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What I’ve Learned Working in an Agency for a Year

I realized recently that my work notebook was nearly full, almost empty of pages that could hold additional scribbles and assignments. Now that it is time to retire my trusty notebook, it’s also time to celebrate a milestone for my career: I’ve been at Hirons for one full year. When I first applied to Hirons’ internship program last fall, I had no idea what to expect. I was completely unfamiliar with public relations agencies and had never heard of Hirons in any of my classes (something I’ve been working to rectify with younger IUPUI students now). I spent a few months as an intern in the communications management department before flipping over to business development as a full-time employee. In honor of my one-year work anniversary, I thought I would lay out a few things I’ve learned about #AgencyLife in the last 12 months.

The “Cool Kid” Agency Stereotype is a Myth

There is a common perception, particularly among young professionals and college students, that the agency sector represents something more glamorous and elusive than other sectors of the industry such as corporate or nonprofit work. While it is true that a number of agencies strive for an aesthetically chill vibe and have unorthodox company cultures or perks, I’ve largely found this cool kid trope to be a myth. Yes, we might have dogs in our office, but that doesn’t mean agency folks are unapproachable or too cool for school. Mostly, we’re just a bunch of PR or advertising nerds working hard to produce the best possible results for our clients and making sarcastic quips at each other. Don’t let yourself be intimidated.

Billable v. Unbillable Time

The biggest driver of an advertising or public relations agency is acquiring clients, doing work for said clients and billing the clients for the work being done. If a member of the agency’s team is putting time in for a project that pertains to something a client needs, it’s generally considered to be “billable” work that the client will be invoiced for. Work that is billable takes precedent over anything “unbillable” because invoicing clients is how agencies make their money. Everyone at Hirons tracks their time carefully by project, so that at the end of each day there’s a clear delineation of how much time each staff member spent doing billable versus unbillable work. I had filled out time sheets before for other jobs, but nothing quite compares to the meticulous process of time tracking for an agency. At Hirons, for example, we track our time down to 15-minute increments.

There is a fine line between the importance of billable versus unbillable when it comes to business development, which is what I do. Although I am not making money for the agency directly, because existing clients cannot be billed for my time, my team helps the agency procure new clients which will eventually make the agency money. That is why it’s so important for those of us who are working on business development projects to do a good job. More clients generally means more growth for the agency.

Media Buying and Planning is a Big Deal

One of my favorite parts of getting to know all the different departments and service lines at our agency has been gaining a better understanding of how advertising works from a strategic standpoint. As a full-service firm, Hirons has team members dedicated to both digital and traditional types of “media” that we can use to promote our clients.

Sometimes, a prospect will come to us with an idea for how they’d like to advertise their organization. Other times, we realize that it would be a good idea for a current client to do some advertising in addition to whatever services we’re already contracted to do for them. In either case, our media team works together with our communications team and the client to determine the best possible “media mix” for whatever goal we want to accomplish, given the budget that we have to work with. This could include digital ads, like what you see when there’s an ad in your Facebook feed or on your Google search results, or traditional media ads, like radio or television spots. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about all the different media types and the potential pros and cons of each.

When They Say “Fast Paced” They Mean It

Part of the reason that I originally wanted to explore the agency side of the PR coin is that I had always heard it was a faster pace than in-house marketing teams often experience. By comparison of the previous jobs and internships I had prior to coming to Hirons, this certainly rings true.

When you’re working in-house, you dedicate 40 hours a week to projects that directly benefit your organization in some way. Occasionally, this might mean working on a Saturday or in the evening, particularly if your organization hosts events. In the agency world, you take that workload and multiple it by however many clients you work with. We have four account directors, who generally each handle a handful of clients with varying needs and varying expectations of our agency. It can be a lot, especially considering one of our specializations is crisis communications – you’ve got to be ready to drop everything and take someone’s call when a crisis rears its ugly head.

That being said, one of the major benefits about the agency structure is that its never all relying on just one person to handle something for a client. We work as a team at all times, with people jumping in and out of projects as they’re needed, regardless of their department. At other organizations, I have seen how siloed the different teams can be, but that doesn’t exist within an agency – or at least it shouldn’t. To be successful, you have to have great working relationships with your coworkers in communications, media and creative so that when a client asks something of you, you know the best people to go to for help.

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