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My Take: In-house vs Agency

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  • My Take: In-house vs Agency

    I've been a professional designer for twenty years, 4 year degree, awards, blah blah... I've worked for "famous" local agencies, free lance, retail in-house and very large very corporate in-house.
    By far, I have found the better pay to be in-house (anywhere from 20-50% more), the paid time off to be almost double (11 days to 21 days per year) and the medical benefits to be better at several in-house jobs compared to several agency jobs. And if you have kids the flexibility of a large company has proven to be better (no owner watching your every move, while middle manager at large corp allows more freedom of hours )Retail in-house can be a different story, but in-house for large banks, medical, tech, etc companies seems to be vastly better.

    I feel like this is a dirty little secret in our field. Most of us dream of spectacular clients and doing award winging work while in school only to realize agencies may over work you and under pay you. I have found this to be the case time and time again, yet a huge portion of our peers will never know because they refuse to apply for the "corporate" culture.

    Have you found the same to be true?

  • #2
    I've never worked for an agency for many of the reasons you listed. Ive been in-house for a few places over the years. I've found if it's a medium to large sized company, in-house definitely has benefits of better pay, good vacation, benefits, etc. and usually (ymmv) better flexibility when it comes to having to leave early, come in late, doctor appointments, sick kids and what not.

    However, you do generally have to deal with smaller (or for all intents and purposes) non-existent budgets, generally less "creative" work and more "meddling" since your work is not being charged by the hour. Once again, ymmv.

    Personally, I'll take flexibility and better overall pay and benefits any day. If you want to be creative, do it on your own personal work and projects.
    I like to beat up pacifists, because they don't fight back ...

    N.A.N.K.A. "We Kick Because We Care."


    • #3
      OK, now I can be sane again. THANK YOU! I completely agree with everything you said. So true about the meddling.

      I've always been interested in why the big publications and trade journals celebrate agency work and life over in-house. Is it the awesome furniture that makes for a cool pic next to the article featuring work that is closer to fine art than practical design? I'd take my pay, benefits, PTO and work/life any day over what a studio offers, yet how few designers ever learn this is amazing. Even owning my own studio demands less pay for most circumstances and way more hours.


      • praxis11
        praxis11 commented
        Editing a comment
        You're suggesting that in-house work is more practical than agency work?

        Certainly the agency must sell itself, whereas the in-house department is already owned.

    • #4
      Is it the awesome furniture that makes for a cool pic next to the article featuring work that is closer to fine art than practical design?
      That was funny.
      And oh so true.

      Designers these days barely get a serviceable education in most colleges and most are never exposed to anything other than what they read in those ''glitzy'' magazines. There are all these dreams of being the next Milton Glaser if just given half a chance at an agency, rarely realizing there are maybe 10 gifted people a decade that reach that kind of agency fame. I asked a potential hire once, ''what is your ultimate goal in your design career?'' Deer in headlights. Maybe that is asking too much of a 20-something kid, but I still think it's a valid question.

      Occasionally we get a tour group from the local tech school. They seem to get it more. They ask questions. They show curiosity. Since our stuff borders on the edge of Show Business, it's like a whole different world to them. The college kids all seem bored and slouch around, instantly on their phones as they move from one department manager to the next. It's just a gut course to them and the field trip a necessary evil. A lot of times you can tell the professor has given them a list of questions to ask. The difference is night and day.


      • #5

        I went to a four year university design program and the vast majority of the design students were hungry as hell to create award winning work. Most of us dreamed of working at Landor creating the next big logo "Aha" moment or designing the next award winning event poster. Being truely creative can be exhausting and I'd rather save energy for my kids, yard work or a tiring vacation. I guess I'm a little bitter that "super star" designer is what is sold in design publications. People would rather see the Aemes chair in a lobby than a matching 401K with lots of free time. Owning a design studio can afford thise benefits, but that is fairly rare to be abke to get to that point.


        • #6
          You went to school over 20 years ago. So did I. The education level and expectations of students has changed. Drastically. So has the attention span, and I really do believe there is a certain amount of ennui within a certain percentage of millennials who just do not give a damn about anything. This is the generation of the Participation Award. You get a prize just for mean playing. So little is required, internships are even falling by the wayside, so little is done to challenge the design student. Far too much of the program is self-directed where project outcomes are predetermined by the student rather the professor. In the real world you don't get to start over on a project because you don't like where it's going. In the real world you don't get to come up with a logo then design a brief around why you created it. And none of these kids are actually prepared to work in the field. If you read around here, you'll see that right now entry level in this field is a 4-year degree plus 2 years or real world work because there are just too darn many designers out there. The schools aren't even aware of this, let alone preparing these students for it.

          Sorry. Rant. I had a bad summer.


          • #7
            I totally get it. I really have little idea how the top schools are teaching design these days, but I imagine schools are still divided by theory based versus practical based teaching? I'll take the theiry based any day - based on ideation, hand skills and computers are the last step. Beng fang and prisma color markers still around in schools? Lol


            • #8
              Yup. 20 years ago graduation from college I had some professors questioning why I wanted to get into in-house at the time, however, I dod feel like I went to a good design school. A state university generally known as one of the top two in the state for design. I can't complain we had a great education. Had a few "real world" professors that actually did design or owned agencies, but we were never truly exposed to or educated about the in-house world. All I knew is I didn't want to be in the cutthroat, burn-out agency world. I interned for an agency, and I enjoyed my time there, but .... meh.

              The other challenge with in-house is working within sometimes strict brand standards. So, it can be a little repetitive. But, like I said .... if you carve the creative outlet, do your own work where you and only you have control over it. Win. Win.
              I like to beat up pacifists, because they don't fight back ...

              N.A.N.K.A. "We Kick Because We Care."


              • KitchWitch
                KitchWitch commented
                Editing a comment
                My experience was very similar to yours. I had heard stories about agencies losing a big client and firing half their staff, only to hire new (cheaper) staff when they got a replacement client. Too iffy for me, I need a stable job. It does get repetitive, but I've found that the people I work with have gotten so used to what I can do, they can't imagine *not* having me. I've got great benefits, a retirement plan, investments and so much banked time off I'm going to have to sell off some of it because they're lowering the cap. In-house win for me.

            • #9
              Those strict guidlines are typically great IMO. In busy moments the designers can go on auto-pilot, do their work and when the day is done they can leave it all and go home with a clear head. Being creative can be tiring. My personal philosophy is to try to have one great portfolio piece every few months - that way I don't worry about all the other restrictive jobs.

              Some of designs great work was done by famous in-house designers, so we were never questioned negatively about that, but at the same (and back to my original point) we were never taught about pay, benefits, balancing work and life a d how those balancing acts change from being a 22 year design stud grad looking for HOW awards to a dad that can whip out any style of design in twenty minutes and would rather have higher pay than free pizza and beers on Friday's.

              CSU, Chico??


              • #10
                I went the traditional four-year, big school, state university route, worked professionally for a few years, then headed back for a Master's before diving back into a decades-long career that I'm still pursuing in this field.

                While doing undergraduate work, my naive self thought of the design professors as being geniuses. After graduation came the hard realization that there were many very important things I didn't learn in school and a few things I needed to unlearn. After heading back to do graduate work, I worked with many of those same professors whom I soon realized were mostly professional design teachers and not really actual designers themselves except in the fine artsy, academic kind of way that didn't really reflect the actual profession of design. I ended up constantly arguing with them.

                As for agency versus in-house, I've made a career out of lots of both. Yeah, in many university programs the somewhat naive professors seem to set up working on Madison Avenue or in a big West Coast design agency as the road to fame, riches and glory. Once again, though, I think that's a reflection of their own misplaced and ignorant academic view of the profession.

                As for pay, a big agency can pay pretty well -- especially once you get past the senior designer level. Most all agency positions, though, are a bit unstable in the sense that staffs are upsized and downsized according to a client base that can grow by leaps and bounds and then disappear the following year. Opportunity for creative expression depends on the agency. Some agency's reputations are built on winning awards, while others are built upon the steady bread and butter work that comes from servicing steady clients with the routine work they need done. One thing in particular that I don't like about agency work is that they often tend to be a bit like sweatshops due to tight budgets and the realities of getting as much done in as little time as possible. I absolutely hate keeping track of my time in 15-minute increments and being expected to turn on the creative juices on command and on schedule each morning.

                In-house situations differ enormously, but the creative/marking/communication staff typically exists outside the main reason for the company's existence and therefore is sometimes not fully appreciated, understood or embraced by the company leadership. Of course some in-house situations are for relatively small businesses where there's direct access to the owner or CEO, so in those situations, the work, pay, responsibilities and pay vary enormously based on the business, it's success and the people in charge. The pay and benefits for marketing/creative staffs in larger corporations typically reflect the pay scales of the corporation. A corporation that hires skilled professionals at higher pay typically extends those benefits and expectations to their marketing teams. Others that operated differently in different industries tend to pay their creative staffs accordingly. Some in-house staffs have lots of creative latitude and are in charge of the company's branding and marketing. They get lots of respect and, in many ways, determine the advertising, marketing and branding of the company. This basically means being their own clients, which is a fantastic situation to be in. Other in-house staff are treated more like in-house service groups whose job is to simply implement what the higher-ups decide, which is a much-less-than-fantastic situation that I've always carefully avoided.

                Those who think that agency jobs are somehow superior to in-house positions are making superficial judgments out of ignorance. Sometimes they're better. Sometimes they're worse. It just depends on the place and what you're looking for in a job. Personally, based on 30-some years of doing this kind of stuff, a good, solid, fun, respected, steady, well-paying and creative in-house job is preferable to most any equivalent agency position, but that's just me.


                • #11
                  When I was in the military, I was reading HOW magazine and fantasizing about getting out and getting that big agency job. It seemed exciting. The art school I went to was geared towards the big agency job. But the stories I heard during school from interns and guest speakers turned me off on the big agency route. I went the in-house route after art school partly for that reason and partly (to be honest) because they were hiring. I could barely get an interview at an agency, and the people interviewing me seemed too snobbish for me to want to work there if they offered.

                  I liked the work and the benefits of in-house jobs. Some of my in-house clients said that my work was ad agency quality. I got more creative freedom and responsibility than what I think I would have gotten with the same level of experience at an agency. Some of the work was challenging, but I had more time to do it right than I think I would have had at an agency. I also did freelance on the side for the more challenging and sexy portfolio pieces I was after.

                  Having said that, the big agency looks better on your resume. One of my in-house bosses automatically assumed that big agency equals better experience and hired top-down from an agency when it was time to promote a leader in our department. My 3 years experience in the company didn't matter. The person she hired later admitted to being less skilled than me. And I can't count the time's I saw the phrase "agency-experience required" on job ads. For that reason alone I wouldn't turn down an agency job offer if I'd never had one. I don't know if it's still that way.

                  My last 3 full-time jobs were what I consider to be the best of both worlds, companies that don't have the big agency culture but serve multiple clients. That allows for a variety of work, without the pressure of agency work. One company was a "Corporate Training" company, one was a "Software Development" company, and one was a "Design Firm" that went out of it's way not to be considered an ad agency. That's also when I found out that I was an introvert and preferred smaller organizations regardless of in-house, agency, or whatever. I also learned the pros and cons of B2B vs B2C in that time period.

                  So if you can get the agency job for a small short time and a resume bullet, I'd take it. But figure out what you like about what you like before deciding to make a career out of it. It might be for some people to want to win awards. For me, it was all about a balance between job security, low stress, and portfolio pieces worth showing.


                  • #12
                    I started off in the agency world right after college and did well until the dot com bust and every firm in town laid off a designer or two. That forced me to find work in-house which I previously would have puked at the thought. It turns out I like it so much better for all the previous reasons.

                    I see so much talent out there that works for angencies and they tend to jump from agency to agency for slightly better pay yet they really have no idea that right down the road corporation xyz might be paying 90K per year with all the medical benefits, matching 401k, very flexible schedule etc. because a lack of communication exists.


                    • #13
                      My Mum recently sent me a job listing for an in-house designer for the government agency she works for (I also worked there part time for about 6 years before and after design school). The salary was double what I would expect. And being a government agency, they have yearly pay rises and heaps of benefits. I didn't apply since I'd just quit my job to work on my own business full time, but I thought it was quite interesting.
                      It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?" Winnie the Pooh


                      • #14
                        Originally posted by Buda View Post
                        My Mum recently sent me a job listing for an in-house designer for the government agency she works for (I also worked there part time for about 6 years before and after design school). The salary was double what I would expect. And being a government agency, they have yearly pay rises and heaps of benefits. I didn't apply since I'd just quit my job to work on my own business full time, but I thought it was quite interesting.
                        State design jobs in California don't pay that well, but the retirement and job security is great.

                        The other thing about in-house that I like is I have the ability to take on freelance work for extra cash. I do it and every in-house designer I know does it. But when I worked at an agency I signed away that ability.






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