The Problem With 'Agency Experience'

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The truth is we over-value agency experience because of how agencies work, not the work agencies do.

“We’re looking for an outside-the-box thinker. Someone who looks at things differently. An innovator who doesn’t accept there is one way to do anything. You are a disrupter, a rule-breaker. … Candidates must have agency experience.”

This is an excerpt from a recent posting for a position with a top-tier creative agency. 

You almost miss the irony of it. But this time it caught my attention. They’re making a mistake most of us make when we become trapped in the Agency Experience Bubble. 

Many agencies do this. I certainly did when I was running an agency. It’s a mistake I wish I had recognized at the time.

This agency’s job description made me wonder why many agencies elevate the importance of working at other agencies in their hiring. Creativity doesn’t require a specific degree. Working in advertising or public relations isn’t like being a doctor, or a lawyer, or even a CPA, which all require professional training, education, and industry certifications. Yet the agency culture has become designed to insulate itself as though we know things others couldn’t possibly understand.

The truth is we over-value agency experience because of how agencies work, not the work agencies do. An art director who has never worked at an agency is inhibited only by lacking an understanding of the hyperactive mindset of insane deadlines, inter-departmental drama, and the awfulness that is time entry.

But what if how we value agency experience is not just unimportant, but is outright problematic? In a time when agencies themselves are being aggressively disrupted, why are we hanging on to an ideal of who fits into an outdated paradigm?

We've started looking at this question from a few different angles:

Problem #1: It’s ‘Mad Men’ thinking in a ‘Silicon Valley’ era. The safety of knowing where you fit across a neatly packaged organization of departments is over. We still treat these as sacred verticals of knowledge that outsiders would never work in effectively. Starts-ups, on the other hand, work across multiple skillsets simultaneously. They cross-train teams because they have to. As many agencies grow, so does their reliance on finding talent who fit easily into what they have built. When we only hire people who fit into that architecture, we overvalue the architecture itself. 

Problem #2: It’s a roadblock to diversity. This is an important issue that is under-explored. Agencies have a diversity problem. They are largely white, male-owned, hyper-educated safe zones of people who look, think, talk, and network in familiar socioeconomic groups. When we hire based on agency experience, we’re promoting the value of a certain type of person who matches an increasingly homogenous profile of a Creative Class. It values educational status over raw skill. It dilutes the value of integrating different life experiences, identities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It also encourages agencies to view all consumers and target audiences with the same homogenous brush. 

Problem #3: It’s services over problem-solving. Many agencies are stuck in a services mindset. It a false belief that good agencies make great creative or provide the best client service. So we hire people who specialize in providing those services – namely, people from other agencies. Services are important to agencies because services generate revenue. But the value agencies should be creating isn’t in work product, but in solving a complex business problem. This is becoming increasingly important to clients, and it’s why we’re seeing business consultants and strategic advisors grabbing our ad dollars and client budgets. 

Our industry is going through seismic shifts in how media intersect with a hybrid of social, political, and economic challenges that cut across all categories of consumers. While we’re busy promoting people who fit the agency model, others are reinventing what an agency actually is and making gains in a highly disruptive communications business.

We’d be wise to start recruiting and hiring based not on what we have built, but where our business is headed.