What It's Really Like to Work at an Ad Agency

January 18, 2019

This past week we partnered up with our fellow club Undergraduate Women in Business to co-host a panel of amazing women from Mekanism, a full-service creative agency that has worked with everyone from Pepsi to Peloton. The women at Mekanism’s Seattle office handle everything from the creative concepting of a campaign to the production of that campaign to how it’s brought out to the world, making sure clients’ ad budgets get the maximum bang for their buck. That means making sure things are done on time, on budget, and most importantly that they move the needle, whether that’s selling airline tickets or selling pizzas.

 

We were thrilled to get to hear from some of the most creative minds in the industry and get a crash course in life and work at an ad agency. Keep reading for their insights and expertise!

 

This recap has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

 

 

What types of jobs exist at an ad agency?

 

Brand Manager: “Brand management is just another word for account management. I basically handle the day-to-day relationships with our Alaska Airlines clients specifically, making sure projects and campaigns are moving, the clients are happy, and that they get what they want. I’m basically a liason between Mekanism’s internal teams and the external clients.” —Ana

 

Project Manager: “My job requires a lot of internal coordination especially collaborating with the account team, I see myself as a creative guardian and really champion the agency’s work so it can be the best it can be.” —Maggie

 

Brand Strategist: “The stuff I do—which I think is the most fun—is consumer research. I work closely with the brand team and creative teams, figuring out what the business challenge and objective is, then crafting the creative brief and doing consumer research so that the brand team can be successful and impactful with the audience we’re trying to reach. It’s like creative science.” —Anna

 

Creative Director: “I run the creative team—sometimes creatives are the tap-dancers in the room to excite and delight, throwing ideas at the wall, and then we have to rein it in and think about reality.” —Laura

 

Managing Director: “My role really means keeping the agency humming along and I’m responsible for client relationships at the highest level. What I’d add about brand management is that you’re the intermediary between the client and the creative or strategy team, so that requires a lot of translating about what the client really meant or wants, and then you’re responsible for presenting the agency’s work to the clients in a way that they’ll enjoy and get excited about.” —Lisa

 

How do those different roles work together?  

 

Lisa: I’ve often described this as a wheel, which has a lot of spokes and a center. I’d put account at the center of the wheel and then the different spokes could be finance, project management, creative, production, etcetera.  You start with strategy, then creative, then production (whether it’s a social post or tv ad), work with finance, and then bring it out into the world—account is the one constant throughout the process. So the agency really is a wheel and we need all those components working together to be successful.

 

Why did you take the agency route vs. working in corporate marketing?

 

Ana: I had a lot of internships on the client side throughout college and I never really thought about agency as an opportunity until I started realizing what I didn’t like about my corporate work. I wanted more creative space and to work with really creative people, so I’ve always asked myself “how does a business challenge or objective come to life creatively?” so when I realized that, I figured I should really explore the agency route. Somebody once told me “I have not hired a single person from an agency that hasn’t been ready for the pace of work at a corporate setting,” so what that meant to me was that experience at an agency would give me the toolbox and mindset I needed to be successful wherever I ended up, working on a variety of projects with a variety of people.

 

Laura: This is my seventh independent ad agency—that’s the only thing I’ve ever done fro over a decade. Growing up, my dad was an entrepreneur so that was important to me. But another aspect was that I’m very candid and unpolished and I felt that the agency gave me a little more opportunity to be freer and less buttoned-up.

 

Anna: I’m not saying that corporations don’t have collaboration, but since at the agency we’re delivering creative work at the end of the day, it forces everyone to lean in and work together to creative the best work possible, but also creates a sense of play at the end of the day. To me the difference is that the company comes up with the product, but we’re working on a piece of art to highlight that product. The sense of play was what really drew me to agency work.

 

Lisa: I’m the type of person who wants to be multitasking and working on different projects and clients all the time. My first job was at a government corporation, and it felt like every day was kind of the same. At the PR agency where I went next, I had four different companies I was working with, from sprinklers to toys, and every day felt new and exciting. It was so great to have that diversity, and that’s something you’ll get at an agency more so than a corporation. There are also pluses on the other side, but at the end of the day, the agency environment was the right fit for me.

 

Maggie: If you want to feel more agile and fast-moving, agency might be a good space for you—projects tend to move pretty quickly.

 

What’s the creative balance between the client’s ideas and the agency’s ideas?

 

Laura: No matter what and no matter who you’re talking to, always make them feel heard. Repeat what they say back to them, acknowledge their point of view. On the other hand, stretch those ideas and exceed those expectations. It’s our job to say, “We hear you, and here’s as far as you can possibly go.” It’s important to work together but keep pushing; you want to achieve that business objective by thinking out of the box.

 

Lisa: It’s important to build trust so they’re willing to take those suggestions even if they’re unusual.

 

Anna: You also need to fully understand their problem or challenge. Ask about why they want it solved and keep an open mind about how to solve it—you’ll come up with so many more solutions if you take a moment and get to the heart of it.

 

Lisa: And make sure you define the issue exactly. Instead of just “let’s make it red,” do they mean “we want more vibrance?”

 

What type of person/personality succeeds in the agency setting?

 

Laura: I think it depends on what you want. If I’m more of a strategist, organization is important. From project management vs creative, wildly different people can fill those roles. Speaking for the creative side, I feel like you can be any personality—it’s just important to treat the people around you well regardless of what role you’re in.

 

Maggie: Someone who’s agile, able to pivot quickly, and of course, collaborative.

 

Anna: For strategy, I would say curiosity. Also flexibility! Things change all the time and constantly, so if you’re too rigid it’ll drive you crazy. You have to be ready for the next challenge at a moment’s notice.

 

Ana: Same thing for brand management. Account folks or brand folks tend to be more organized, but even then things change all the time and something you thought was locked and loaded could fall apart the next morning. You have to deal with that with a level head and know that somehow it’ll get resolved.

 

Lisa: If you’re going to be client-facing — creative or brand management, sometimes strategy— it’s important that you can be at ease with new people and more importantly be able to make them feel at ease too. You’ll be meeting new people all the times with all kinds of personalities, and you want them to want to work with you, to think you’re trustworthy. Being personable is key in those roles.

 

What’s a typical workday look like?

 

Laura: A lot of coffee. It really depends on your role, but we’re all in an office together, we all have a lot of check-ins, ideally with lots of time to ideate creatively and working together to come up with how to solve the root of the problem. But there are always fireballs to put out day-to-day.

 

Lisa: A lot of our clients are so close that we do a lot of visits, so we might have a morning in the office and an afternoon down at Alaska Airlines. When I worked in LA I flew and traveled a lot, but it’s nice to have these local clients.

 

Maggie: It is an always-on environment. I wouldn’t say I work just 9-5. I definitely check email at 7 am to make sure nothing blew up overnight—even before I do my morning routine. We’re always texting, always emailing, and it’s just constant. That’s where maintaining that non-work self really comes in and will help you maintain balance. I also don’t think that’s unique to agency life—you can run into that anywhere.

 

Lisa: When you’re in client services, you kind of have to give up the thinking that you work set hours. If a high-level client emails you on the weekend, you’ll probably respond instead of ignoring it until Monday. You do have flexibility, you can take longer vacations, but when you’re working you need to be ready for whatever a client needs.

 

What would be your advice trying to break into the agency world during recruiting and landing that first entry-level position?

 

Lisa: It can definitely be hard. My first agency job was actually under the adjunct professor at my school—I was a star student, then interned for him and eventually got hired. If you have any connection at all to an agency, have them send over your resume—if you email just the generic jobs email at the agency, you might get lost.

 

Maggie: If you don’t have a specific connection right now, there are lots of groups like Creative Mornings in Seattle where you can build those relationships.

 

Anna: Informational Interviews! If you frame them as exploratory, it takes pressure off for them because they don’t feel like they have to get you a job. If you just say, “I’d love to buy you coffee, I have questions, I’m curious,” the next time a position comes up they might remember you. Plus even if you don’t get a job from that coffee chat, you do get information.

 

Laura: During my internship, I made it very clear that I wanted to come back there and almost didn’t take no for an answer when they said they weren’t hiring. That commitment and clarity about what I wanted was what really got me the job, not just my work.

 

 

 

 

 

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