What’s it really like in agencies? Anonymous interviews reveal smokescreen projects and tears over grids
As part of his guest edit of It’s Nice That, Richard Turley anonymously interviews creatives of all roles to offer an honest report of working in our industry today. This first part features a junior designer, producer and studio owner. Further interviews will be published next week.
This article is published as part of Us vs Them, a guest edit of It’s Nice That commissioned and curated by creative director Richard Turley. To read further articles from Richard’s takeover head here.
The impulse here is twofold… First to expose some of the inner workings of life inside the creative industries and to put the fears and realities of our day-to-day lives into a more public forum. Why? Because there is often a subtext running through agencies and so forth that we're lucky to be working there. How you have to like the work you're doing and be grateful for the opportunity to do it. That the money is a bit gross, but we're not really doing it for that reason.
Equally, I expect most of you reading this will have been catfished into a job which promised an environment where you’ll create “the best work of your life”, the promise of working on a fancy account, or some other carrot dangled in front of you to get you in the door – before it dawned that the reality is anything but. I think we just assume that no-one else is feeling that way, when in fact WE'RE ALL FEELING THAT WAY. Including the boss. And mostly we are very certainly doing it for the money. Including the boss.
The second is to (hopefully) demonstrate that no matter what you may think of those more senior than you, no one is quite sure what they’re doing (and often why they're doing it). This applies whether you're starting out or tapping out. Careers batter us all. Most are far less in control of their career and where it's going than they'd ever want to admit. People who have risen to the top because they’re better at playing the game, rather than necessarily making anything interesting. It’s why there is so much banal, turgid shit out in the world, but that – as you might have read elsewhere– is another think piece.
So I thought it might be informative to get some people talking honestly about their work life. Across two articles, we have asked a range of “creatives” – from juniors through to executive creative directors and studio owners – a handful of similar questions. Each response is anonymous, offering them the freedom to answer openly, both about companies they work for or have grown themselves. – Richard Turley
Junior Designer at an advertising agency
Hours worked: 10am – 7/8pm
Working set up: I go to the office three days a week. If I work from home I normally start at 7am and take as many breaks as I can.
Salary: $35 per hour. I work long hours, so around $8k per month.
What is your work style, role, and how do you fit into the team you work in?
I’m a “permalancer” (that’s what they call me) in a five-person team at a big advertising agency. It’s a very small team, considering how much work we have. Our team is in charge of the “look and feel” of client projects. We have one team leader, directing and overseeing every project, who assigns us separately to help control the overall style of different projects.
What did you think your job would be like, and how does it differ from reality?
It’s less creative than I thought it would be. I was hired because they seemed to really appreciate my work, style and ideas. I was excited to work with various clients on projects. But, in the end, it all ends up kind of similar. Sometimes I feel like everyone could do my job, as long as they have so-called “good taste” and “know lots of things”. Ideas don’t seem to matter as much as they claimed.
What do you spend most of your time doing?
Making mood boards and gridding them – we have a very strict grid system where every reference photo has to be a 4:3 ratio. It has to fit perfectly, and you have to add on a 2pt white line on top to give perfect space in between. I cried many times in the first month because I couldn’t finish gridding mood boards on time.
What’s the creative process? How are ideas formulated, packaged and produced?
For every project I work with two to four art directors. They develop ideas and directions and I visualise them – basically making mood boards and a shitty mockup-ish design, and animation to make sure clients can understand and get psyched. After 17,564 meetings, the mood boards and design become more specific, then we shoot and find an animation house to add the final touch and make it legit.
Are you proud of the work you’re making?
Not really. We work for very, very big American brands. None seem willing to take risks. I’ve realised that a job is just a job. I’d rather not think about it and do my own thing on the side.
What future do you see for yourself at your company or within the wider industry?
Honestly, I have no idea. I like my team but I hate my job. It’s a creative graveyard. I guess I can definitely get more money if I work here longer, but I am so done with advertising agencies. I want to marry a rich guy and be a good wife now.
What’s the worst behaviour you’ve seen at work?
Nothing really bad that I can recall. I guess I just hate myself, I don’t really believe in what we are doing, but I pretend I do. It’s weird to see people get really excited about the result. Every Monday morning the company has meetings to see what we did great last week – a Black Friday campaign which received a lot of clicks or whatever. It’s so much effort for nothing. But people applaud and they seem to really like it. I don’t know if they mean it or not, but I always feel like I am in a really lame cult.
What was the kindest act anyone has shown you?
Everyone here is really sweet. It’s a welcoming company with a really good lunch and even a “snack island”. I enjoy most things, except the working part. They say I have the best style in the office, that makes me happy. Also, my boss makes sure I earn as much money as possible. She’s nice.
How far have you seen your company go to keep a client happy? What sacrifices have been made?
I only know that I have sacrificed many weekends working on very dumb and tedious things. One day, I had to screenshot every single photo from an Instagram account to put into a deck. I don’t even know why, they just said it was needed by the end of the day, so I did it. I had to do that on a Sunday, because I was a “permalancer”. It was my job.
What does your agency care most about?
They believe they care about the quality of the work the most, but I really don’t know what they care about. Everyone seems tired. No one really complains, no one seems to be enjoying anything about the job, but they keep on doing it because the pay is good. The agency just cares about the money. They used to be good, in fact one day they showed me all the old work they did and it was pretty great. I don’t know what happened.
Hours worked: I work three to four hours, four to five days a week – but to be honest, whatever it takes. Recently I have been on a funny work bender, working 7am-11am with a team in London, then 11am-6pm with a team in New York. It’s a nice balance because when I am on a project I want to be fully immersed in it. It feels intense, but it kind of flows into my life.
Working set up: Before bed I check my calendar to see what time I should be at my computer. If it’s early, I’ll start at my dining table until lunch. If it’s after 10am I’ll go to my studio, a 15-minute bike ride from my apartment. I love to bop around the city too, so if I am able to pop in and jam with a creative team (and their studio doesn’t suck), I’ll do that.
Salary: I’ve been netting around $120k, but it fluctuates depending how much time I take off.
What does being a producer actually involve?
I make things happen, it sounds kind of douchey, but I make things happen. Recently I’ve been doing what I call “special projects” where I work with brands and agencies, but I don’t do the typical banner ads or influencer marketing or whatever. I like to do those special injections into projects, the thing that pushes what could be a really boring campaign into a new space or audience.
I think I am a leader? I’ve developed a healthy balance of pragmatism and creativity over the years, so teams end up gravitating towards me as the source of truth on a project. I can fill a myriad of gaps so I try to do what’s necessary VS what my big fancy title should be doing.
Would you say you get brought into a project and build a roadmap?
I used to be brought in to do very specific things, and now I am brought in to say: “Hey, we have this problem we need to solve. What are the different ways we can solve it?” It’s really fun. It’s not a lot of timelines or budgets or things like that. I can’t do that.
Have you always worked like that?
I was full time at an agency for a few years… It was interesting. It wasn’t a traditional agency, more of a strategy, research and innovation type place. I was freelance before that but went full-time, mostly because I was getting married and felt I needed stability.
I went back freelance during the pandemic because I realised that a nine to five, five days a week, doesn’t actually exist. I knew the only way to change the expectation around who I am and how I work was to go freelance and be more in control. I try to maximise my time because I don’t actually like working. If I can do the work while I’m doing other boring, mundane things, that’s a win, because I’m just constantly trying to expand the non-working time.
For you, what are the differences between working at a big agency and a smaller shop?
I think big agencies are in a bit of a tailspin right now. Brands and employees are realising they’re not needed, they’re not necessary. You don’t need 40 people on an account to make quarterly social campaigns. As a result I think those in higher up positions are starting to panic, which is why we’re starting to see statements like: “We’re all about the work here” or “We’re all about our people”. No, you’re still trying to make money because you’ve realised you have 20 people in roles which are unnecessary, but you can’t fire them because they’re being paid so much. There’s a lot of posturing.
People are also starting to get hip to it too. There’s panic about the posturing and posturing about the posturing. Individuals have spent their whole careers chasing some C-suite or VP title, but didn’t consider that maybe those titles will be obsolete at some point. Sure, there’s craft in the creative world, but I do believe that there is craft in every discipline. Some people just started checking boxes versus sharpening their knives.
What do you believe people value at the places you work in?
You can tell when someone has only developed within the industry. They value awards, because that’s a thing they can put on their wall, or a thing to put on the resume to say “I’m doing great.” There are a lot of people with design awards but I know Photoshop better than them. It’s like, “What the fuck? How did you get here?” It’s so annoying.
I think a lot of younger people also experience a feeling of “What the fuck? Why is this person making more money than me? They can’t even do what I am doing.” That’s why so many people quit their jobs to go freelance. Not to put it on age, but there is an older generation still trying to operate within that system. This newer generation not only doesn’t want to work within that system, they’re trying to break it.
Some friends and I treat agencies like it’s going to jail. You go and put your time in, you suck it up, put your head down and the only goal is to get out. The goal isn’t to climb within the agency anymore; it’s to get the title and keep pushing.
What’s the worst behaviour you’ve seen at work?
Yelling, or being condescending to people. People physically screaming and it’s like, we have evolved as a species, there is literally no reason to do this. People have told me that they were specifically going for someone’s head also. Literally just, “I want this person fired and I’m going to do everything in my power to make this person’s life a living hell.” It’s insane.
What is the kindest act someone has shown you?
Patience. I have a really intense personal life as the head of my family. I’ve had many jobs and clients who made it clear to take care of myself, and my people, and not to worry about the work. None of this shit really matters and everything is flexible.
How far have you seen a company go to keep a client happy?
I once watched an agency spend over a million dollars on a car show experiential thing. I’m talking big talent, crazy physical production, only to have the client demand their C-Suite be the face of the live event. Watching the internet pile on was painful, but secretly satisfying.
Are there different processes across the places you work?
I haven’t been to a place – honestly – with a clean process. Everyone says they have a process, but usually the process is no process. It’s dependent on the person leading the project. If that person isn’t naturally able to cut clear paths for people to work in, everyone’s just fucking spiraling.
Ultimately, it depends on how much fear exists within a team. When teams are working out of fear it manifests in people not making decisions, which is vital to the work. It’s just the fear of making the wrong decision which people just have to accept. It’s a 50/50 chance. You’re always at risk of choosing the wrong thing.
People just don’t know what they want, so they panic, become overbearing and say they need to run it by 20 people. Oftentimes I’ve seen stuff get spun around midlevel for so long and eventually it will go up to the top for them to say: “I don’t care. I pay you to make this decision. Make the decision.”
I have a theory that usually the fear is because someone’s out of their depth, but won’t say it. Like, why would someone who is not on TikTok make a decision about what the TikTok looks like, instead of just letting a junior person (who spends every waking moment on the platform) make that call?
I wish more people would explore the boundaries of their expertise. Often, I take the approach of saying, “I am very unfamiliar with the thing that we’re doing. Do you know what you’re doing? Cool. Let’s work together so that I can get smart and better steer teams. You also get to see a little bit of my world and understand the factors at play.” I think it’s a really great way for everyone to grow.
Do you feel proud of the work you’re making?
I am, but I think I am more proud of the people I work with. I’m not going to say I’m proud of a banner ad. I don’t care. But if I get to see a team member stretch into a new space, or we push a client into a new way of thinking, that’s always a win.
Hours worked: 10am–7pm (officially but, being one of the owners of the business I feel I am always working, which I like).
Working setup: I’m at the office on average four days a week. One day at home (living room) or in some meetings. Our office works if everyone is there. The remote set-up was OK, not great.
How much did you earn at your first job and how much do you earn now?
I don’t remember – it was 30 years ago. Now it’s around $250k, but if we have a great year we get more, if a lousy year less, and a super shitty year much, much less. Whatever the office can afford, basically.
How much does a junior earn at your company?
I think around $55k.
How many projects do you work on at any given time?
It varies like crazy, it can be anywhere from five to 25. Right now, we’re working on 20 projects which vary in size.
What are the aspects you value most?
Making good work and keeping a variety of projects in the studio. I would go crazy if we always did the same type of projects.
What’s the creative process? How are ideas formulated, packaged and produced?
No one owns a particular project at the studio. We always talk a lot about the project before one of us takes over and runs with it, but everyone is involved throughout. Not much ego in the office is possible.
Where do you see time being wasted on projects?
During the design phase everyone sometimes works on the same project. We just try everything we can come up with and experiment, play around. Looking back, sometimes it feels like a total waste of time, but we love it even if 99 per cent of what we do is not used in the end. It’s not the smartest way to run a business, but since we don’t keep timesheets this is how we operate still. I think this is only possible because we are a small studio, seven to eight people where everyone is a designer or creative. It wouldn’t work with a 100-person office.
What do you worry about?
I have to be totally honest, money. Meaning I worry about money when there isn’t enough money in the account for payroll. It used to drive me crazy. I would be in the office with seven, eight people that needed to get paid – I’m in charge of it, I don’t know why – and everyone’s having fun but I know they’re supposed to get paid in two days and there’s literally $50 in the account. I would be like, “What the fuck is this?” I would just go crazy. Now, I don’t go that crazy about it. I don’t because it’s like, what am I going to do? If I go crazy, it doesn’t really help. It’s strange, my partner doesn’t really worry about it.
The other thing I worry about – or maybe not worry about but it stresses me out – is making good work. Let’s say we had a presentation a few weeks ago. It’s a client I brought on and I’m going crazy with it, because I want to blow them away, to show them amazing stuff. I’m not saying it has to be amazing for everyone else, but I need to think it is amazing, that I’ve never seen this before. I also really drive myself a little crazy with this stuff, but in a good way. For me, it means that we care about the work.
What happens when you only have $50 in the account and you’ve got to pay people?
It happens once in a while and to be honest, I don’t want an overdraft. A couple of times we just put in money by ourselves, then everybody in the office gets paid. Which is kind of stupid. My partner and I don’t get paid if there is no money, but the staff gets paid. I do remember a really shitty couple of months and I borrowed some money from my brother, $30,000. Two, three months later we paid him back.
What’s the shittiest behaviour you’ve witnessed?
We did a project with a big furniture company in Europe, probably $400,000 or $500,000 for a huge job.
A year later I was connected with the team in New York, about a project the store wanted us to do. It was a lot of work, we went back and forth and gave them a fee. I don’t remember how much money it was, but much less than we had charged the headquarters. Maybe $50,000 or whatever. The guy looked at me like, “Woah, that’s very expensive”. I’m thinking, “Expensive? What are you talking about? This is not expensive. This is really cheap. Why do you think this is expensive?” He says they have an offer from another agency who are willing to do it free, or like $1,000. I’m like, OK, that makes no sense. Then he told me it was [a well-known design agency].
Another time, 15 years ago we were also asked to do a project for an arts organisation. It was us against much bigger companies and we estimated, I don’t know how much, $40,000 to $60,000. The client comes back and says: “It’s interesting. I’m talking to you and two much bigger companies, and you are the most expensive.” Of course we were. I explained that for these other studios this is a portfolio piece and their big clients were going to pay for this. In our case, it was all the work we had. I said that my partner and I, the two most senior people, are going to work on this for the next eight months doing nothing else. I’ve worked at these companies – and I’m not talking badly about them – but I could guarantee the client would see the partner in the first two meetings, then some junior designers would work on it with you. We hung up expecting to never hear from them again. They called the next day and hired us.
So your point is that big agencies do these projects as a smokescreen for the businesses that actually pay the rent?
I think that’s totally what it is.
What is the kindest act anyone has shown you?
I am super grateful to many of our clients who hired us and paid us a lot of money, knowing full well we had not worked on projects similar to those we’d been hired on. I’m also super grateful for my former boss, who is still a very good friend. He was always super helpful and supportive when we started our office in 2000. He shared documents and contracts with us when we started the business, and referred his old clients to our studio when he couldn’t take them on. He never asked for anything in return, and continues to be a great mentor and friend. He just wants us to do good work and do well.
Us vs Them with Richard Turley
This story along with many others are part of a guest edit of It’s Nice That by Richard Turley. To read further pieces from Richard’s curation click on the link below.
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