‘A hamster wheel’: Confessions of an ex-agency exec on leaving the business — for good
Over the last year, as agency employees have worked from home, the culture and perks of working at an agency have been stripped away. Replaced by Zoom, an always on presentism has accelerated certain clarities about the job obscured just under the surface in the in-person past and has led some agency employees to reconsider their commitment to the business. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from an media agency exec about why he’s done working for agencies and why he is starting over.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why did you leave?
It wasn’t so much that I wanted to go but I [realized that] I didn’t want to do what I was doing. Every agency has operations and new business. With new business you have new problems to solve. With operations, there tends to be the same problem over and over. For instance, there’s always going to be turnover with your employees, even if you do the right things. You can try to minimize it. But I knew no matter what I did that after people would come back from holiday break people would probably quit.
They’d have conversations with their parents about what they’re doing with their lives. They’d be feeling some gnarly burnout from the push of Black Friday and Cyber Monday through the end of the year. I don’t blame people, they have to do what’s best for them, but I knew I’d then have to go and have conversations with all of their clients about them leaving and restaff. I knew I’d have to do that over and over and over again. It would never end. Going through things like that [I realized] it wasn’t for me [anymore]. I didn’t enjoy it.
Why not just go to a new agency or start a new agency?
[I realized that] all agencies have the same problems. You’ll typically be on a hamster wheel of solving those problems. If you don’t like solving those problems, it’s probably not the right thing to be doing. Over time, [solving those problems] became something I’d done before and I was kind of over it. [I also found that] my personal values don’t really align with what you do at an agency day-to-day. I feel like I stumbled into it because I was good at the craft, I liked it, it was exciting and fun. But when you get past that early hump or stage of growth to [what you have to do to] do it well — I always wanted to do it well — [realized working at an agency] doesn’t match my personal values.
I value fairness and justice. I don’t like being slighted — I don’t think many people do. If you agree to do work, agree to get paid a certain amount and then they change what that is or there’s a misunderstanding where their expectations are not met — which happens all the time — that doesn’t fit with those personal values.
Did working from home and being removed from the culture of working for agencies accelerate this realization that it wasn’t for you anymore?
The employer-employee relationship can become more transactional with the absence of agency life and agency [office] perks of the job. I think that’s true and I know that to be true of my experience. I liked being in the office. I miss my employees. I never got to say goodbye, that’s unfortunate. Would I have stayed around longer if work had still been in-person? Maybe. Training remotely sucks — and that’s a big part of agencies. Client services was easier, you humanize the person you’re going to yell at through an email. I probably would’ve had a more difficult time leaving if it’d still been in-person.
Do you think other people are going through the same thing where the pandemic and work from home has them realizing agency life isn’t for them?
I think we’ve already seen some of that. Part of the reason I left and other people are leaving is that they realize the barriers to starting a new thing or going somewhere else are at an all-time low and they’re getting lower. Having worked for so many businesses that started from nothing and got to turn into something big, having an active hand in that was super fun — helping all these companies do this made me realize it was doable.
What would you say to agency execs who might be worried their employees are disillusioned with agency life after a year of working from home?
They should pay them well. Pay your people more. They are less likely to leave, guaranteed. But people should like what they do. It’s healthy to reevaluate where you are in your life personally and professionally.
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