March 10, 2022

Agency Vs Client-side - bridging the talent gap

Why agencies need to start hiring client-side Planners & Strategists

An all too familiar situation, I have a brilliant candidate at the top of their game, a big thinker and natural storyteller, perfect for a role but...here's the but, little or no agency experience - yes the C word - they are client-side. A sudden gasp from the hiring manager and the typical response I'm met with, "sorry no, they're client side, they won't hack the pace and aren't close enough to the creative".

I previously worked in marketing recruitment focusing purely on client-side roles for large blue-chips, and it was the same story, client-side hiring managers didn't feel that agency planners were close enough to complex stakeholder management and business infrastructure.

There are more than a few incorrect assumptions on both sides, it's of course a broad generalisation. Some of the benefits in bringing in client-side candidates include understanding how the client thinks. They are one of your best assets when pitching, they can help leverage strong client relationships.

People from all sectors are re-prioritising & evaluating their options, often choosing to do something else, somewhere else. On the flip side, the pandemic has also provoked more risk adversity. Combine this with the current economic climate and planners who are considering moving to a new agency role might decide to sit tight for now or begin the search for a client-side role.

The fact is, the marketplace for planners and marketing strategists has always been niche and right now it’s even smaller. We need to look beyond the traditional agency background for talent and in turn this has a positive impact on diversity

I chatted to a few Strategists in the industry with client side & agency backgrounds and here are their insights.

Charlene Charity, Head of Strategy at Digitas made a move after 15 years of client-side roles, and has since made several successful client side hires since joining adland. She talked about the need for diverse skill sets alongside EQ to focus on delivering & solving problems for clients.

She rightly highlighted how we need to think broadly about where talent comes from to meet current demands.

Given the growth of the digital marketing sector alongside the ‘great attrition’ of agency employees do agencies really have that much of a choice anymore?  

She talked about moving away from the perceived agency culture to focusing on the importance of strong partnerships, between agencies and clients.

I think there is a general perception client-side that agencies have an aggressive work hard/play hard culture and are there ‘to serve’ clients. Anyone worth their salt at a decent agency knows this isn’t the case, good client-agency relationships result in both working in partnership to lead clients businesses.

One candidate I chatted with had just finished a contract client-side was ready to return to adland. She said that agencies are often accused of not understanding how businesses really work. Hiring a marketer who understands corporate cultures, the structural limitations, different pace and decision-making frameworks can plug that gap.

Client-side Marketers understand the commercials. It’s very easy for Agencies to assess campaign performance by media metric and lifetime value to support a Business case but in a commercial environment the numbers have wider impact and influence: OPEX, CAPEX, Staffing. Adding even more value, they also understand the 'buy-in' process especially in regulated environments when dealing with Compliance and Legal teams.

Daniel Lee, a Strategy Director I began working with last year had successfully made the move to agency. In his opinion, client-side candidates should be seen as a superpower knowing what makes clients tick.

As someone who's successfully moved from client-side to agencies, I used to meet objections in the belief that client-side candidates aren't able to adapt to agency culture. I've worked in similar dynamic creative environments both client-side and agency side but equally I've come across hierarchical and soporific environments at both too.

Dan also believed that there was less of gap between the two types of candidates at a certain level and that creativity did not live within a certain space.

In my opinion, after a certain level, there's only functional industry knowledge that differs between the two, it's less time on nuts and bolts but much more about managing people internally and externally. Finally, I want to emphasise creativity can be found everywhere.

There are brave marketers out there. Not every Client-side Marketer wants to play it safe, that’s why agencies win awards - because of their smart, brave clients wanting to take risks.

Being client-side means that person can be seen as a real category specialist, having the chance to really understand the brand, the commercials and how to better market them by getting right under the skin.

Mel Stanley Former Head of Planning and Head of Marketing & Brand at EDF Energy always felt that as an Agency planner, she knew her client's business inside out.

The fact is agencies only ever get a snapshot of the commercial challenge by way of a creative brief. Marketing might be the bread and butter of agencies but it is a tiny proportion of a clients commercial model. These insights could really benefit Agency planners and Creative teams.

Candidates that have successfully made the move are now much more in demand, they've sat on both sides, can adapt to both cultures and that's incredibly valuable.

So when you're next sent a client-side CV don't automatically dismiss it, consider how this individual could add value to your team. With every agency hiring agency people, think about how this person might prove to be a competitive advantage. I always say hire for the position that person will do in a year's time, it's not all about the now.

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