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Agency vs. client-side work: Which is best for you?


Fun and chaotic. Completely unpredictable. Great work-life balance. Amazing opportunity but long hours.

Every work environment has its own culture, and for creatives there's probably nowhere that difference is more pronounced than between agency and client-side work. Sure, that’s a broad statement, and yes, lots of in-house departments have an agency culture and setup. But let’s assume for this post that those departments fall into the agency category.

The opposite can be said for agencies that service large corporate clients where guidelines are strict and creativity is less than welcomed. Work with us here: those groups are just client-side teams in disguise. We think you get the idea.

Some freelancers gravitate toward one environment or the other and some seem to glide effortlessly between the two worlds.

If you’re just sorting out which creative world you belong in (or wondering if there’s anything more out there than the world you’re in), here are a few “Vitabites” of advice to help you with your decision.

What’s it like to work at an agency?
The best part of working at an agency is that creative is king! Agencies thrive on creative work, so you'll have a chance to stretch your creative muscle. Agencies are a great place to dive right in and learn A LOT. It's a super competitive field, and you'll find yourself competing against other agencies and often even your coworkers. You’ll get to work on cutting-edge projects and quickly gain experience working with a wide range of clients, brands or services.

Agencies move at lightning pace on many projects simultaneously and everyone handles lots of jobs, so you may very well find yourself acquiring new skills at a rapid clip. If you’re a born multitasker and love to show your creative stuff, agency life is the place to be. Never a dull moment, to be sure.

Your workload will grow and shrink depending on clients' business. Be prepared for heavy workloads, though. It’s not uncommon for creatives at agencies to work 60-70 hours a week (and yes, sometimes on national holidays). The shrinking part can be scary. If an agency loses its main client(s), then you may very well lose your job - for a while, anyway, as agencies tend to maintain a pool of freelancers for times when work comes back in fast.

If you love a frenetic pace and get an adrenaline rush when you're under a deadline, agency life may be for you.

What’s it like to work in the client-side world?
Creative work in the client-side world will keep you more than busy on a multitude of projects, but here the project workflows are much longer because there are more people (and approvals) involved. Since everyone on the creative team has a specific role that's well defined, you don't have to worry about becoming a "Jack of all trades, master of none." You may have to worry about being a Jack/Jill of One Trade, depending on the hyper-specialization of the team, so stay awake while they’re passing out projects.

Teams on the client side are often a lot more collaborative than at an agency, in fact many times they'll mentor you and teach you everything you need to know to be successful. They may even pay for you to attend conferences or take a class.

Most of your clients will be internal, which is fantastic, because you won’t lose them the way an agency can. Talk about job security! In this case, you only have to worry about stockholders (or layoffs due to a poor economy).

You'll also get work on a variety of campaigns. Oftentimes projects will be the same year over year, which means you'll be a part of building and maintaining those brands as time goes by. Your schedule will probably be a lot more predictable than in the agency world, as will your paycheck.

If you prize your work-life balance, then client-side might be right for you!

Here’s a little quiz to help you decide:

1. I drive a:
a. All-Electric Tesla Roadster (You’re a risk taker. Add 2 points for agency work.)
b. Subaru Wagon (You appreciate security. Add 2 points for client-side work.)
c. Lexus (Add 2 points for you. You can afford a Lexus.)

2. The movie character I most relate to is:
a. Rick in Casablanca. (Hooray for your independent streak. Add 2 points for agency work.)
b. Bond. James Bond. (You like consistency… at least through a few films! Add 2 points for client-side work.)
c. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. (Umm, do not add points. Do not pass go.)

3. My favorite music is:
a. John Coltrane (You appreciate improvisation! Add 2 points for agency work.)
b. Brahms (You like being calm and collected. Add 2 points for client-side work.)
c. Johnny Cash. (Add 2 points, just for good taste.)

What draws you to agency work vs. client-side work (or vise versa)? We’d love to hear from you!

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