All out or all in? Crossing over to client side

I’ve had an absolutely blast the last few years working in a brand studio, and gotten to work on some of the most interesting projects and with some of the most talented people of my career. But I started thinking about my next steps and as I looked around I realised (to my surprise as much as anyone’s!) that I wanted to move client side. I did a lot of mental gymnastics making the decision and I finally put my pen to paper and documented some of my reasoning. I hope it’s helpful if you’re weighing up a similar decision.

Why I moved

When a friend asked me for a few thoughts on moving client side, it was helpful to review my experience 6 months in and look at what considerations made it worthwhile for me. Here’s the one sentence summary about why I moved client side in my work journal 👇

Pick your poison: Pros and cons

Before we get into an agency vs. in-house debate, the strength of any great creative work comes from deep knowledge of both brand and culture. For clients, they have to work a little harder to stay in touch with the speed of culture. Agencies have to work a little harder to understand client’s business. But at the end of the day, knowing who you are, your place in the world, and how to execute on that is it. That’s it. It’s a big job.

But it’s a myth that great work only comes from agencies. Work can come from an in-house team or an agency, or a great partnership between both. What I’m most interested in here are the long term relationships and deep knowledge of brand that gets carried into advertising. Great examples of each:

  • AgencyWieden and Kennedy, and specifically, their ride-or-die- partnership (36 years) with Nike. They consistently do damn good work.
  • HybridMedia Arts Lab, or MAL, is owned by TBWA\Chiat\Day and Apple is their only client. MAL has worked with Apple for decades and is responsible for that famous 1984 ad, the silhouette ads, and the Get A Mac creative with Justin Long.
  • In-house —Mona’s Darklab, Rapha, Google, Billie (specifically, this campaign), Studio Resonate at Pandora is pioneering audio creative, Bailey Nelson (this is a good piece about how they work). I’m on the hunt though — I’d love to know who you think is doing great in-house work.

I’m learning to appreciate the pros and cons of both. My goal is to bring the best of studio life into the creative team at Future Super.

Considerations I made before making the leap

Friends studio and agency side get funny when we talk about moving client side. There’s a very real perception that going client side is the equivalent of being put out to pasture. It’s a weird one, but it’s one I’ve noticed acutely since I’ve moved over.

Here were a few more reasons I considered moving (and ultimately, why I chose to move).

I wanted to have more impact. There’s a few obvious paths for a strategy director: continue to climb the studio ladder, get out and freelance, or move in house. I felt like I could have more impact working with a really well-aligned team on one brand vs. changing teams on many. I began to feel frustrated with the all-too-common exercise of pouring my heart and soul into a brand strategy, then seeing that strategy work shelved or paused for months. I wanted to have a bigger impact than a sole contributor making recommendations to a business. 6 months in, working client side has meant that I’m better able to tie creative work to business priorities and vice versa, which means more impact.

I wanted to cultivate less ego, and give (and get) more coaching. Consulting can really feed the ego. Not in a good way (for me). I think when your job is to “have the answers” and long hours are the norm, it can start to feel like your worth is tied up in how other people perceive your intelligence and recommendations. It cultivated a lot of protective and selfish behaviour in myself. I wanted to move from being a ‘sole contributor’ to working in a team and an environment where I was also supported and coached, so that I in turn could do the same for the people in my team. Hands down, this has been my favourite thing about moving client side.

I wanted to push my strategic thinking by getting closer to business strategy. Even though I was churning out brand strategies left right and center, I have always wanted to be able to get closer to business strategy —it’s possible from the agency side, but it’s harder to do. One of my favourite things about working in-house is our weekly all-hands meetings. Having a holistic understanding of the business makes it one million times easier to produce great work.

I wanted to learn from great management. One of the priorities for my next career move was to find a place where I could work under management that I felt I could learn a lot from. In particular, I found that I was looking for different styles of leadership. I wanted to work with and for women who were taking up space and leading businesses wholeheartedly. I’m a big fan of Shine Theory and I wanted to be in a business where I could practice investing people in the long term to be their best selves. Meeting some of the management at Future Super before I started made my decision to move on this criteria easy.

I wanted the feedback loop of creative performance. Coming from a brand studio, something that I always felt I was lacking was data and real time feedback on what was actually getting results. The ability to understand what creative is working in real time— and the ability to test what type of brand system is going to be best for delivering the messages a company needs to deliver — is something I was really craving. Developing strategies and then moving on to the next project always felt a bit funny to me.

Consulting didn’t make me a very nice person. The consulting world is not for everyone. I learned a lot in it, but I think if you’re even a mildly anxious person, coupled with the often sink-or-swim attitude so prevalent in creative studios can give you some serious complexes. I wasn’t proud of the person that I was at the end of my last gig, and I wanted to grow. That meant changing my environment: I wanted to cultivate a psychologically safe place from which to do brave work. For me, that meant client side, without the constant pressure of having to have an answer / the right answer at all times, keep up with 4–5 streams of work at once, and often be sparring with people far more senior than myself.

How it’s Been So Far

I’ve been full time client side for 6 months now. In terms of output (i.e., decks, presentations, workshops), I’ve done less. Impact-wise, it’s scratched the itch I was looking for.

Things I miss: having dogs in the office, having a hive mind of so, so many brilliant designers under one roof, the research high of diving deep on new industries and businesses every few weeks, my awesome former colleagues

Things I don’t miss: projects getting paused by clients, competing for resources in a studio with clashing deadlines, the ‘perfectionist’ attitude that a design led studio brought out in me

So far, I’ve been able to go a lot deeper. Deeper in terms of impacting business strategy, deeper in my relationships with colleagues, deeper in pushing myself to stretch into a new role supporting others instead of doing the work.

So far, things I’m proud of:

  • I’m a nicer, more confident person. Sounds weird, is hard to quantify, but I think is probably true.
  • Executed my first campaign client side with Future Super’s Not Business As Usual alliance. I had a heap of fun on that.
  • Massively reworked my relationship with work — I show up with far more energy, I work out regularly, I leave on time, I read outside of work, I’m much more balanced.
  • Have brought some of my favourite peeps in on a freelancer basis (👋 hiya!).
  • Defining and championing a brand strategy and rebrand in house.
  • Started to build a psychologically safe team where we are actively pushing ourself to do brave work. I’m so proud of this one — we have a team who are not only talented, but showing up fully, committed to learning, and stoked about our purpose.

I know not everyone has a positive experience crossing over, but I would have found this helpful to read when I was thinking about moving. Hope it’s useful!

What’s your experience been crossing over? What have I missed? If you’ve got other considerations to add, I’d love to hear them! Please add them in the comments.

sydney via seattle. believer. growth @futuresuper. ex strategy @forthepeopleau. experimenting with writing.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store