Agency side vs client side marketing : which is better?

SYNOPSIS: This is one of the longer blogs posts I’ve done, so let me break it down for you to perhaps save you some time. In the post below, I identify some factors that are important in your choice of job. I then compare these factors looking a both client side marketing and agency side marketing roles to see which is better. I throw in some jokes and make a half-arsed conclusion and bam, we got us a blog post.


It’s part of human nature to look at ‘what could have been’ and think that maybe we chose the wrong path in life. One of the greatest opportunities for this sort of navel-gazing is when one thinks about one’s career. Whilst perfect hindsight is probably one of the most useless gifts one can be endowed with, I can’t help but still sometimes wish I’d finished high school and done a panel beater apprenticeship instead of studying at university, because had I followed that path, I could probably own a hotrod workshop with a couple of employees building big budget custom cars all day by now… a dream job for sure.

Another question that comes up for me every now and then is that of whether I did the right thing by going client side to start my marketing career rather than agency-side. When I was but a wee lad just finished my marketing degree, I applied for the AFA Traineeship as my first fulltime role out of study. Now let me point out that the marketing degree I’d just finished was actually a Masters degree, and that I’d already completed a double degree prior to it wherein I majored in (1) Gender Studies and (2) Information Technology (weird combination, I know). Plus I’d worked part time all the way through my Masters degree in marketing roles, so I went into the ‘try-outs’ for the traineeship feeling pretty assured I was hot shit. And in all modesty, I was pretty over-qualified to be going for an AFA traineeship, so my confidence was probably somewhat warranted.

Anyway, it came time for the group assessment day for the AFA traineeships, which was the final step of the culling process for candidates, and all us eager young candidates lined up to perform our tricks like dancing monkeys for all the agency types who had assembled to pick over the young talent. The usual behaviour for group recruitment days was on display. Everyone was trying to be a ‘leader’. Everyone was trying to be creative. Everyone was trying to contribute for contributions’ sake… god help us, we cannot sit back and listen – we must speak and be seen to speak, no matter what the consequence!!! I remember one traineeship candidate was loudly rattling off names of staff from several big advertising agencies that he apparently regularly caught up with, like he was some bigtime player. I also remember thinking how unsatisfying it would be to glass him with the flimsy paper cups we were given for drinking water out of during the group exercises.

Well, the time came at the end of the day for the traineeships to be dolled out, and I was made an offer by Renard, a great agency from Sydney that I could totally have seen myself working for. Founded by Neil Fox, whom I’d spoken with numerous times throughout the group assessment day and was very impressed by, Renard was a smaller team offering a diverse role, which was right up my alley. To this day, I still feel like I shafted Neil Fox a little, as out of everyone on that day, he chose me to offer a trainseeship to, but alas things were not to be that way. I was very chuffed at my offer, until I found out what the AFA Grad traineeships actually paid – let’s just say that the amount was (A) less than half what I’d been earning whilst working client-side 20 hours a week during uni and (B) barely enough to cover living expenses. I feel the AFA really should have been more upfront with candidates about the amount to be paid, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m under no delusion that Neil Fox reads my blog, but Neil, if you do, I’m still very grateful that you offered me a job with your crew and I hope you ended up with someone awesome.

The point of this story is that the main deciding factor for me as to whether I went client side or agency side was the dollah bills. Materialistic, I know. Which brings me to the point of this blog post, and the first major difference between client side and agency side work – the cheddar…


I’m using the ‘Great Australian Paycheck’ reports from seek.com here as a yardstick. I know it’s not a perfect measure, but I don’t think that anyone can deny that (at least in the more junior ranks) agency staff are severely underpaid. Sure, the argument is that agency types have the payoff of work that is stimulating and fulfilling, but money in my pocket so I can go on an interstate holiday and eat out once in a while is also kinda fulfilling and stimulating too. Anyway, lets look at the figures…

salary report advertising  salary report client side

Salary brackets for agency side (top) vs client side (bottom) in Australia

Long story short, there’s alot more opportunity to earn $80k plus in client side marketing based on the above (then there’s the bonuses too!)

WINNER: Client-side by a mile. Plus, when you break down agency work on a ‘per hour’ basis, the pay is even worse because the hours are longer. Which brings me to my second point…


Besides being a film featuring one of the worst things to come out of Australia, The Hours are a major consideration for anyone in determining which career path they choose. If I were an investment banker doing 18 hour days, I’m still going quite happily get probably less than 4 hours sleep per night because I know I’ve got my mattress and pillows stuffed with hundred dollar bills and probably have Moet in the cistern in my toilet. Not so for young’uns at an agency. Being young and poorly paid at an agency isn’t an excuse to not work long hours. But you should want to work those long hours because it’s really interesting, fulfilling work (see point 1 above).

Being a junior marketer working client side on the other hand, is cushy… working 9-6, with maybe a really late night pushing that out to 7pm. Ooh, I’m gonna be tired in the morning!!

WINNER: Client side


Even when I’m not looking for work, I keep an eye on job listings to monitor what’s happening in the market, what companies are hiring what sort of staff etc. The number of ads I see for roles in agencies where they stipulate “Must have agency experience” is flabbergastingly high. Entry to agencies is hard for us client side marketers, no matter how good we are. The number of client side marketing roles that stipulate “Would suit someone from either an agency or client-side background” is equally flabbergasting – it seems it’s a one way road. Agency folk can quite easily make the switch to client-side, but it’s much harder for us client-side marketers to make the switch to the agency side of things were we so inclined.

WINNER: Agency-side, without a doubt


No marketer wants to be the ‘tactics guy’ – everyone wants to be the ‘strategy guy’. Strategy guys are the shot callers who drive off in their BMW M3’s after work. Tactics guys are the shit kickers who take the bus. Tactics guys get brought in on projects when they’re already half over and all the big decision have been made. Tactics guys get to ‘execute’. Tactics guys certainly don’t get the kudos they probably deserve. Whilst a lot of ad agency types will likely refute this, agency-side work is ‘tactics guys’ work. Before you scream blue murder, let me say I know many agencies advise clients on strategy – I know this. But my take on things is that the beauty of being a client side marketer is that you get to build a strong expertise in your market, in your customers, in your products. Thus your role is, almost by definiton, a strategic one, and your industry / market expertise should be something that I think alot of agencies would struggle to reproduce. If a marketing manager doesn’t know their market and their audience, and are thus unable to set strategy accordingly, I’d say they are under-qualified for the job.

WINNER: Client-side, but there’s certainly a grey space. As I said, the beauty of being a client side marketer is that you get to deep dive into a product or a market or a particular audience and be an expert on that. As such, it is the client-side marketer who should be setting the high level strategy, as they have that depth of understanding. Unless, of course, the agency you use has highly specialised research or knowledge in your area…


Client side marketers are usually boring. Not only are we boring, but we share boring information. I follow a good mix of both agency types and client side types on twitter – the best, most useful, most interesting information comes, almost without exception, from the agency types. They just seem to have their fingers more on the pulse. Agency side folks are cutting edge.

WINNER: Agency-side


Whilst on the topic of who’s boring / interesting, another factor that probably has a large bearing on where we choose to work is the ‘cool factor’ of the job you do. No one wants to be meeting people at parties and telling them “I build relationships with a select group of IT influencers who perform a variety of activities pro bono which helps deliver support and product information to Microsoft’s IT Pro and Developer customers” (that’s my current job I just described, by the way, although lately I’ve taken to telling people I’m a famous rapper and/or streetfighter. Not that I’m ashamed of my job, it’s just that it takes a certain type of person to appreciate what I do, and they’re usually the ones playing D&D and drinking tang in the corner). Working at an agency gets you street cred. It gets you props at parties. I’m pretty sure it’d get you chicks / guys. Everyone wants to be cool.


WINNER: Agency side again has it in spades.

drumroll please….


Lets take a look at the results to see once and for all who’s better client side or agency side marketers:

VARIABLE Client Side Agency Side
Money WIN
Hours WIN  
Career Portability WIN
Strategy v Tactics WIN
Knowledge Sharing WIN
Cool Factor   WIN

Oooh how convenient, a draw…


11 Responses to “Agency side vs client side marketing : which is better?”

  1. 1 Boyd
    December 2, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Ok – I am lost in RSS land. Where is the link to subscribe to your RSS feed? Not just for individual posts, but your whole blog.

  2. 2 marketingisadirtyword
    December 2, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Hi Boyd,

    Sorry, my bad – just realised there is a distinct lack of obvious RSS logos to click on on my side bar 🙂 Thanks for picking that up.

    The feed is at http://marketingisadirtyword.com/feed/, and I’m working on adding an easier to find link to the feed for future reference.

    Thanks for the visit,

  3. July 20, 2010 at 3:17 pm


    Great post. Great blog.

    I’ve been trying to find a ton of information on this topic. Still a little unsure on what to do.

    Would you say client side also has a bit more room to grow within the company? Promotions?

    Turnover in marketing seems to very high. I’d like to find an awesome company/brand to work for as long as possible. I’m thinking client side also has a lower turnover than agency…does it?


  4. 4 marketingisadirtyword
    July 20, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Hi Lucas,

    Thanks for the comment… glad you got something out of the post.

    It’s hard to say if client-side offers better career progression. I’d say the skills you learn in an agency are more portable, in that they are skills that tend to transcend industrial lines, whilst a lot of client-side marketing roles require marketing experience in a specific industry. Obviously working in a massive International company like, say, Coca Cola will mean a larger number of opportunities may be available at any given time, but in my experience working in large, well known companies like that tends to attract alot of ambitious people, which can actually be alot more competitive to get that juicy role you’re really fiending for.

    I’ve asked some agency folks on Twitter to post some replies here about whether working agency side offers good progression and development. That will hopefully give you a bit more perspective… let’s see what pops up over the next few hours. Hopefully their responses can help shed some light on the topic.

  5. July 26, 2010 at 2:18 pm


    Thanks for the help. I’m looking forward to what the others have to say.

    I know a few folks who work agency-side myself, but I’ve really only seen progression based on the “who you know’ basis-if that makes sense. And I’m sure that isn’t uncommon.

  6. August 31, 2010 at 4:56 am

    Very useful post. I am currently trying to move from the agency side to the client side.

    Mainly due to hours. They have no concept of work life balance and my needs changed when having a child. Also I would rather work on strategy than tactics.

    Any additional articles or info would be great!

  7. February 20, 2011 at 3:13 am

    Great post. I searched for Agency-side vs. Client-side given my current predicament. This definitely helps my decision making; though the draw still leaves me inconclusive.

    • 8 marketingisadirtyword
      February 21, 2011 at 12:52 pm

      Thanks for the comment Stephan – can I ask whether you’re thinking of jumping from client side, or agency side?

  8. 9 Elizabeth
    March 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for your analysis on agency versus client side. I am a project manager on the agency side currently speaking with an HR lady about a client side PM position. I 100% agree with literally every single point you make!!! Sooo right on! My question is, it seems that your points affect an account person or creative or strategy(basically most roles except PM). From the high level research I’ve done, my day to day duties as a PM on the client side would not be any different then if I were at an agency. The only difference I feel would be slightly higher pay. Can you please confirm or disagree with my assumptions? Would be super helpful! Thank you! Oh and if you wanted another difference between the two I’d say that agency people are expected to treat clients like royalty while some clients I’ve worked with our so brutally nasty it’s quite appalling. I understand it’s the clients that give agencies business but in some cases, there is zero respect for us as even human beings. Again, I’ve noticed this with a very specifictype of clients (film companies)

  9. 10 Nat
    June 16, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Hey. Please give me your advice on the AFA assessment day. What did you do to make yourself come across well and get an offer? What exactly did you have to do? Any advice would be greatly appreciated especially for someone who is nervous talking in front of a group. Thanks very much.

  10. 11 marketingisadirtyword
    June 27, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Hi Nat, sorry for lax reply – I don’t check into the old blog much at the moment.

    From memory, there were 2 main components to the process – the first component was a group exercise to test the way you interact with a group. We were given a faux client brief to work on, with the end goal being a strategy / campaign we’d pitch to all of the agencies present. We were watched while we worked and discussed the problem as a group, and after an hour or so, the group would then pitch the campaign to the representatives from the various agencies.

    On the second day, we had to present on the topic of “Me” with the caveat that we could not use a computer / phone / tablet etc. I made a huge picture book that read my liofe story out like a fairytale. Others sang songs. One dude dressed up like a scientist. The people that really pulled out all the stops for that component were the ones that tended to get offers. After your presentation, you got grilled by an entire room full of agency directors and executives. Even though you said you are worried about group presentations, you shouldn’t feel too scared about this…you’ll present to a crowd of around 30 agency execs, and in this crowd you’ll see 30 smiling faces listening intently to what you have to say. So don’t be too worried about this…they are all very nice. Just make sure you throw in a few jokes here and there, and keep the tempo upbeat.

    As for what you need to do to make yourself come across well, that is harder to answer. Every one of the agencies there are looking for something different. Some want all rounders. A few may want creative types, whilst the bulk seemed to be looking for future account directors. My advice to you would be (A) to try to act as confidently as possible, (B) show that you have deep knowledge of marketing theory, but also (C) show that you have soft skills and can get on with others. I’ve sat through a good handful of grad recruitment days in my time – originally as a participant and more recently as a ‘judge’ (for want of a better word). I can assure you that at the more junior levels, personality and attitude is just as important as actual skill and knowledge.

    All the best, Nat. If the traineeship is what you’re truly after, I hope you get an offer from the agency you want.

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