Feature: Why people move in-house

In-house comms staff are the envy of their agency counterparts. Following a poll by a recruitment agency, Hannah Marriott tests out the attractions of in-house jobs

In-house PROs beware: agency staff are watching you. They are taking note of the hours you work, jealously eyeing the power you have and coveting your intimate knowledge of your company. Frankly, they think you lead a charmed life. In fact, they want your job.

While the trend to move up the ranks of an agency before going client-side is established, recruitment agencies are reporting that more PROs want to move in-house before this term of service.

Libby Trace, MD of recruitment firm Price Trace Hawes, says: ‘So many candidates want in-house roles that it makes it hard to recruit for agencies. Even those who have moved from in-house to consultancy seem to want to go back in-house.'

In-house temptations
PRWeek asked Price Trace Hawes to poll the PR people on its books to find out why they want to go in-house.

After 100 interviews, the top five given reasons (see below) might make surprise reading.While ‘More in-depth involvement with a brand' and ‘Greater strategic involvement' were the first and third most popular reasons respectively, the second biggest motivator was the quest for an improved work/life balance - ‘Shorter working hours/less pressure'.

Respondents who had enjoyed the experience of an in-house secondment, and those who thought they would get better benefits in-house (such as maternity leave and flexible hours), ranked fourth and fifth respectively.

But is in-house life easier? PRWeek asked PROs who had already moved in-house to give their verdicts.

Hear Staniforth's Suzanne Judge discuss life in-house on this week's PRWeek/CTN podcast

1. 'MORE IN-DEPTH INVOLVEMENT'

Recruitment firm Price Trace Hawes found that agency staff wanted ‘more in-depth involvement with a brand'.

All the PROs surveyed agreed that it was not until they worked in-house that they got under the skin of a brand. But PROs hoping for a more coherent workload might be better off in an agency, according to EDF Energy senior press officer Richard Robinson. ‘At a consumer agency you might well have several clients, but they are all the same type of campaigns,' he points out. ‘I might work for one company, but my job encompasses so many different elements: corporate, consumer and reputation management; both proactive and reactive.'

And in-depth involvement can be a double-edged sword. 3 Monkeys senior account director Julie Brown moved back to a consultancy after three years at government-funded recycling body WRAP: ‘You do become an expert, but it can mean you get pigeonholed.'

Staniforth managing partner Suzanne Judge agrees. She spent ten years in-house, but found her specialised knowledge could be problematic: ‘You are so aware of every fine detail that it clouds your ability to question. What is more, all parts of the business require a lot of your time. You are constantly in meetings and have little time to be creative. In agencies you have licence to be visionary.'

2. 'SHORTER WORKING HOURS/LESS PRESSURE'

This statement was greeted with laughter and a few indignant snorts from many in-house PROs, though a handful did admit to working shorter days.

‘To say "agency life is stressful with longer days" is a typical agency perspective,' says Lee Brooke, comms manager at software company CA Worldwide. ‘The stresses are just different. Agency stress comes from trying to manage the priorities of multiple clients. We also have projects that need attention and are just as stressful.'

Andrew Rodaway, Intec Telecom Systems director of marcoms, admits that agency PROs tend not to work nine to five because they have to fit in with different schedules. But CA's Brooke adds: ‘Don't underestimate in-house PROs. I've done ten acquisitions and two IPOs.'

In-house life can be more demanding, especially in the public sector, according to Haswell Holden senior account manager Angela Davis: ‘You are constantly trying to diffuse negative press and have less chance to be proactive.' PROs at NGOs and charities also agreed. Bowel Cancer UK director of press, PR and public affairs Ian Beaumont says: ‘The upside of being in-house is that you are more self-motivated. But you have a huge responsibility to patients and carers - you don't want to let down those people.'

3. 'GREATER STRATEGIC INVOLVEMENT'

Most interviewees agreed that in-house practitioners had more control over their firm's overall comms strategy. One PRO, who asked not to be named, left a large, successful London agency because she felt that ‘pandering to the client and getting coverage was all that mattered, whatever the cost.'

Interviewees also felt campaigns could be more satisfying for in-house staff as they are involved long-term.

Dominique Owen, senior press officer at CABE - the government's architecture, urban design and public space body - responds: ‘I work closely with other departments, advising on all comms, from internal comms to the way they should phrase an invite to an event. In an agency, the onus is on the client and you are delivering a brief. Here we steer the comms for the whole organisation.'

But those who preferred agency life pointed out that while in-house PROs have greater sway over comms, they are rarely involved in the direction of the business as a whole. Agency PROs can rise through the ranks more easily and become involved in expanding the consultancy.

But too much emphasis on the agency's needs, rather than those of the client, can put some off consultancy life.

According to Firebox head of PR Charlie Morgan, agency and client needs are simply different, but she prefers her in-house remit: ‘I feel like I have achieved more in-house. You offer a better service by giving more than just a couple of hours to each client, plus the pressure to deliver money for the agency is not there.'

4. 'CHANCE TO DO SOMETHING NEW'

Of the PR people questioned, the happiest were those who had found their best fit by testing the water and trying out an in-house secondment.

Verve Communications director and former Tower Hamlets comms chief Tony O'Regan says that a secondment is like doing the job full-time: ‘It depends on the length of the secondment, but it soon becomes more than a halfway house. The in-house team quickly forget that you are not one of them.'

Even if it never leads to a full-time in-house role, the knowledge a secondment offers is hugely useful to agency PROs. Pleon London MD Jennifer Helfer spent three months on secondment at Shell: ‘At my level, secondments are rare, but more agencies should do it. You understand clients' needs far better.'

But practitioners who enjoy secondments should remember that full-time life in-house may not always be the same. ‘On secondment you get work that is linked to what the agency is doing for the client. You might fulfil the agency's role in-house, but are unlikely to be party to everything,' says Redhead PR founder/MD Sara Tye.

‘Once you are permanently in-house, the lack of career path, potential boredom or exhaustion might mean you do not want to stay there,' she adds.

5. 'IN-HOUSE BENEFITS'

While some agencies still have a reputation for working their staff to the bone, things do seem to have changed.

Porter Novelli associate director Charlotte McIntyre, on secondment to Hewlett-Packard, finds in-house and agency benefits similar, but adds: ‘Agencies are more flexible - PN staff can work from home.'

Beatbullying head of comms Niall Cowley agrees: ‘All the consultancies I have worked for have been extremely flexible, but then I have always avoided the corporate workhouse.'

Brands2Life associate director Simon Soffe, formerly at Tesco, has enjoyed perks at both: ‘Retailers give staff benefits such as discounts; agencies offer bonuses or career progression.' However, in-house PR practitioners agree there are not enough roles for them to rise up the ranks as quickly. Cowley points out: ‘A mid-level PRO in an agency is closer to his or her CEO than an account director at Diageo is to the Diageo CEO.'

Maybe this is as good a reason as any for agency PROs who suspect they belong in-house to hang on a bit longer.

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