Marketing Careers: Should You Be an Agency or Brand Marketer?

I was raised in agencies. I started in digital advertising and landed in content marketing—where I plan to remain. I then converted to brand-side content marketing. During my agency days, I considered different marketing careers and constantly wavered between going brand or staying agency. I thrived on the dynamics of agency work, but I had a hunch that I would eventually move in-house to embrace and shape a single brand’s marketing strategy. And I did. [bctt tweet="Should you Be an Agency or Brand Marketer? by @cvwarner #marketingjobs "]

Marketers can flourish in either environment, but the structural and strategic differences may sway your decision. I have witnessed these firsthand through my agency and brand roles. Whether you’re a seasoned or fledgling marketer, compare these factors before you make a switch or start out:

Strategy control

The most deciding contrast between marketing careers at an agency and on the brand side is strategy ownership.[bctt tweet="The biggest difference between agency and brand #marketing is #ownership, says @cvwarner"]

Agency marketers are strategic partners to their brand clients. While you certainly influence the brand’s marketing strategy, your clients own it and have the final word. They can reject or modify your ideas no matter how much data, logic, or experience backs them. Why? The client is always right.

As a brand marketer, you have more control over the strategic direction. The brand is truly your brand. You are the decision-maker who decides what goes into market—and you're the one who will be held accountable for the results. This power to make my vision a reality led to my in-house transition.

Senior Marketing VP of Mondelez International Dana Anderson shares, “You can advocate, encourage, and sell through amazing work in ways you just wouldn't have been able to do on the agency side.” Make sure you know the internal reporting, approval, and budget structures, though, since a bureaucratic brand can be just as crippling as the constraints of client services.  

Creative freedom

Creativity doesn’t need context. You can be creative anywhere.[bctt tweet="#Creativity doesn’t need context. You can be creative anywhere, says @cvwarner #careerinspiration"]

While creative problem-solving is needed in all workplaces, the freedom to execute on your creativity varies. Agencies typically require more levels of review and approval. Your work needs to please both internal and client stakeholders. More opinions means more filters to dilute your original concept. At an agency, you design with the client’s expectations in mind—and prioritize them over your own. This ties back to strategy control: the client owns it, not you.

Brand marketing teams also have internal approval processes, but you likely have greater control over both ideation and execution. With more strategy ownership, you have inherent buy-in and creative freedom.

Marketing mentorship

Are you hoping to find a marketing mentor to teach or advise you?

Agencies surround you with fellow marketers, allowing mentorship to happen naturally. Your clients and coworkers can become formal or informal mentors to challenge and inspire you. Agencies are fertile—and sometimes unforgiving!—training grounds to launch your career. And you’ll come out a better marketer for it.

It’s not that brand teams lack mentorship, but you’re less likely to be fully immersed in a marketing environment. Encountering non-marketing disciplines will hone your business acumen. But you’ll be a stronger contributor on a brand team if you’re a confident marketer first. Agency mentorship prepares you to succeed in a brand setting.

Subject-matter expertise

Are you passionate about a particular industry, cause, or subject matter? Aim to pursue your marketing career with a brand team in that area. That way, you’ll be fully immersed in what you love. Some agencies have specialized client portfolios, but the client relationship is always a barrier to full exposure to and immersion in the business. Julie Cottineau, who has over 25 years of marketing experience, reflects on her work at Virgin, “If you are really interested in the business side of marketing you will likely learn more about this if you are on the client side.

If you’re unsure what subject matter intrigues you most, an agency lets you explore working with a variety of brands. Do you just plain love marketing? Then you may prefer strategizing for diverse business problems in an agency setting. You may even discover your passion through your clients to guide an in-house move.

I’ve worked at two agencies, a large digital agency where I had a global fashion client and a medium-sized content agency where I had multiple clients in a variety of industries: healthcare, technology, travel, photography, and more. Ultimately, I found I prefer a narrow focus. Consider your personal work style and preferences to determine whether you prefer to hone in on a single client relationship and strategy or have a diverse client base.  

The better you know the subject matter and business, the stronger your ability to craft compelling strategies becomes. You need to understand your client's business inside-out just as you would your own brand, but you’re better equipped to do so when you opt for an in-house marketing career.[bctt tweet="The better you know the business, the stronger your #marketingstrategy will be, says @cvwarner"]

Networking opportunities

Agencies present a wider range of external relationships—clients, vendors, freelancers, agency partners—to develop your professional network. These relationships expose you and your work to many people. These people can support and advocate for you when you’re ready for something new—and even try to poach you. Agencies also tend to have high turnover, so your own coworkers can extend your network and connect you to new opportunities.

Internal networking is essential in brand settings, but has less leverage should you look to move on. You may have similar relationships, but the agency service model is built on external relationships as well as internal.[bctt tweet="#Marketing agencies present more external #networking opportunities, says @cvwarner"]

Portfolio development

Agencies and brands have different portfolio strengths related to your strategic or creative role and your generalist or specialist career path. If your role is more strategic, then your strategy ownership on a brand team lets you lead and contribute to marketing initiatives from start to finish. Brands are also better for specialist portfolios, both strategic and creative, which takes us back to subject-matter expertise.

The diversity of client work at an agency allows creatives to demonstrate flexibility in interpreting various styles, tones, guidelines, and levels of creative direction. This is ideal for those with ambitions to go freelance or have a long-term agency career. As a generalist focused on strategy, a diverse client portfolio (your own or agency-wide) exposes you to business needs of all sorts. Jeff Jones, previously at Leo Burnett, explains, “You learn how to flex your mind across a whole lot of different topics during the day.”

Now, the choice

Evaluate your career phase and goals, marketing role, work style, temperament, and interests. Knowing the differences between agency and brand marketing environments can help you choose the right marketing career for you. Whatever you decide, you’ll forge your own career path. When you find work that makes you come alive, stay and grow.[bctt tweet="When you find work that makes you come alive, stay and #grow, says @cvwarner #careerinspiration"]