In defence of working at agencies

Susan Redden Makatoa grits her teeth when job seekers tell her they don't want to work in agencies. Here, she reveals why - despite the sometimes absurd demands from clients - nothing compares to agency life.

Before you @ me, I’ll freely admit I could be biased after spending around 15 years in agencies – I obviously drank the Kool-Aid early. But I wasn’t blind to the drawbacks.

When Susan Redden Makatoa asks potential candidates if they’d work in an agency, they often say no

Were timesheets a pain in the bum? Oh my god, yes. Were there occasional long nights and weekends? Yep – a federal government department that gave us 72 hours over the Australia Day long weekend to respond to a pitch deserves a dishonourable mention here. Were there times when clients asked for the impossible? Absolutely – wanting mainstream coverage for bronze busts of racing driver Ayrton Senna comes to mind.

I’ll tell you now though, it was all worth it. I had no idea what to expect when I went from in-house to an agency, but I worked hard and in return was given the opportunity to work on some extraordinary campaigns. These included: the Free Peter Greste project, breaking taboos with “Let’s Talk About Dying” for Palliative Care Australia, and hosting a media conference for the Prime Minister and another for Prince Harry (aka the best day at work ever).

Susan Redden Makatoa takes a selfie with Prince Harry, aka her “best day at work ever”

I also watched on in awe as colleagues helped get life-saving medicines listed, ran compelling awareness campaigns for bowel cancer, meningococcal and arthritis, somehow got a Ford on top of the Opera House for New Year’s Eve, launched Netflix into Australia, and worked with clients to change policy and legislation.

I saw the magic happen in creative brainstorms as ideas got bigger and bolder, and when we were the calm heads in a crisis. I also got to know and admire leaders in other agencies who themselves were delivering for their clients time and time again. As a long-time champion of women in leadership, I’m quietly thrilled that many of these are female and that there’s a friendly-but-competitive camaraderie among them.

Now, as a recruiter, I can tell you that agency experience tells me something about the candidate before me. They are likely to be nimble, a quick study, disciplined in planning, and able to juggle projects and deadlines. I know they will be highly accountable and transparent about their work because agencies need to show the value they are bringing.

If they’ve worked in media relations, I know their pitching will be on point, and if they’ve been in a specialist firm, their sector knowledge will be strong. Consulting skills and being known as a trusted adviser are key to leadership roles across the board. These are excellent qualities and highly attractive to employers of all types – agency, corporate, government and not for profit.

Whatever your level, if you’re thinking about your next move, you might be surprised about what agencies have to offer. Many are now offering flexible working opportunities, paid parental leave, dedicated training and development programs, work exchanges and sabbaticals. Larger firms often have a network of experienced contractors so there is opportunity there too. Companies often bring large projects they can’t do themselves to an agency, like launches and transactions, so you work on the best projects.

And because you have a helicopter view of a range of industries and channels, you’ll figure out quickly what you like and what you’re good at. This sort of exposure can take decades to achieve in-house.

If you’ve been anti-agency until now, I’d urge you to reconsider. You could gain sought-after skills and experience over a year or two, or you could, in time, end up leading the business.

Susan Redden Makatoa is director, search at Temple Executive Search


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