Is working for an agency really so awful?

almost 7 years ago from , Designer

I work at a software company and work with a lot of experienced designers who often complain about how awful agency life is in comparison.

I'm looking for a new job and there's a few agencies in my area that have worked on some really interesting stuff that I think I'd like to apply to.

I'm bored of working on the same brand all the time and I think I'd enjoy the variety of work at an agency. I feel like I've become good at working with one brand and now I'm a little tired of it. I've been working for two years, having graduated in 2014, and my portfolio is almost exclusively from my current job.

Is agency life really so bad? What are the advantages of it over working in-house?


  • Mike Wilson, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    I actually recommend designers work for agencies (or start-ups) in their early career and don't move to that cushy big company gig until you've built up some experience in a more fast paced environment.

    The fact is, there is no other place where you will get to work on so many varied and different projects, in such a short amount of time than an agency. Now there are good agencies and bad agencies just as there are good companies and bad companies to work for, however on average the agency environment will be much more fast paced. It will be stressful and uncomfortable at times but you will get better, faster. You'll be building things from the ground up and learning what processes work and what doesn't work.

    My opinion: Working for a giant, stable company is better in many ways. None of them have to do with your development as a designer. The Money, Stability, and Prestige they add to the resume are the main benefits. However for the most part, you will be doing minor incremental improvements to already successful products and getting better at corporate politics rather than design.

    This is perfect for when you're ready to settle down and already have the experience and chops developed from agencies or startups, but if you go to the big company first, I think you're missing something. You'll be trained to meet the end goals of that particular flavor of corporate machine and it'll be very easy to stay employed while doing mostly nothing.

    32 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      Thank you so much for this reply.

      That's my worry. I feel like I'm "doing minor incremental improvements" to an already successful product and not really getting a varied enough experience of design. Honestly, most of my work recently has involved moving or reworking existing work. I'm just bored. I go months without actually designing anything new!

      I'll start applying for agencies once this Christmas stuff is over.

      2 points
    • Adam KAdam K, almost 7 years ago

      This is exactly what I told my two interns that just finished their work terms.

      1 point
    • Daniel FoscoDaniel Fosco, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

      However for the most part, you will be doing minor incremental improvements to already successful products and getting better at corporate politics rather than design.

      That's not entirely true. Working for big a company usually means working at an organization that moves at a slower pace, but it doesn't mean all projects and aspects of the work will move slower than an agency.

      Speaking from that experience, of course there are lots of legacy systems or dated business practices we might have, but working to fix big problems in a big machine to make it better is a super exciting challenge for me.

      PS: You can see recent examples of big companies learning to ship great design in IBM Design, Microsoft and Android.

      1 point
  • Dallas BarnesDallas Barnes, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    Great question, as someone who just recently switched from agency to in-house, hopefully I can provide some solid insights.

    In any case, the grass is always going to seem a little greener on the other side. There is validity in having some variety in projects while at an agency, but it comes a a cost. Even the greatest agencies are going to have projects come through that aren't particularly glamorous and most definitely won't be finding a spot in your portfolio. For myself, the major downside of being at an agency is I wasn't producing work that was truly iterated upon. It was definitely shouted that we "always iterate" and "it's never done", but the reality is that projects at an agency are reliant on a approved budget from the client.

    It really depends on where you are at in your career. I wouldn't suggest to a designer with 10 years of industry experience to explore an agency opportunity. For someone just starting out in their design career (1-3 yrs exp.), as others have said, it can be great for getting some clarity on what you really have interest in.

    Lastly, many tech companies are drawn to candidates with agency experience because of the perceived ability to juggle multiple projects at once. So if you feel as though you could use the agency experience to then catapult you into a better in-house gig then it might be worth it.

    2 points
    • Andrey Grabelnikov, over 6 years ago

      Totally agree on "major downside" part. There is almost no way to actually solve any "real" design problems. Agency's designer work ends once client is satisfied with mockups look, seldom with front-end templates look. You won't deal with users feedback, real metrics nor even with user testing results (something that gets more prominent but still rare and could be easily tweaked in the "right" direction)

      0 points
  • CTodd LombardoCTodd Lombardo, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    TL,DR; You might wish to reframe your question. I think it's less agency team vs in-house team and more about the culture and leadership styles at the company. Perhaps your question might be: under what culture values and leadership styles will I do my best work of my career?


    I've been on both sides of that coin. I'm currently in the agency world and love it. And I'm not in my early career!

    The culture of the agency is critical. As mentioned some are toxic. Maybe most are, and some aren't? Is there any data out there on this? At Fresh Tilled Soil, while we have our quirks and ups and downs, it's a fabulous place to work. Is it all roses? Oh hell no, but positives far outweigh the negatives. The team backs each other up like none I've ever seen. Our CEO is vision driven and strives to create an environment where a band of talented misfits can help our clients create great products that add value to the world. There's always the P.I.T.A. client, the boring project, the project that just makes money because you need to make payroll, but those are the exception and not the norm. If you're comfortable with uncertainty, agency life can be a great lifestyle. Again, it boils down to culture and leadership. If they fit your style, it's great. If not, you'll hate it.

    Working for a stable product company with a talented team can also be nice as you get to see multiple cycles of your work make your end-users succeed (or fail). The ability to see that arc over time can be very fulfilling. However, some product teams are also mind-numbing zombie zones, so there's that.

    My suggestion would be to invite people in both situations out for a coffee or a phone call and have a chat.

    Best wishes!

    2 points
  • Cosmin MadalinCosmin Madalin, almost 7 years ago

    It depends on the agency... but..yea most of them have a toxic working environment. I guess one of the biggest advantages is the diversity of projects. My advice would be to give it a go, this is the best way to find out what works for you.

    2 points
  • Ryan Hicks, almost 7 years ago

    Don't do it. You'll regret leaving the position you had.

    Do freelance on the side or find a different company to expand your skills with a better culture.

    1 point
  • Rick KhannaRick Khanna, almost 7 years ago

    Agencies aren't bad at all. You'll work with the some of the best designers and smartest people. The diversity of work gives you deeper experience and you also get a peek into different industries which makes you wiser to marketing challenges. Plus, not to offend but agency creatives are the A-team; In-house is the B-team.

    1 point
  • John PJohn P, almost 7 years ago

    It's not at all, just startup people tend to be delusional that they're changing the world and too full of cool aid to admit anything else has advantages.

    Designers I've worked with who cut their teeth in agencies have always been greater experienced than startup grown designers which very rarely manage to master a multidisciplinary practice.

    1 point
  • Kevin SuttleKevin Suttle, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    I have only worked at one (global) agency, and I was older when I started, but I only lasted a few months. The pace was frenetic, and not worth it, even if you're young and have the energy.

    The other issue was that they refused to acknowledge that they are a software shop. Literally all they do was ship websites and apps, but they held true to the "agency" label so they could maintain the ludicrous schedules.

    My advice: do open source or freelance if you want variety. There will always be more and varied work. Don't waste your youth on work.

    1 point
  • liz o, almost 7 years ago

    I loved agency life in my early-mid 20s. it was extremely fast-paced, filled with intensely creative and passionate people, and there was a real bond with your coworkers when you were filled with a collective sense of desperation to please the client but produce amazing work at the same time.

    it also was an eye-opener to hierarchy and humility - you understood who was junior, who was senior, and that there was so much room to grow and learn. i wish all young designers went through agency life. i work in tech now and enjoy it immensely, but i think i appreciate the focus and pace more because of my agency experience.

    that being said - if you want to try something different, agency life will certainly fill that void! do it. focus on leadership and their vision, and you can always return to in-house later on. good luck!

    1 point
  • Andu PotoracAndu Potorac, almost 7 years ago

    It's actually not awful, you'll get to sharpen your skills and do a lot more exciting work than you'd think.

    1 point
  • Timothy McKennaTimothy McKenna, almost 7 years ago

    From the comments already posted, you can see opinions that run the spectrum...and that's honestly the truth when it comes to anything (working in-house, working for a startup, starting your own studio, etc).

    My experience with working in agencies wasn't the greatest, but I also chalk a lot of that up to the local region and culture. I live in somewhat rural area between two very large cities in Pennsylvania. From my experience, there tends to be a lot of the "Big fish in small pond"mentality from agency leadership. One agency I worked for focused heavily on media buying and PR while the design work wasn't the main focus. All of the digital work for websites was done out of house and they never produced any apps. This agency grew out of a lobbying firm and still maintained many government contracts. For me at the time, the fit was wrong because the agency wasn't interested in growth or taking on new challenges (growing a digital team) or willing to learn new services ( Online advertising was foreign to them). When I brought this up to agency president and laid out a business plan, it was treated as a personal affront to her business acumen. I left and went back to working in-house.

    The last agency I worked for was bought and under new management and direction which was exciting, but unfortunately the inexperience of the new owner and his way of setting the culture (always on call, micro-managing design, importance on deals versus quality, no employee confidentiality ) led to many people leaving the first year. I left for many reasons, one being the owner making fun of a private health issue that I shared with him so I can make arrangements for my lunch hour.

    This was my experience and I assume there are some people with similar experiences as well. What I learned from those experiences is importance of vetting out any potential employer. Look at their client list, see their work, learn about the leadership, talk with colleagues about the agency's reputation, and ask these questions in an interview with the agency. My experience was crap, but I have colleagues who run a small agency in my area and they do fantastic work...and I can say with certainty it comes from leadership.

    The opportunity to do interesting work at an agency exists, but it requires a lot of research into the agency and their clients.

    Just my thoughts.

    0 points
  • Art VandelayArt Vandelay, almost 7 years ago

    Quick Answer: If you get to work at an agency, try large and small.

    I've done both and worked in-house. Loved agency work the most. Enjoyed the varied projects and I get to learn new things all the time because the projects require it.

    Big agencies are usually set in their ways, folks are more silo'd (they say specialized). Work sucks, IMO, at big agencies cause a lot of times the projects are just built to get the brand's money they've already been promised.

    Small agencies (where I'm at now), about ~20 people, is great. Employees have direct say on how the company moves through its lifetime and overall company goals.

    The last project I launched is becoming the "gold standard" for all TIME Inc publications and we're a ~20 person company. So to say there isn't a lasting impact in the agency world isn't always the truth.

    0 points
  • Martin Mark, almost 7 years ago

    Agencies aren't so bad - they CAN really be a place for mentorship and learning best practices, especially for younger designers (as with all places - depending on the people of course).

    Most people's issue with agencies is that it comes down to unit economics. The bigger the agency, the more plates are in the air, and the more tuned in to really bleeding the $-to-productivity out of their designers they need to be. Paying right at or just below market value, expecting long weekend hours, "but our culture is excellent" is what has given a lot of agencies a bad name.

    Smaller craft agencies in your cities may be a lot better in that regard - and may be a little better fit for what you're looking for - an interesting challenge. It's still VERY difficult work, but I feel like there's a different feeling to working at those speeds and helping to grow a team and company - as opposed to clearing contracts as efficiently as possible for a larger agency.

    There's always middle-grounds but it all comes down to 1. who works there? and 2. how does the company think about their employees (...which may not be immediately apparent during the interviewing stages, but which you can look for tells based on the person interviewing you).

    0 points
  • Hüseyin YilmazHüseyin Yilmaz, almost 7 years ago


    your problem is you bored of your daily work. Do you think about sideprojects? A big company have many benefits and it's saftey. You must catch a very good agency or you are in a vicious circle. Many people leave an agency after 1-3 years.

    0 points
  • Cory MalnarickCory Malnarick, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    Nothing is universally good; nothing is universally awful.

    It's more often the case people shout about how bad something is rather than how good something is, so I think it's bad for those that just don't like the agency environment.

    Lots of people love the agency environment and swear by it.

    0 points
  • Nuff ., almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    I think anybody who is telling you agency life is awful either had a terrible personal experience with one (like I did), or doesn't know what s/he is talking about and is just toeing the line.

    The truth is just as all designers are different, so are all companies. You might find agency life extremely to your liking, or not. The only real way to find out is to try.

    0 points