At Prospect, we meet with clients and candidates from both agencies and corporate organisations. There are long-term ‘agency people’ and those that have always worked 'in-house', and some have tried both sides of the fence to see where the grass is greener. Hence there is a long-running debate in the PR and communications industry: Who is better off: Agency or in-house?
There are clearly major differences between agency and in-house roles, and pros and cons attached to each. The questions often put are: Where do you make more money? Where do you have a better work-life balance in-house? Where is there a better career opportunity?
At Prospect, I have seen countless candidates find their ‘dream job’ in-house after years working in agencies, only to find out in my follow up that they miss the agency life. And yet there are others who will remain in-house throughout their career once they grow accustomed to the corporate world.
One thing is for sure: All PR and communications professionals will fiercely defend their camp but might be curious as to whether they are missing something on the other side. And so, in an effort to settle this debate, we hosted our first Prospect Fight Night events recently in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Both events were attended by around 50 senior executives from the PR and communications industry, and we put together expert panels comprising some of the top agency and in-house professionals in each respective market. Below is a wrap-up of their main arguments.
Breadth vs. depth
Proponents of agencies relish the breadth of their work. They love having a varied portfolio of clients and working on projects that call upon a wide range of skills.
"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 (in a career agency-side) and that would never happened if I’d stayed in-house," said Caroline Brigget, associate director (Hong Kong), Kreab Gavin Anderson.
In contrast, working in-house allows a professional to focus on one brand and its assets. In-house executives become brand experts and can dive deep into industry issues and the company’s products/services.
John Mandeville, head of corporate PR, Asia Pacific, Intel, said, "The main draw of in-house work for me is to be dedicated and to do everything you always wanted to do with one brand."
From day one, agency employees are thrown into the proverbial 'deep-end'. On-the-job learning takes place in a fast-paced environment and there are regular opportunities to get hands-on experience with something new.
"If you want to be on the top, agency is the best way to go," said Ivy Soonthornsima, head of integrated communications, Asia Pacific, Hill + Knowlton Strategies. "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."
In addition to developing new skills, agency professionals have more frequent opportunities for promotion. In-house professionals agree with this view to an extent admitting that it can be difficult to fast-track career growth on the corporate side.
Madeleine Little, director of public relations, Jones Lang LaSalle, said, "One of the key challenges for in-house is career development and the speed at which you can make things happen. You may have someone great at junior level and you’re thinking how do I develop him or her? Unless you are able to expand the team or have someone moving on, there may not be the space for the young to move up as quickly as they’d like."
It’s all about the culture
Agency culture is known to be lively and creative. An agency office tends to be a little more relaxed, organisational structure is more flat, and there is often less of the dreaded ‘red-tape’.
Phillip Raskin, managing director of Spectrum Communications in Singapore said, "I think in an agency you have more of a chance to define your culture because you have control over what it is."
With a tightening of the talent pool in Asia, all types of organisations understand the importance of a strong workplace culture as being crucial to attracting and retaining talent, but in-house culture tends to be more traditional and perhaps harder to change.
At the end of the events, we learnt that both agency and in-house roles offer unique challenges and opportunities and that what is better for one professional may not be the right fit for another. It often comes down to personality, working style and career aspirations. Most professionals, however, agree that getting experience on both sides of the fence is a good idea, so that clients can understand a consultant’s processes and vice-versa. So perhaps it is time to end the debate.