In a startup-centric town, agencies don’t get much respect. Even before I joined one after 20 years of in-house roles, I thought agencies were the unsung heroes of the Seattle tech scene.
Often designing the brands and products so many of us enjoy, agencies employ UX and visual designers, writers, developers, and project managers just like any start-up or large scale organization.
However, while agencies engage in similar activities, they offer very different environments, which begs the question: is an agency right for you?
First, a word on risk. The pros and cons of startup life vs. more established companies are fairly logical.
Startups are for risk-taking believers; those willing to sacrifice stability, and sometimes pay and work/life balance, for an IPO or acquisition lottery ticket. On the other end of the spectrum, large-scale organizations are the less risky proposition. Their business are well established, typically have clearer paths towards advancement, and support systems to grow your skills.
Agencies are risky because they live and die by their client portfolios, flexing their size—occasionally suddenly—with their billable work. As such, agencies are more risky than a large-scale organization, but once established they are certainly more stable than an early-stage startup. Any conversation on risk, of course, must be balanced with reward.
All companies, regardless of size and maturity, have their own unique reward systems—financial and otherwise. Aligning a prospective employer’s reward system with your own values is one of the most important exercises you can do when considering a change.
One of the most attractive aspects of working at a startup is the chance for life-changing money. The kind of money that can make saving for your kids college funds a non-event. Despite being statistically unlikely (the most likely startup outcome is failure) it’s plenty alluring. If you work at an agency, your chances for winning the lottery drop to zero.
That’s not to say that agencies can’t be lucrative, but they aren’t going to buy you a house on Lake Washington. Large-scale organizations typically pay the most, and are more likely to have gold-plated benefits.
What they lack in stock options, they often make up with stock grants or bonuses. It’s not overnight wealth, but if you’re lucky and put your time in it can be very meaningful.
Agencies know they’re behind the curve on long-term compensation and combat this in different ways. Some put a premium on perks like great vacation policies.
Others engage in profit sharing and dangle the possibility of a partnership for even greater rewards. Both have the potential to nearly level the playing field with larger organizations, but only a startup offers the elusive golden ticket.
Diversity vs. ownership
One of the primary selling points of agency life is the diversity of the work. One day you might be working on digital strategy for a Fortune 100 company, the next you’re explaining Personas to a family run e-tailer.
More than just the opportunity to learn new verticals, agencies are often brought in to help solve their clients’ most complex problems. It’s an intoxicating mix that contrasts nicely with in-house roles that can seem mundane by comparison.
However, this isn’t without cost.
In-house teams get to steer and improve their products over time, having greater influence as well as greater access to other parts of the organization. They get to see those charts go up and to the right. They “own” something. So, in determining if an agency is right for you, ask yourself, which is the greater reward?
Another benefit in-house roles have over agencies is a stronger sense of team.
“The camaraderie that is born in the trenches of in-house roles should not be discounted,” says Becca Galfer, a principal UX Designer for Redfin, and former consultant with Ascentium and Saltmine. “While a sense of team can and does certainly form in an agency setting, the teams are more interchangeable and less personally committed to a particular outcome.”
With time and effort you can build expertise in any size organization. However, some organizations are better than others depending on what specific skills you want to develop and where you are in your career.
In-house roles are particularly well suited for those looking to build expertise in a set vertical such as e-commerce or publishing. In Seattle alone we have industry heavyweights Amazon, Nordstrom, and REI, as well as a host of smaller startups. At an agency, you’re less likely to develop skills in a set vertical as they typically focus on multiple industries for diversity.
Agencies, however, are great proving grounds for building out your reputation as a thought leader.
“Agencies, generally, are better for building a leadership platform for yourself, because of the reputation of agencies for pushing methods and thinking about design and being experts in the process,” says Chris Risdon, a design lead for Capitol One and former design director for Adaptive Path.
And he’s right.
The most important factor driving agency support of individual leadership platforms is one you can trust — self-promotion. Thought-leadership in any form, whether blog posts or speaking gigs, exposes agencies to broad group of potential clients.
Of note, discipline expertise isn’t limited to those seeking the spotlight. For aspiring designers and editors, an agency has perhaps the best potential to train you up and build your skills, as you’re more likely to be working side-by-side with other talented individuals in the same discipline.
Smaller companies tend to have singular hires in design and editorial disciplines, making it hard to land these gigs early in your career. And startups often don’t have the resources or patience to train you up. This is less of a consideration for developers who tend to work in larger teams or for larger organizations that employ sizable teams across many disciplines.
Doing vs. Socializing
Agencies and startups are for do-ers. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a large volume of work in larger organizations. There is. It’s just differently natured. Larger organizations rely on the socializing of ideas as much as they do the ideas themselves.
Case-building, advocacy, bartering, strong-arming, even memo-writing, are all required skills to be successful in many companies at scale.
Agencies are hired to research and solve specific problems. And while there’s a certain amount of consensus building that happens at the onset of any engagement, they aren’t often used to steward the day-to-day details that a large scale organization requires.
Startups similarly value heads-down individual contributors, particularly those with some versatility, so they prefer those who can contribute across an array of areas (full stack developers being an obvious example).
Choosing the right organizational structure is obviously an intensely personal choice. Knowing which organization is right for you depends on a number of factors from your wiring to your career stage.
If you’re thinking of making the switch yourself, make sure you go beyond the standard list of pros and cons and connect with where you derive emotional value from your work.
What is it that makes you the most fulfilled? Is it being valued as an expert? Getting things done? Optimizing a product over time? Consider that what’s important to you now, might be less important to you in five to ten years.
Before making the jump, hit your virtual Rolodex, aka LinkedIn.
Chances are someone in your network—and ideally your discipline—can tell you just how green or brown the grass on the other side of the fence actually is. With a little introspection and some research, you can ensure your next move is the right one.
About the author: Alex Berg is the Director of Strategy & Analytics for Fell Swoop – a digital design firm in Seattle. Prior to Fell Swoop Alex held leadership roles with Ritani, Wetpaint, Expedia, and Blue Nile. Follow him on Twitter @alexwberg.