Agency Versus In-House: Trading places

Maja Pawinska reports on the pleasures and pitfalls of working at agencies and in-house.

The work of PR consultants and in-house press officers can sometimes seem worlds apart, with each side of the industry frequently criticising the other's idiosyncrasies. But many PR professionals have worked both clientside and in agencies, and have experienced the benefits and the down sides of both working environments.

Most practitioners end up preferring one or the other, however: what one person sees as the security and focus of working in-house, another will see as being restrictive and boring. Similarly, for a fan of working in-house, the creativity and variety of agency life may be negated by not having the ear of - or influence over - the client company's management team.

The traditional salary and benefits gaps between in-house and agency have narrowed although, as a very general rule, in-house jobs in the public sector can be great on benefits but not so good on salaries, while in-house teams in the private sector - particularly the big corporations - have access to the best salaries and perks. Consultancy packages can vary enormously depending on the size and culture of the firm

IPR president Chris Genasi has seen both sides of the industry, having worked in-house at the British Safety Council before joining Weber Shandwick, where he was global director of strategy until he left to start the consultancy Eloqui Public Relations.

He says he's happiest in agencies:

- 'In consultancy the big difference is the variety, and not knowing what's going to come in the door next.

But the flipside is that, working in-house, you usually develop a more intimate knowledge of the company and the industry.'

Liz Lewis-Jones had a similar path, working in-house at Birmingham Airport before moving to Willoughby PR, where she was MD when she left to start Liquid PR. Lewis-Jones, who is also an IPR director, says the move from client to agency was a real culture shock: 'The biggest thing was the realisation that you have to be very commercially aware in agencies - you are working for a business that has to make money for you as well as benefiting the client.'

There's also the new business aspect of working in an agency, and for everyone who loves this side of the business, there will be another for whom it is anathema.

Lewis-Jones says another big difference is working with people who are exclusively PROs: 'It sounds obvious but after having to explain things to everyone outside the department when I was in-house, I was suddenly working with people who knew how it all worked and what the jargon was.'

Making sure consultancies do a great job for clients can also be a motivator for moving from in-house to an agency. Good Relations Healthcare MD Michael Smeeth was communications director for an NHS Trust and was increasingly frustrated by dealing with agencies that didn't understand his needs as a client, when he decided he wanted to work for the kind of consultancy that he would like to employ as a client.

'My background has really helped in my influence with clients, and at a senior level agencies do get involved with strategic work,' he says. 'I love working in consultancy because of the variety and not having any time to be bored. But you are very much aware that there is a value on your time and budgets are to be watched very closely. I think the most rounded PR people have worked on both sides.'

McDonald's head of corporate affairs Nick Hindle has gone in the other direction, having spent 14 years in consultancy, including running Phipps PR and working for Countryside Porter Novelli, Clarion Communications and Grayling. He says the in-house role has enabled him to take responsibility for new areas, such as sports sponsorship and government relations.

'The main difference is that I am now involved in the whole process of communications, from start to finish. In consultancy you are always a bit-part player. For me, the best of working in-house is being on the front line, and no matter how long you work in consultancy, you don't get that. I also have access to fantastic talent from other walks of life - marketing, finance and legal teams - and learn from them, rather than working with the same type of people.'

The down side of in-house life, according to Hindle, is the relatively slow pace of change: 'Agencies are nimble and the mindset and culture of consultancies mean that they can change direction very quickly. That probably took the most getting used to when I moved in-house.'

Transferable skills

For all the stark differences, however, there are also real similarities between in-house and agency PR work, and a number of transferable skills.

A great press release is a great press release, wherever it originates, for instance, and excellent communication and people-handling skills are crucial in both sectors. The objectives of the PR team - to shout about good stuff and defend not-so-good stuff - are also pretty constant in each case.

The argument that an in-house team doesn't have a client to report to is also now largely redundant, says Genasi: 'I've done a number of in-house secondments recently and I've been struck by how similar life is in-house and in agency. In-house people used to view journalists as their clients, but the role of PR and communications has broadened, and they now tend to view themselves as supporting the entire organisation, effectively providing a service to an internal client as well as the media.'

Whatever their personal preferences, the majority of the PR industry advocate getting a taste of working both in-house and in agency, preferably early in a practitioner's career.

Understanding the pressures that clients are under is a significant benefit to anyone who ends up working in a consultancy, while gathering large amounts of information, creative thinking and flexibility can only be a boon to someone who chooses to settle in-house.

Whether PR professionals come down on one side or another is likely to come down to personality traits, and what the individual thrives from in their working life. What's clear is that greater understanding and effectiveness can only be achieved by having a taste of what it feels like to be in the client's - or the agency's - shoes.

IN-HOUSE TO AGENCY

Ben Novick, senior consultant, Good Relations Political Communications

'I moved from a government in-house role to the consultancy at the end of last year. I had worked at the Department for Education and Employment for four years, and it was great experience, particularly being chief press officer when the Tuition Fees Bill was going through.

I loved working directly with MPs, senior officials and lobby correspondents - for someone with a politics degree, riding in a ministerial car is amazing.

'I looked around for another challenge that was non-governmental because I fancied spreading my wings and working in the private sector with businesses.

I was attracted to the agency world because I liked the idea of working for lots of different clients and, so far, I've found the consultancy experience exciting and vibrant.

'In some ways, what I'm doing is quite similar: thinking of proactive ways of promoting the brand, and defending the client when times are bad.

The main difference for me is that there isn't such a straightjacket in consultancy, as you are working on different things at different times, in different sectors and industries. Also, blue-sky thinking means just that: there is far more creativity and innovation, and not as many rules, regulations and hierarchies as there are in-house, particularly in the public sector.'

AGENCY TO IN-HOUSE

Arthur Leathley, corporate affairs director, Virgin Trains

'I was a journalist before I became a director at transport lobbying specialist The Waterfront Group, and the consultancy experience was very useful in terms of getting to know a lot about a lot of clients.

'But over three years I saw the frustration of agency life - no matter how close the relationship with the client, in the end you are advising and not taking the decisions.

'You can do so much at a consultancy but, ultimately, you don't know everything about the client, and unless you are talking to the chief executive on a daily basis - which is unlikely except in a crisis - you are always on the outside, one step removed.

'Another benefit of working in-house is that you have more control. Consultancies can spend a lot of time on proactive projects that don't go ahead because, in the end, it's decided that they just won't work or the timing isn't right.

'In-house, it's much easier to make a few phone calls or have a meeting at half an hour's notice with someone down the corridor and make decisions.

'The big similarity is that wherever you are, you are dealing with human beings and you have to be good at understanding how various personalities work and have real empathy.'

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