Who has it better, agency or in-house?

That the industry has a bias towards working in-house was the overall conclusion drawn from an informal debate organised by recruiting firm, Prospect, in Hong Kong on July 9. But that doesn't mean the pro-agency contenders didn't put up a decent fight.

(L-R) Chan, Huckfield, Barry, Mandeville, Dale, Soon, Brigget, Yip and Tam
(L-R) Chan, Huckfield, Barry, Mandeville, Dale, Soon, Brigget, Yip and Tam

Contrary to expectations, the discussion which pitched public relations agency folks against in-house communication leads (also known as potential clients) was quite heated. Although client-side representatives dominated the first half of the debate, the agency-side started fighting back in the second half with one speaker, Stephanie Yip of Ogilvy PR, quipping that life on the agency-side teaches one to be an "active listener" which would be "helpful now".

Speakers on the client side of the debate:

  • Lavina Chan, ex- BNP Paribas, head of brand and communications, Asia-Pacific
  • Stephanie Barry, PAG, head of communications
  • John Mandeville, Intel, head of corporate PR, Asia-Pacific
  • Louise Huckfield , CBRE, Director, marketing and communications, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan

Speakers on the agency side of the debate:

  • Caroline Brigget, Kreab Gavin Anderson, associate director, Hong Kong
  • Christina Tam, Ketchum, VP corporate and technology practice
  • Stephanie Yip, Ogilvy public relations, regional director, global brand management and GM of Hong Kong
  • Ivy Soonthornsima, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, head of integrated communications, Asia-Pacific

Moderator: Emma Dale, co-founder and managing director of Prospect Asia

Here are some highlights from the discussion:

Dale: 90 per cent of the people Prospect talk to want a job in-house. They say they want to focus on one brand, have a broader remit, compensation, work-life balance and they don’t want to deal with clients. Is this true?

Barry: The short answer is, yes. But you absolutely have to work with clients in-house, you just have more influence with them. There is job security and satisfaction, great feisty and influencing conversations that I feel can be lacking on the agency side because of the distance betweem you and decision-makers.

Chan:  You have more readily available resources. Finance, human resource, the whole company is working alongside with you. It’s also much easier to map out resources with a pre-planned budget.  Agencies are hesistant to make progressive hires until you nab the business. It’s a chicken or egg question. But when you’re in-house, once you’ve planned the budget you can map out your resources. Planning is more long-term which helps.

Huckfield: When I first went in-house, I was amazed by the difference compared to agency, in budgets available to be creative. While some say that in-house kills creativity a bit, I disagree with that. There’s so much more scope in-house.

Mandeville: When you get to a certain level, agency-side, you’re perpetually chasing new business and the attention span means you don’t really get to focus. The main draw of in-house work for me is to be dedicated to and to do everything you’ve always wanted to do with one brand.

Dale: Is this true, agency-side? Do you feel short attention spans is an issue?

Tam: It depends on the company the culture doesn't it? I do remember being in house and resources can be so lean. You could be the only person in the team. . It really does depend on the size of the brand. Now I’m agency-side, there’s just such a diversity of talent. It’s hard to get that when you work with a small team.

Soon: PR (agency-side), if you like it, can be a very good career path. It’s very seldom that a person  with a marketing background leads a company in-house. If you want to be the top this (agency-side) is the best way to go. There’s always a chance to learn A few years ago, at my age, I had no idea how to use a smartphone. Now, I’m in digital communications.

Mandeville: Before I moved in-house, there were two logical moves for me. I go up in the PR agency or I go left or right into marketing and the depth of those roles (in marketing) were much more than I had agency-side.

Yip : You were working in the wrong agency if you feel this way about them… Maybe I’m fortunate that I work in a differently structured agency that’s part of a broader network, but there is a great variety of work.

Brigget: I don’t think I could have developed my career if I’d just stayed in-house. I work on completely different sectors and issues (over the course of a career agency-side) and that would never have happened if I’d stayed in-house.

Dale: Agency-side, if you were in-house what would you do differently?

Tam: I would work more in-arms with my agency.

Yip: I’d be honest about my challenges, what I can and cannot do.

Brigget: Giving really clear briefs to the agency. That helps.

Soon: I’d give my agency more budget.

Dale: And client-side, what would do differently if you were to move back to an agency?

Mandeville: It’s totally true that clients could deliver better briefs but agencies need to be upfront about what they can do. Every single large agency says they can handle everything for us form infographics through to media relations and that’s just not true.

Chan: The turnover in the agency environment can be frustrating for in-house practitioners. It may take an account director a couple of months to sink into the business and after that he or she gets headhunted. Agencies also always show you the best team in a pitch. You get the A-Team in a pitch and you work with another one.

Audience Question: I am the senior leadership at the agency I work for (GHC) when you’re client-side where do you come in?

Barry:  I sat on the executive committee for one of Australia’s leading banks. I had a hand in decision-making that impacted millions of customers, which was a fortunate opportunity for me. Now, I’m with a much smaller company but I have a hand in decisions that affect the entire company. In-house isn’t for everyone but if you have an entrepreneurial streak and the right personality it could be the place for you.

Chan: We do a lot of intense lobbying in a crisis situation and when we get a journalist onsite with our POV and we have a positive front story in the FT – that’s really an intense satisfaction.

Huckfield: Gaining the trust of an executive team can be hard but you need to get noticed by showing your ability to make change. Whatever my brief was (agency-side) I was confined by what my client wanted me to do. In-house that's not the case.

At the end of the night, in a show of hands, more audience members were willing to consider a career that spanned both in-house and agency. 

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