Notes on Having a Long Career in the Agency Business

3 min read

old lady, cool

You think you want to be in the agency business. Are you crazy?

Not too many people grow old in this business. There are lots of reasons.

It can be cutthroat. Even in the best of times, your security feels tenuous. There are hundreds of other agencies out there who’d love to have your accounts, and they’re good at what they do, too. So the pressure to perform can be intense and relentless. You’re only as good as your last idea.

The pace can be ridiculous. Not only do you jump through hoops, you’re frequently asked, midflight, to make it through the even smaller hoops inside the one you were already jumping through. Sometimes, work seems like a sort of cruel infinite hoop regression.

And yet: Sometimes it’s even more stressful when it’s not busy.

On top of all that, our culture has always idolized youth, and nowhere is that more evident than in the marketing business. So even as you gain experience, you start to lose cultural relevance.

It can make you old before your time. Even the best don’t usually last in the agency business. Most eventually take a client-side job or a nonprofit gig or teach or—you know, anything but a crazy agency job. Creative types are prone to going freelance, whereby they can maintain a tangential relationship with the agency business and inject even more doubt and uncertainly into their lives.

That’s the path I took for a decade or so in the middle of my agency career. I guess I never got far enough away to actually make the break.

And, the truth is, I never wanted to. Because, for all the craziness and pressure and relentless pace, working at an agency can still be, to paraphrase the great Jerry Della Femina, the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Every day at work, I am challenged to do my best. If I’m only as good as my last idea, my next one had better be great. If my client’s success depends on my ability to deliver, set up the hoops and watch me go.

Or, more to the point, watch us go. This work is an awesome blend of the deeply personal and the broadly collaborative. I get to spend time dreaming up ideas—and watching while a team of amazing colleagues works to flesh them out and make them better and bring them to life.

Or throw them away and come up with ideas of their own. You don’t last long in the agency business—not very happily, anyway—unless you develop thick skin. The goal is to do something great for the client, not to satisfy your ego. You want people to clap for you, become a magician.

For me, the other great thing at this point in my career is that almost all of those amazing colleagues, in our agency and among our clients, are younger than I am. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be able to both mentor them and learn from them.

Also: The agency business attracts smart, creative, funny, ambitious, delightful people. My colleagues are among my favorite people in the world.

In other words, it doesn’t have to make you old before your time. It can also keep you young.

Should you be in the agency business? Are you crazy?

Then of course you should be.