Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What Happens When You Want To Return To Agency Life

Almost every day I receive résumés from people who have left the ad business for other ventures – sometimes client side, sometimes to start a business or other venture, sometimes just to take a sabbatical.  (I am not writing here about maternity leave, which is another blog post all together.)  They all share one thing in common. 

It is hard to get back.

The simple reason is that ad agencies look askance at people who are not committed to advertising.  They reason that why hire someone who has left the business for several years when they can hire, generally for the same money, someone is so committed that they never left.  No matter that whatever venture the applicant has been on has probably made them a better advertising executive and given them a more well rounded view of the business.

I have previously written that agencies should hire more clients, particularly ex-ad agency people who prefer the agency side.  They can bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to an agency.  Not all clients are right for the agency business, but those that are right should not be dismissed out of hand.

There is no question that some people who want to come back should not do so.  In many cases they have been out of the business for a decade or more and only want to come back because they are desperate for employment.  If someone has been doing something which is completely irrelevant to advertising, their background is probably no longer appropriate.

But for those who have been doing relevant things – retailing, media, communications, research, and a host of other things – they can bring a wealth of knowledge to the business.  Their perspective just may be invaluable to helping solve a client’s problem.

As an aside, each year I see people who have been successful running small agencies.  They work on small brands (occasionally well known), and generally do regional or local advertising.  To my chagrin, I have discovered that it is almost impossible to place them at a “name” agency – big or small.  Their experience is simply not seen as relevant unless they have a couple of major national brands under their belt.  In my opinion, some of these people actually know more about branding, advertising and business in general than many of the folks who come out of straight careers in big agencies on big brands.  But most of the time, I cannot even get them interviewed.

Advertising tends to pigeonhole people.  I worked early in my career for both big and small agencies - strategic and creative, always well known brands..  Then I opened my own shop; it was reasonably successful and had a number of good accounts.  It was merged into an agency where I was head of account management.  When I started looking for a job because I was unhappy, a president of a large agency told me I would not find a job at a big agency because I was a “small agency” person.  That is absurd.  And, by the way, I was offered jobs at Chiat/Day and Wells, Rich, Greene but decided to recruit instead.  I wrote this about myself to show that this is not a new trend.  It has been endemic in the agency business for decades.

The best way to get back in is to keep up with ad agency contacts.  Someone who knows you will be more likely to want to hire you than a complete stranger.  Networking is a better way than through recruiters – recruiters are paid to put square pegs in square holes. 


  1. Excellent (and true) article Paul.
    Kathy Hoffmann

  2. Your point about keeping up your contacts I think is the most essential part of this all. Samatha Ettus recently wrote a great post in Forbes about this same thing (for mothers in particular). She took some slack for it--so I'm glad to see you support the same ideas here.

  3. The key to staying in the agency business is to remain relevant. After almost 20 years in account management and in my 40s, I realized that there was no shortage of classically-trained packaged goods guys like me. A dime a dozen and we all couldn't get to the top. I looked around and realized that there really weren't that many new biz development professionals. Lots of interlopers and out-of-work account types filling their employment breach, but very few pros who knew what they were doing. So I decided to become an expert in agency new business development in the mid-90s and, since then, have learned how to get "in the room" with a prospect who says no! What I did is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you look at what you're really special at and willing to risk complete failure at something entirely new, you'll find your place. It takes courage and commitment ... but, then, what success story doesn't?

  4. Apparently there is truth in advertising. Yes, recruiters are paid to put square pegs in square holes. It takes guts to admit it. Thanks Paul. The lesson for those reading, especially those in their initial years in the business, is that you cannot rely on a recruiter to get you a job unless it is your week to be the square peg in the square hole. My week came once in 28 years. The fact is you must create and maintain a network. And as the previous poster properly points out, if you are an account person, you will reach a point where account stewardship is not enough to keep a job. You will need to cultivate new business; real new business meaning new accounts. This is what separates the men from the boys and few people can do it. But if you can do it, you will make yourself invaluable and stay employed for as long as you can or wish to keep it up.

  5. Bob: Your point is well taken. I have said this before: recruiters only account for 20% of jobs, even in the best of times. Networking accounts for 75%; networks are essential.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

Creative Commons License