Moving to the dark side: lessons we learnt switching from client to agency (and vice versa)

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 40 seconds.

Both in-house marketing departments and agencies have their own unique challenges. Here are some lessons we’ve learnt from both sides of the marketing industry.

Ever wondered what it’s like to move from an in-house marketing manager to an inbound agency? What about the reverse, moving from an agency to become an in-house marketing manager? Nicole Sengers, Senior Inbound Marketing Strategist at Spitfire Inbound, made the move from client to agency, and one of our sister company’s former employees, Wendy Mitrovich, moved from Penquin to become an in-house Brand Manager at our client, Polyflor South Africa.

Nicole and Wendy have teamed up to shed some light on the mystery that is moving to the dark side. . .

What’s it like to go from being an in-house Marketing Manager to an Inbound Marketing Strategist at an agency?

Nicole: I didn't always understand the agencies I worked with - until I joined Spitfire Inbound, and finally understood what goes on behind the scenes at an inbound marketing agency.  Before I get there, let me share some insights about my role as an in-house Marketing Manager. 

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Whether you’re an in-house marketing manager or working as an inbound strategist at an agency, you need to be a professional juggler.

As an in-house Marketing Manager, one of my main challenges was that we were under-resourced, and had limited time and budget which needed to stretch as far as humanly possible - which included supporting the sales team with their needs.

I was required to wear a lot of different hats, from branding to internal marketing and corporate social investment (CSI) projects. Answering to many levels within the organisation, from the Sales Director to the CEO -  creating additional challenges and red tape to get through, in order to get things done.

I have to highlight that in-house marketers are exceptionally passionate about their brands, which is where they find their motivation to put in the long hours with minimal resources. This means that they need to know that their suppliers will deliver on their promises. They can’t afford to waste time and money on a campaign that doesn’t deliver tangible ROI - because they need to prove this ROI to the various stakeholders.

With so much pressure on them, in-house marketers need an agency that offers value for money, provides proactive, constant feedback and allows enough lead time for approvals. Suppliers should relieve strain, rather than add additional stress through missed deadlines and failure to deliver on their promises.

Moving to an inbound agency taught me that you can’t succeed without your client’s trust. The agency-client relationship is a partnership. When you find the right partnership, your agency is as passionate and invested in your brand as you are. A good agency provides strategic advice and creative direction that an in-house team may not be able to do on their own, due to limited skills and resources.  A great agency is able to convert those strategic recommendations and creative thinking into action - and provide feedback on their ability to meet your business goals.

While your brand specialises in “x”, your agency specialises in marketing. As an agency, we provide our clients with the tools they need to reach their goals, because your success is our success.

Having an understanding of what it’s like to be a client, has helped me to be aware of the importance of communication. More than anything, the agency-client relationship should be an open one - with both parties keeping each other in the loop, whether it’s to share good news, or flag potential problems.

What’s it like to go from working at an agency to an in-house marketing manager (and our client)?

Wendy: Moving from an agency to a corporate environment was an adjustment. The agency mindset is so different and I found it refreshing. Agency life requires you to juggle the needs from various clients and focus on more than one brand at a time. So the move to Polyflor afforded me the luxury of time to nurture one brand and give it all my undivided attention.

Agency life is fast-paced and exciting with new challenges arising all the time but as an in-house Brand Manager we face a different challenge. In-house marketing teams are at risk of becoming staid or set in their ways and potentially sticking with the status quo. I came from an agency that was always learning, stayed up to date with trends and I felt constantly challenged to push the boundaries. In-house marketing teams are not under as much pressure to be daring or take risks and this can lead to becoming a bit complacent.

When I moved to what Nicole considers the dark side, I found that there were so many opportunities to make a difference on a long term basis instead of just completing a project and having to walk away (like you might at an agency). Living the brand every day makes you really invested and fosters a passion and enthusiasm that that every brand deserves..

The move also meant that I was now the ultimate decision maker, strategically evaluating campaigns and being fully accountable. I had moved from pitching ideas to clients, relying on them to see my vision and hoping we would win the opportunity to being empowered to make those decisions - having a tangible impact on the Polyflor brand.

The move taught me a few things:

  1. I miss the time that was set aside at the agency for upskilling and training. This dedicated time for learning was such a privilege.
  2. In-house marketers have a far shorter approval process than their colleagues in agencies.
  3. Choosing the right agencies and suppliers is crucial for success in-house. The companies you choose to work with are a reflection on you and so you need to choose wisely.
  4. Having spent time on both sides of the desk has made me more compassionate and understanding of agency pressure, although saying that,  I also have a high expectation of my agency. I was always very demanding of my team and myself and understand client service. This dichotomy may sound strange but it’s common when you’ve operated in both environments.   

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Having looked at marketing roles from an agency and in-house and having worked in both environments, Nicole and Wendy feel like they both moved from the dark side. Nicole says, “I’m grateful for what I learned in-house and how that has helped me, I feel, to be more understanding of the challenges my clients face everyday.”

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