In situations like that, you might find yourself sitting right next to someone who has less experience than you but makes a significant amount more than you. It can be depressing and maddening to find that out, but please know it doesn’t mean anything about you or your value to the company. It’s more about how your new coworker was in the right place at the right time when an amazing opportunity appeared. If only we could all be so lucky.

Biff Tannen - Luckiest Man on Earth (Hill Valley Telegraph,
Biff Tannen – Luckiest Man on Earth (Hill Valley Telegraph, 1959)

Higher up the ladder, salaries become trickier to predict. Well, nearly impossible because the market ranges can be much wider.

Account coordinators, managers, and leads tend to be younger, which means they typically have less experience than the higher level roles. Younger people with less experience will generally make less money, and their salaries will probably be based on a pay scale that is more clearly defined.

Directors, VPs, and Chief Officers, on the other hand, are generally older and have much more experience. These people are not only hired for their experience. They are hired to help drive the agency strategy and create the overall strategy for their respective lines of business. Upper management roles not only have their teams’ and clients’ success on their shoulders, they are also charged with growing the agency’s revenue. Because of this, their salaries can vary dramatically from one to the other. Furthermore, they can be incentivized much differently with things like stock options, performance bonuses, distributions, equity, revenue sharing, shares, commissions, etc… Getting a true gauge of how much these people actually make can be downright impossible.

Another important factor in the salaries of senior level employees is that they often negotiate their salary. This means that they are not always taking what is offered them. They may negotiate a higher salary, incentives, vacation, bonuses, commission, equity, etc… With salary negotiation, they might take the first offer on salary, but perhaps they negotiated an additional week of vacation. That extra week of vacation is another type of compensation. You can’t only look at salary as your only form of compensation.

Senior level people have been around the block a few more times, so they have a better idea of their true value and what they can bring to a company. They know their worth, and they also tend to have a much better idea of what they want. Also, they have likely learned from peers and experience that salary negotiation is a real thing, and it often pays off to pursue it.

When you’re hiring for senior level roles, you also take into account the applicant’s network. You don’t only want their expertise and experience, you want them to connect you and your agency to the people they know. If they have an employment history in several senior level positions, their former colleagues, direct reports, and bosses could potentially be decision makers at companies and brands that would be highly valuable in your agency’s client portfolio.

If you’re an agency CEO looking to grow your client base, it’s a smart move to hire people who are connected. Not all senior level positions are filled based on their near network, but it’s not hard to imagine that it would be a consideration.

Side Note: Do not get distracted by all the meaningless perks of modern agencies. All of those things are meaningless. What should really matter to you is that you are being paid what you are worth and compensated fairly for everything you do for the agency.

Frank Abagnale Quotes (Catch Me If You Can)
Don’t get distracted by the bells and whistles of modern agencies.

Performance-Based Incentives & Compensation

During a typical workday, if someone asked me to help with a sales pitch, I would help out. That type of request clearly fit into my scope of work internally. Because I had no prior knowledge of how sales worked, it never occurred to me that I could be incentivized to help grow the business.

“What do you mean by that?”

Let’s say you are an Account Lead at an agency, and you were recently part of a successful sales pitch to a client who signed a contract for $120,000/year.

Now multiply that number by 10 (because you’re awesome and you will eventually bring on 10 new accounts over the next year).

Now your department is generating $1.2 million more in revenue. If you helped bring on those 10 accounts and grow that line of business, wouldn’t it be reasonable and fair that you receive some type of performance-based compensation for achieving that level of revenue growth (in addition to your salary)?

Early in my career, I was an SEO Account Manager, but this same concept should hold true if you manage accounts in Paid Search, Paid Social, or Display. If you help pitch and sign a new client that will spend $5Mil/yr, there is a strong, logical argument that you deserve additional compensation (on top of you salary) for helping drive that new revenue.

In some cases, you might even be directly responsible for your client(s) spending more money with your agency. If your accounts are growing and/or their spend with your agency is growing, you are adding additional real monetary value to the agency. The basic idea here is this: If you help grow the agency’s revenue via driving new business or expanding existing business, you should have an incentive structure that rewards you for those things.

Additionally, performance based incentives are also in the agency’s best interest. It’s the same reason that NFL players have contracts that have specific performance triggers. For example, in this ESPN.com article, it states, “Vinatieri will earn a $500,000 bonus if he makes at least 90 percent of his field goal attempts.” If Vinatieri makes 90% of his field goals, the Colts make several multiples of that $500k in revenue. Guaranteed. Both parties win if he reaches that bonus.

If you had a significant performance incentive to retain 90% of your clients, I’d bet that you’d be busting you butt to make sure you did everything you could to retain all of you clients. I’m sure you do that anyways, but let’s be honest – if there was a chance you could earn an immediate monetary bonus, you’d probably try a little harder.

Incentives keeps players motivated all season long. The same type of incentives will keep you extra motivated, which ultimately helps the agency. Both parties win. That’s always a good thing.

It would be fair to be compensated for your efforts, but you won’t be compensated because most agency pay structures are not set up like that. The performance incentives simply do not exist for people in your position.

It’s highly probable that you won’t receive additional compensation for your help in bringing on new business or signing existing business. In fact, I would bet that you don’t even get compensated for growing an existing account’s spend/budget.

After selling a new account, this is the only thing you will receive: more work.

The system is set up so that you help bring on new accounts, upsell existing accounts, increase your current clients’ budgets, and re-sign existing accounts, and the only thing you get in return is more accounts to work on.

Oh wait. If you bring on that many accounts, you might receive a promotion and a raise. But I seriously doubt that your raise will be commensurate with the revenue growth you helped drive for the agency.

If you are an Account Lead, Manager, or Coordinator, I would venture a guess that, outside of you base salary and yearly bonus, you are not incentivized to sell, upsell, or re-sign clients. You will probably not get a raise, a promotion, or a spot bonus for bringing on a new account. You may be part of dozens successful pitches, but your salary and compensation will be based on work rather than driving revenue. That’s just the way it is.

I would guess that most agencies are run this way. The account coordinators, managers, leads, and directors are all asked to help sell, but it’s likely that none of them are ever fairly compensated to do so (via performance incentives, bonuses, or commissions).

I’m the slowest learner ever. I don’t process information very quickly. But after a few years working at an agency, I realized that owners, board members, partners, upper management, sales people, and other key people were making 100% of the commission and profits on every contract that was being signed. There were typically 3-8 lower level employees involved in most pitches, and the only thing they received after winning a big pitch was an “Attaboy!” And more work.

I think the system is inherently flawed. It’s not equitable. If that is happening to you, I’m sorry. I’ve been there. It’s not fair. But that is life. Honestly, it’s the deal you made with the agency when you chose to accept the pay structure outlined in your contract. Don’t get all sad and depressed about the deal you agreed to. It’s not even worth being mad about. Feel grateful that you have a job at a good company, and move forward with this new knowledge. My hope is that it will help you get paid what you are worth at your next gig. #KnowledgeIsPower

Bonuses

Bonuses have always been a mystery to me. The methodology for bonuses is so unclear and confusing yet often presented as transparent and easy to understand.

Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover)
Let’s see here. Divide by 4. Carry the 1…

From what I know, my yearly bonus was determined by a formula. I saw different versions of this formula over the course of 13 years. The equation varied from one agency to the other, but I don’t remember the exact factors. However, I don’t think I ever saw financial goals as a factor in any versions of the bonus formula. To me, the formula just looked like an equation that ultimately got reduced to a percentage of my base salary. That made the most sense. Plug in some numbers and the equation spits out a number. Done and done.

To be honest, I can’t help but wonder if bonuses are really just some output derived from an equation full of arbitrary inputs. Also, I kinda wonder if bonuses are determined by taking the previous year’s bonus and then adding an arbitrary percentage. Who knows.

I never had any complaints about my bonus because 1) I felt grateful just to get a bonus and 2) I had nothing to compare my bonus to. Honestly this is the most I’ve ever thought about my bonuses. I wish I could tell you more, but for me the entire topic is like an episode of ‘Unsolved Mysteries‘.

The Criteria for Raises & Promotions

In my experience at agencies, raises and promotions did not appear to be directly tied to the financial performance of current clients. If they were, I don’t think I ever saw any evidence of that. I never heard about anyone getting a raise or promotion because they landed a new account or re-signed an account.

Raises and promotions seemed to be indirectly related to the financial performance of our clients, meaning that if the client fired us, our job security might be in question. If the client re-signed the contract, we would have a better feeling about our job security.

No one ever said, “If we re-sign this client, you can all keep your jobs.” No one ever said, “If this client doesn’t re-sign, you might be out of work.” However, if you’re a reasonable human being, you can’t help to wonder what will happen to your position if you work on an account that ceases to exist.

Luckily for me, I never had to experience layoffs if we lost a client. I worked for agencies that were always growing, so it was never an issue. Even if we lost a client, there was always a need for resources and expertise on existing clients or recently acquired clients.

At the agencies I worked for, the criteria for raises and promotions appeared to be most closely tied to:

  • overall work performance
  • driving results for clients
  • acquiring additional knowledge and skills
  • the current status of your client relationships
  • achieving items on your career plan
  • your status internally within the agency
  • reviews from managers, direct reports, and peers
  • etc…

Those factors are clearly important, but I believe performance-based factors should have more weight in determining raises and promotions. For example, if you are working in paid media and you sell your client on increasing their paid media spend by 25% over the next quarter, you should be rewarded with some type of performance based compensation. Do that with three accounts and you should be given a raise and/or a promotion. If you have a role in increasing the agency’s revenue, you should be compensated for that.

My biggest complaint with the process for raises and promotions is that there is so much ambiguity around the process itself. “Want a promotion? Talk to your manager.” That is too vague for me. It can also be depressing when you feel like you have checked off all the boxes, received great reviews from peers and clients, gone the extra mile for the agency and for clients, and helped grow the business, and yet there is still hesitation on a promotion. I’ve been there. It sucks. That is why I’m a fan of tangible, objective goals that would trigger raises and/or promotion.

It would be awesome if the promotion conversation could go like this: “Want a promotion? Sure. Your clients currently spend $6.2 million. Increase that to $7.2 million, and then I’ll give you that promotion in a heartbeat.” For me, that type of directive is much easier to grasp than “We need you to be more proactive.” or “You need to be a better communicator.” Also, if you get your clients to spend a million more dollars, it is likely that you were more proactive and communicated much better.

If you are stuck in a sea of ambiguity when it comes to your raises and promotions, ask for tangible goals and numbers that are able to verified objectively, not subjectively.

Side Note: I don’t know the perfect criteria for raises and promotions. There may not be a right answer, but I prefer a protocol based on clearly defined quantifiable goals and numbers that would trigger a raise and/or a promotion. I like when things are clearly defined. I bet you do, too.

Conclusion

Agencies are a fantastic place to work. You will learn a lot and hopefully find a nice career path for yourself in the agency world.

I met lifelong friends at the agencies I worked for. I had some incredible managers who mentored me and help put me on the path to success. I failed a lot, too. But it’s okay. I’m only human.

If I can leave you with one final thought, I’d like you to know that you are meaningful to the success of the agency, and you have a lot more power and leverage than you realize. It might take you some time to fully realize that, but let me assure you — it’s true.

Hopefully you learned something from my experiences and observations, so that you can live your best #AgencyLife.

If you relate to this and/or have any insights you would like you to share with others in the agency world, please share your story in the comment section below. Thanks!

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