Everyone wants to know what it’s like on the other side – or the dark side, depending on your point of view! But moving from agency to client side, or vice versa, is the grass really greener? This year, I’ve had the biggest and best opportunity to find out.

Some context
After 16 years applying my own brand of #imaginationandgraft agency-side, in the spring of 2016, I took the plunge, jumped over the fence and went client side. Big time.

I now look after Global Campaign Development at Sage, an organisation with a 14,000 head count, 800 of whom are in the marketing department alone. Until now, no company I’ve ever worked for has employed more than about 100 people, some a lot fewer. So boy, was I in for an eye opener!

I’ll be honest, over the years, I developed some pretty sweeping – sometimes naive – preconceptions about what client side is like. Some of them still stand up, but I’ve been taken aback by the number that have been completely swept away.

Here are some areas where I’ve learned some pretty big lessons.

The rollercoaster
I’d always thought that agency land was a rollercoaster of a ride, with its incessant highs and lows (late night – sometimes all night – pitch preparation, demanding clients, heated discussions, winning business, losing business, winning awards…). On the other hand, I always saw client side as the classic 9-5 steady ship on calm waters, overseeing, monitoring, following processes…

Oh how wrong I was. At Sage, I’m yet to do a day that’s 9-5. You could say that it’s down to my ingrained agency training, but plenty of my colleagues are doing the same – all working very hard to get the job done. And the rollercoaster ride has just as many peaks and troughs as agency side. Things go great, things go less than great, personalities clash, triumphs are celebrated, just the same. It all contributes to the rich tapestry of a life in marketing!

The pressure
If you think as an agency, that going into a pitch is high pressure, you try being the guy that has to sign off the creative that a four billion quid business has to go to market with… I’ve never felt anything like it before in my life.

On Day 2 of the Sage job I was told: “This is the most important campaign we have in the business and we need to have it live by the end of the month”. At that point the brief had only just been signed off, and my deadline was two weeks away. To add even more pressure, I have about 300 people internally that my campaigns come into contact with. I’m the guy that has to please all of the people, all of the time. Thank goodness it’s not what I’m measured on! (For the record we got the campaign live. And we did it 66% faster than any other campaign that had gone through the business before).

Agency people are more fun
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong! Quite honestly I think most clients put up a guard when it comes to agencies (and I still think that’s true). More often than not, what agency people are misinterpreting here, is just that veneer of professionalism that so many clients adopt, and that personally, I wish we’d all get rid of. We’d be far better off for it. What I’ve learned is that all organisations, whatever their size and sector, have a rich tapestry of personalities within them.

“I’m a planner, I believe in my ideas, I’m not here trying to sell to you, this idea will work”
Agency side, this used to be one of my mantras. Naively, I really believed that I wasn’t a salesman. I was in the ideas game – ideas that were arrived at through great insight and that I believed in so strongly, that when I presented them to a client, nine times out of ten, I fully expected them to see it as I saw it, and immediately buy. No one was selling to anyone…

Now I’m on the other side of the table, my immediate reaction when I hear “I’m a planner, I believe in my ideas, I’m not here trying to sell to you, this idea will work” is to think: “who are you trying to kid? You are clearly selling to me”. So if I ever go back to working in an agency, I promise never to utter those words again!

Process, Process, Process
I’m not a process guy, really I’m not – I’m generally disorganised, creative, good at giving direction, but terrible at receiving it – therefore I tend not to adhere to process. But I do understand its value. And I understand that good process is the foundation for better quality, even in the predominantly creative environment of an agency.

I always thought (and still do) that client side is much more about the process than about being creative . But that makes perfect sense – for so many reasons. First, you need process to arrive at the right creative idea, then you need a hell of a lot more process to get your campaign to market: briefs, tracking codes, internal consultations… with so many stakeholders and moving parts, process is absolutely crucial. But sometimes I need to keep reminding myself not to get caught up in it at the expense of quality and creativity occasionally. Take a step back occasionally, breathe, and think Quality & Creative.

Where are the real marketers?
Needless to say, I used to think the real marketing expertise lay agency-side. We were all about gathering insight and acting on it, with ideas and creative that would get the best response. But now, especially given the data driven world we all live in, I realise the true marketing engine is client side: close to the numbers, always optimising, getting closer to customers as often as possible. In my new role, I’ve learned so much from the talented people I work with. I’m truly privileged.

But that’s not to take anything away from agencies. Their role is vital. Clients always need someone to give them that outside perspective – remind them that it’s not all about the product, and that actually, their audience really doesn’t give a damn about them, or their product. The only thing customers really care about is what the product enables for them. That outside-in view really does help, and the variety of viewpoints an agency gets from working with a number of different clients is what keeps them inventive, creative and always striving for a better approach. We all have a part to play.

 

Agencies are so important!
I used to really think that agencies were the sharp end of the spear. All of them. But lately it’s become very clear that great agencies are hard to come by, and I’ve never seen strategy and creativity treated as such a commodity as I have since being client side. When I’m being pitched to, it’s actually quite scary how that perfect blend of strategy, creativity and the ability to deliver at pace is like that classic triangle of quality, cost and speed: you can have two, but you can’t have all three.

But I admit there’s a part of me now that’s got to the point of thinking, as long as we do something, doesn’t matter what it is, we’ll get results. As one of my colleagues put it, 80% of it is just turning up!

So is creative that important? Could we just stick “buy this” on everything, spam people, and see results? Yes we could – but the point is, they wouldn’t be great results. A spear has two parts: the handle you throw and the sharp end that penetrates the target. You need both to make it effective So if “just turning up” is your handle, then creative is your sharp end. You need both to make a great campaign.

Client side, I’ll get closer to the numbers
Yes, I’ve got closer to the numbers, but then the next questions are, are the numbers right? Have they been tracked properly? How have my campaigns contributed? What about the local numbers that my group campaigns affect? How do I attribute them to my team’s efforts…?

Who knew this digital game would be so confusing? And when I’m trying to manage it on a global scale, dealing with 10 tier-one countries, and with 5000 assets that all need tracking, am I closer to the numbers? I sure am. Do I want to be? Hells no – I’ll call my insights and analytics guy – because now I’m sitting in a big corporate, I’ve got one of those. Seriously, the more you know, the more you know there is to know!

Politics man holding me down
I’m going to say it: I’ve never been one for politics. My levels of confidence in politics and trust in politicians have always been low. I mean at the time of writing this, the UK is leaving the EU and Donald Trump is the US president. What the…?

It should be no surprise then, that I don’t believe in office politics either. In fact, I’ve learned that politics in any organisation, large or small, is poison. As someone who’s always worn my heart on my sleeve, I believe the only way to move forward is to face difficulties head on and discuss them openly, honestly and without blame. Easy to say, sometimes harder to implement. But the principle applies on both sides of the client/agency fence.

Dress code
I’ve only ever worn a suit at awards ceremonies or weddings. It’s my firm belief that you should be able to be comfortable at work, and it’s a principle I’m determined to take with me wherever I work – so I thank goodness Sage is open to dressing casually.  I know some people go as far as believing that suits are used a smokescreen – disguising a lack of knowledge or talent by simply “looking the part”. And while I’m not claiming that this is true, I’m sure we’ve all met sharp-suited individuals we could apply the theory to… But in all seriousness, why do people dress in suits at the office?

 

Being brave
Agency side, I always longed for clients to be brave – take the bold creative route and get a bold audience response. Client side, I can see how hard it is to be creatively brave when there are so many stakeholders in the business and so many constraints on how you deliver a message to market. But the creativity can come from finding ways around those constraints. One of the most useful things I’ve learned agency-side is to think around a problem. I’ve learned actions change attitude faster than attitudes change action for example, so we learned to achieve sales without selling. Now to put that into action client side.

Cut, paste, present, repeat
In the agency world, you are constantly and rapidly moving on to the next thing. Agility is your middle name. Here in a large corporate it can seem like your middle name is Repeat! Sometimes I feel I repeat myself a hundred times before my message gets through – cutting and pasting presentations over and over for different formats or different audiences over a period of months. I’ve learned that the amount of information people take away from my presentations will be nothing like the amount I put into them. But that’s not because they’re not interested, it’s simply that your agenda isn’t necessarily their agenda and they have responsibilities and deliverables of their own. So be prepared to be patient. Repeatedly.

Jack of all trades, master of some!
Another characteristic of agency life is that you have to be skilled in a lot of disciplines. No one can be master of all of them, but you certainly can’t afford to be master of none. One of the best things about being client side is that, although my role still spans right across the business, I now have access to specialists in the areas where I simply don’t have the time or capacity to gain deep knowledge – whether internal (remember that analytics guy?) or external (I can pick up the phone to Google and they’ll take me far more seriously now than when I was agency side!)

What clients need (what I need) from agencies
Thinking back to the pressures of pitching to clients when I worked in agencies, it’s very interesting from the other side. To say the least! The pressure that a client puts on their agency to come up with better and better ideas often comes from the stakeholders that the client has to please internally. I know I’m piling the pressure on the agencies that work for me, but I have to deliver great concepts that work for all our local regions. I need to be able to expect excellence as standard.

So what I’m looking for is the highest quality creative, delivered on time and on budget. I know that to get all three is a big ask – often you settle for two at the expense of the other one – but I’m always going to ask. In B2B, 80% of clients can’t distinguish one tech supplier from another, so suppliers need to find that point of difference and convince me why they’re better.

Show me how you’ll help me deliver on my objectives and on the business strategy. Show me how you’ll make my campaigns happen. Be totally transparent about project management processes. The more understanding a client has of the process, the more confidence they’ll have in you.

Creative is a matter of opinion. But whose?
Opinions are like a certain part of the human anatomy that I won’t mention in polite company: everyone’s got one. So if there’s a great idea you believe in, be single-minded and bat off the opinions of others if you have to. In my agency roles I’ve been known to have pretty vocal arguments over creative – to the point where sometimes it raised a few eyebrows among colleagues. But it was all in the name of arriving at the best results. It was our creative fire, if you like.

It’s much harder to do that at a large corporate. For a start, it’s difficult to get your personal passion across when you’re on webex or in a different time zone. But I’ve also got 500 people who I have to please! I know that I won’t. I know that I will leave some positively displeased, because I’m just as single-minded as I ever was. That said, I’ll never not listen – and I’m always open to a good idea – but don’t expect me to automatically go with what other people think.

Clients: less grown up than you think
One of the things I thought would happen when I took the job at Sage was that it would help me grow up. In reality, I haven’t changed a bit. I’m still the mischievous guy in trainers – and besides, it’s not as grown up here as I thought it might be. There are personalities and politics, but I live by the belief that you should always be yourself, stick to your good principles and accept the rich tapestry of life around you.

And no matter how tough it gets (and it’s got tough), I’ll do it all with a smile on my face, because whichever side of the fence you’re on, if you can’t do it with a smile on your face, it ain’t worth doing.

And finally: a big Thank You
To all my colleagues, both now and through the years, I didn’t necessarily know it at the time, but every decision I’ve made, every experience I have been part of, every new piece of knowledge I’ve taken on, has been down to you, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it hadn’t been for you. So thank you. I hope in some small way I’ve been as useful to you in return. #imaginationandgraft