Thursday, April 8, 2010

Which is better: A good account at a small agency or a second tier account at a big shop?

Candidates are always calling me to ask this question. It is an interesting one and the answer is not as simple as it would appear at first. Given the poor economy, especially in advertising, more often than not, candidates don’t really have a choice; rarely, these days, are there two offers. But the question is often asked directionally. Which way should someone who is out of work go?

I have seen desperately out of work people take the first thing that comes along, often at a smaller agency on an unknown or small piece of business. In the last several years I have seen excellent people make this choice, which is perfectly understandable – they need to support themselves and their families. Unfortunately, many of them end up out of work within a short time, either because their new job cannot afford them or because the smaller agency has gone out of business, or is close to it.

On the other hand, there is no guaranty of employment at a bigger agency either. These days, when clients cut their budgets even on a big brand, there is absolutely no certainty that the big agency will rotate even the best of people on to a new account.

Which brings us back to the question of which is better? The answer is that it depends. I have seen a vicious circle started in this economy. A person with a stellar career is laid off. After many months out of work, they take a job at someplace they may not have considered previously. Then that job falls apart. So they are forced to take another job at another place they may not have normally considered. Then, an opening occurs at a well known shop and the first question asked when they see this person’s résumé is, “They seem to be bouncing around a lot”. Or, “Their career appears to be on a downward spiral, why should we consider them?” It is a terrible Catch 22.

The answer to the question of evaluating a place and an offer is dependent on a lot of factors. First, it depends on a person’s ultimate career goals. Second, it depends on where one is in their career. And finally, it may depend on where one is in the job-hunting cycle.

It is hard to be objective about one’s own career. Often it takes a professional to look objectively at a résumé and to be able to tell a candidate what a move may mean to their future. Big agency people – the majority of the business – might immediately tell people that they are better off at another big agency no matter what the account. However, we all know that the big agencies have A, B and C teams. The B and C teams at some of the bigger shops are often dead end jobs and they rarely promote people off of them on to their A accounts.

At a smaller agency on a well known account there may be fabulous job satisfaction and the ability to grow into management. I know an account director who went to a smaller agency and who instantly hated the fact that they were no longer involved with issues of worldwide importance which they had at their previous big agency. But they soon discovered that they were able to influence and help their new, smaller clients in a way which actually could never happen at the previous big shop. Their job satisfaction actually increased significantly. 

The bottom line is that there is no right or wrong choice. A career is like a roadmap. You have to pick a destination and then figure out the best route to get there. And that route is a very personal thing with lots of possible detours on their way. In one of my Ad Age columns, I wrote that a résumé has to make sense when you look at it. The moves should almost be self-explanatory. So the answer to the question of which is better – big shop second tier account or small shop, great account – depends on your own personal goals and aspirations and how it fits in to the direction you want to take your career.


  1. Top Tier at small shop. Having done all types and varieties the opportunity to do great and appreciated work is upper right quadrant with a great client at a smart, unencumbered small agency.

  2. I think the answer could possibly differ by discipline. As an account planner I prefer to work with a client that is in a position that they feel (and understand) that they have to out think the competition to even stay relevant. While there is not a true standard for which scenario that might be, I've many times found that it is the client that is under-served that is often most likely to embrace change (when it is presented to them). Sometimes that is why a big brand looks for a small agency (in the first place) and sometimes that is the second tier account at a big agency who hasn't gotten that agencies best (yet). What I don't want to work on is a client that feels too comfortable with the status quo (even if the status quo is winning creative awards).


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