Head to Head: Agency versus in-house – which is better?

In this series, Mumbrella invites the industry's senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Elly Hewitt, managing director at Alt/Shift goes head to head with PayPal's Tom Hunter on whether working in an agency is better than in-house.

It has been a long fought debate in the PR industry: which is the best place to be? In an agency? Or working client side?

For Alt/Shift’s managing director Elly Hewitt, who worked client side for a short stint, working in agency allows for more of a diverse range of work, clients and ideas. Hewitt argues that agencies have a strong culture and braver approach to work.

In contrast, Tom Hunter, says working in-house is better because you are able to dedicate yourself to one brand and one company’s goals.

Yes, argues Elly Hewitt, managing director, Alt/Shift:

“When I shut my Haystac computer for the final time in 2009, I really believed that I was farewelling my agency days for good, as I headed toward a sponsorship role at one of the big four banks.

“However, following a year client side, I returned to agency life armed with a renewed energy and passion for the agency environment, though I couldn’t recommend more highly that consultants experience both sides.

“In my time away from agency life, I realised that I love the diversity of work that agency brings, allowing you to tackle multiple brands’ challenges at once. Often while trying to crack a brief on one client, ideas for another can randomly come to the fore.

Hewitt: “I also haven’t found a working culture that matches the agency environment”

“I also haven’t found a working culture that matches the agency environment. The personalities, creativity and energy people bring to an agency makes for a contagious workplace environment that’s tough to replicate.

“At times agencies are engaged for communications that deliver on long-term strategic priorities, but for the most part we get the opportunity to work on exciting and fast paced campaigns.

“As external agency partners, we’re free to view a campaign brief for what it is, without being bogged down by day to day work. This allows us to be brave in our approach and then work hand in hand with our clients to get the campaign approved internally.

“In terms of career development, I have found the agency environment to be very supportive of carving out your own path. In my experience, when I’ve presented a plan of how to grow the team or develop a new service offering, it has always been met with the attitude of ‘let’s make it happen’. I believe if you bring a cracking attitude and a desire to grow personally, and grow the agency commercially, the sky is your limit.

“My time spent client side helped me become a better agency MD, who can share learnings with the team on why client decisions have gone a certain way, and what might have influenced them (legal and compliance usually!). While I frequently put my client hat on, it’s my agency hat that has given me the most joy, and delivered the work that I am most proud of.”

No, argues Tom Hunter, communications manager, PayPal Australia:

“I spent the better part of six years working in a PR agency environment, and in mid 2017 made the move to my first in-house role at PayPal Australia. Since I made the move, I’ve discovered benefits and disadvantages for both sides. To solely argue the ‘no’ side of this argument would ignore the many years that I enjoyed and loved working in an agency – not to mention the fundamental skills it taught me that I use every single day of my role at PayPal. Personally, I don’t think I could succeed in an in-house role without my time spent in agency.

“My most significant reason for moving in-house was to be able to dedicate myself 100% to one brand and the goals that company aims to achieve and to broaden my communications skill set. I wanted to be in there, working on one brand rather than many clients, building strong stakeholder relationships, running and rolling out campaigns, liaising with international counterparts and, ultimately, developing new skills unattainable in an agency role. The challenges you face and the different skills you develop in an in-house role is the reason why I believe, at this stage in my career, an in-house role is better.

Hunter says he works in-house to develop “unattainable” skills in an agency

“The day-to-day challenges faced in-house can be incredibly diverse. From working on a wide range of employee communications projects, running company events, managing issues as they arise, and also working with our PR and creative agencies to roll out our campaigns with colleagues in marketing, being in-house has only expanded and built on the skill set I developed in an agency environment. An in-house role also allows you to focus and fine-tune quite specific communications skills, some of which do not come up agency-side.

“So, is agency better than in-house? It isn’t, at least not for me at this point in my career. But in-house definitely isn’t something that will suit everyone. Agency was the right place for me to build the foundations of my career before I moved to my current role, and I definitely wouldn’t rule out returning to agency-land in the future.”

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au

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