Small agencies vs. large agencies?
April 10, 2015 8:27 AM   Subscribe

I work as a copywriter at a small advertising/branding/web development firm. There are about 12 people on our team. I’m considering what it would be like to transition to a much larger agency (e.g., 100 to 1,000 people). Do you have experience working in both types of environments? In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of each? (I’m especially interested in answers from creatives' perspectives, but would also be interested in hearing from account managers and other folks.) Thanks!
posted by shiggins to Work & Money (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My experience is in software development rather than copy editing, but I think this will probably reflect what you'll see if and when you do decide to transition:

Small company pros:
  • Easier for team to "turn on a dime"
  • Greater sense of comraderie and "family"
  • Exposure to performing many different types of tasks (wearing of many hats) can help you develop skill sets in a breadth of different areas of business
Small company cons:
  • Fishbowl effect: you get to know your teammates a little too well sometimes
  • Drama can be an issue especially if someone has been an employee for a while and feels "entitled"
  • Easy to be defocused on any one task because you might have to wear too many hats in a small organization (see above)
  • Small organizations can impose erratic schedules on a person's life due to the ebb and flow of work demand
Large company pros:
  • There will be more structure, and you'll usually be fulfilling a more clearly defined role in the organization
  • People in a large companies tend to put up with less bullshit, so there's less interpersonal drama usually (but not always)
  • Hours will be much more regular (40 hours work weeks aka the 8-5 schedule is the norm, not the exception)
Large company cons:
  • Bureaucracy can sometimes (or maybe often) be stifling and/or maddening
  • "The enemy" will just as likely come from within as it can from the outside, often in the form of another department within the same company
  • You might feel pigeonholed after a while because of the organizational inflexibility; a clearly defined corporate structure can sometimes come at the cost of one's own personal growth
  • Sure there's less interpersonal bullshit, but you'll likely have to deal with more organizational bullshit
The list is likely incomplete, but I think it sums up my experience working for small vs large companies. Good luck!
posted by surazal at 8:48 AM on April 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

(Apologies in advance for bad grammar and scattered writing.)

I'm an ACD/CW at a large-ish agency now. Before that I was at Ogilvy, which is an enormous agency. Before that, I was at a company of 30.

Surazal is pretty right dead on about most things, but I think it's also very company/culture specific. I'm also in NYC, which is a bit of a different and more competitive beast. Where are you?

It also varies between teams, accounts, and client needs, within an agency. One team might be 9 - 5, while the team next to them has a lunatic for a client, pulling 20 hour days.

To add to and differ from surazal, here's my experience:

Small company pros:
Greater sense of comraderie and "family"

I think this can also be said of your team in a large agency. It CAN be almost like a little agency within a big agency.

Large company pros:
There will be more structure, and you'll usually be fulfilling a more clearly defined role in the organization
People in a large companies tend to put up with less bullshit, so there's less interpersonal drama usually (but not always)
Hours will be much more regular (40 hours work weeks aka the 8-5 schedule is the norm, not the exception)

I wouldn't count on annyyyyy of this. I wish they were true! I've worked insanely long hours across the board. I left my old agency in part to see if I couldn't cut down on hours. Nope. My current project at the new job has me at consistent 12 hour days.

Drama abounds in advertising because... egos. It just does, no matter the size of the agency.

A defined role would be a dream! My experience is that "ACD" can mean anything from a glorified Senior Writer, to Lead Creative on a big account. I've had to do a lot of leg work to define my role—at most agencies I've worked at.

The biggest plus in being at a big agency? The money, honey. In my experience big agencies just pay better, and have better benefits.

Anyway, good luck! MeMail me if you have specific questions.
posted by functionequalsform at 10:06 AM on April 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Heh, I used to work at Ogilvy too, as well as a startup and a boutique. I agree mostly with the two above answers. The hours at a big agency definitely are not more regular. While at Ogilvy, there were times when I took long lunches and left early, while other times I literally slept under my desk. It really depends on the team and the client. However, at a big agency, the weeks where you didn't have hours, there was still a heavy expectation that you would still bill 40 hours. Only had 20 hours of work? Didn't matter, you need to bill 40. At smaller agencies, the rare times that I didn't have 40 hours didn't really matter. Your higher-ups knew who you were and were well aware of your workload.

One thing that is both a pro and a con about a large agency, is the size and resources available. At a small shop, you might be responsible for a wide variety of tasks - like copy editing or proofing your own copy. But at a big agency there are scores of people who are devoted to such tasks. But sometimes this can be pretty restrictive, because there are days where you really want to do something else. I can remember comping up some visuals at a small shop, but got my hand slapped for doing the same thing at a big agency.

Also, at a big agency, the upward visibility and mobility got to be pretty exciting. You got to work with (or at least be in the presence of) some pretty heavy hitters. If one of them took a liking to you, you could get on the big account and find yourself flying off to London to do a test shoot on a big campaign for a Fortune 500 client. That never really happened at the smaller places I worked at.

In retrospect, I had more fun working at the smaller agencies, but made more money and felt more big time at Ogilvy. But that was over 15 years ago for me. I have no idea what that world is like now.
posted by slogger at 10:52 AM on April 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I do not have direct experience of this. However, Mrs Primate, my partner of 25 years, was until recently a Big Swinging D*ck in the design world in a particular specialty. Being very close, I have watched her career as an informed outsider this entire time.

I can say that the above three responses are 100% spot on from my vicarious experience.
posted by digitalprimate at 12:19 PM on April 10, 2015

I've done 'em all, and everything in between. Honestly, I think it is more about you than the agency. You're going to enjoy your work and prosper only under the right conditions, so you need to keep trying until you figure out what that means for you. So if you aren't feeling the magic where you are now, there's no harm in trying something different if you have the opportunity. When it's right, you'll know it.

However, I do have to say your list of "Large company pros" does not sound AT ALL like any large agency I've ever known or worked for. So if you are mainly attracted to a large agency based on the attractive sounding things on that list, I think you're in for a rough time.
posted by spilon at 1:02 PM on April 10, 2015

I work at a largeish agency (600 people) and wanted to nth everything written above in response to this question, but especially the benefit of working with talented people at the top of the field. There plenty of maddening things about the experience, but being able to see the inside process of how work on this scale is getting made, and to be around the people who are making it happen (not just CW/AD but truly excellent project managers, account services, etc.) has been invaluable to me in many ways.
posted by lhall at 2:23 PM on April 10, 2015

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