In-house or agency: Which role suits you?

Switching between agency and in-house PR can have benefits and looks good on a CV. But as Jenny Cornish reveals, having the personality that matches the role is crucial.

Which suits you: Agency or in-house?
Which suits you: Agency or in-house?

Agency and in-house PR may be two sides of the same coin, but there are still striking differences between them.

For some people these differences are insurmountable, while other PR professionals hop quite happily from side to side throughout their careers.

There is certainly a misconception that in-house life is a 'cushy ride' compared with the cut and thrust of agency work.

'Everybody wants to work in-house,' agrees Julia Walton, senior consultant at recruitment agency Media Contacts. 'It is perceived as being an easier role with fewer hours. There are a lot of people in journalism who want to work in PR and a lot of people in PR agencies who want to work in-house.'

However, those who do switch may find life in-house is not quite as easy as they anticipated. It is good for your CV to try both, but different personalities are suited to different roles, according to Carol Leckie, MD of Media Recruitment.

'Agencies suit certain people but do not suit others,' she says. 'Certain cultures in-house won't suit others.'

Many people end up convinced that they are more suited to one path. PRWeek set out to find out if there really is a divide and where the lines are drawn.

In-house PR

In-house PR involves total immersion in an organisation - becoming part of something bigger. So it helps if it is something in which you believe.

Carolan Davidge, director of brand and PR at Cancer Research UK, says getting under the skin of the brand is key: 'One needs to completely understand the organisation, what it stands for and its people too.'

The work may also involve more than just PR, perhaps including internal comms, marketing and event management. 'In-house teams can be quite small, so people are often expected to turn their hands to a wide variety of things,' says Davidge.

Kevin Taylor, founder of Robertson Taylor PR, who spent 16 years in-house in local government and at BT, says a passion for the organisation is important, but that in-house can be lonely. 'It can be a bit like working in a vacuum flask,' he says. 'No-one really gets what you are trying to do.'

Chris McCafferty, who worked in-house at MySpace and MSN, and now runs his own agency, Kaper, says the idea that in-house life is easier is 'nonsense'.

'You have lots of internal stakeholders you need to keep happy,' he says. 'In an agency, you have got the camaraderie, but in-house you can be a lone voice.'

Agencies

'Variety and pace of work are the two most obvious things that differ in agency and in-house life,' says Taylor. He believes that within an agency there is a purer 'passion for what PR can achieve' and a buzz of enthusiasm for making it work.

That buzz can be addictive. Jon White, senior account manager for Rocket Communications, who spent two years working in-house at Webcredible before moving back to agencies, says: 'I felt I was more suited to agency life. I like having different challenges and managing many different things.'

It can be easier to prove your worth in an agency, but also easier to spot someone not pulling their weight. 'Because you are generating revenue for the company, the simplest way of measuring your performance is looking at the numbers,' says McCafferty.

Agencies can demand higher standards, says Hamish Thompson, who was director of media relations at DSG before leaving three years ago to set up his own PR agency, Twelve Thirty Eight.

'When working in a consultancy, there is a greater requirement that stories are robust, interesting and compelling, because you lose a little bit of the natural authority that comes with being an in-house PRO,' he says.

Is there a divide?

These different cultures surrounding in-house and agencies mean things can go horribly wrong if tensions develop.

Matthew Ravden, comms director for cloud-based email services provider Mimecast, worked in agencies for 25 years. 'When people go in-house, they quite often struggle to justify their existence inside an organisation,' he says. 'They frequently end up claiming agency work as their own and doing a lot of things that make agency people's lives miserable.'

Thompson says it is important to choose the right partnership. 'It is all about the chemistry; it's not about the brands,' he says. 'The quality of the individual is everything.'

Taylor, of Robertson Taylor, agrees. 'The very best agency-led PR campaigns are supported by someone in-house who understands it and can be the champion for what the agency is trying to do,' he says. 'If you do not have someone in-house who is behind it, then it can be very difficult.'

Both sides need to learn from each other. The in-house team needs to understand what the agency is trying to achieve, and the agency needs to understand its client.

'Understanding the challenges that the guy in-house faces is crucial to being a successful consultant,' says Taylor. 'You have to trust each other. You are in this together.'

Case studies


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