‘It’s more exciting and upbeat’: Why journalists are moving to ad agencies

After working at a trade publication for more than two years, an editor who asked for anonymity for this article decided to take a new role of content strategist at a big agency. For him, it’s a huge relief. In his previous job, he was one of the few who had survived the publisher’s massive layoffs but regularly worried that he would lose his job.

The vibe in his new line of work is different: It’s much more “exciting and upbeat” at an agency, while everything at his former employer seemed — oh well — on edge.

“All the budget cuts and layoffs made the vibe kind of bleak,” he said. “I guess the main difference is that the agency is thriving, which has a domino effect on the cultures.”

He’s not the only journalist who has jumped ship as seemingly every brand and agency wants to become a publisher in their own right these days — and media companies struggle to keep their reporters well paid and happy. Just in August of this year, Ben Berentson, former site director of Vogue.com, accepted a newly created role of senior director of editorial and organizational development at agency Code and Theory, while Maureen Morrison, former AdAge reporter, moved to San Francisco-based agency MUH-TAY-ZIK|HOF-FER. (The precise nature of her new job is unclear at the moment.)

For many journalists who have solid writing skills and decent amount of industry knowledge, moving to the agency world is not a big adjustment. But some found that there are cultural differences between an agency and a newsroom.

A big one is morale. “There’s more fear in the newsroom [while] more hope at the agency,” said Matt Welch, account supervisor for Carrot Creative, who used to work as copy editor and page designer at The New York Times Editing Center.

Why reporters move
Interviews with seven journalists for this article reveal various reasons for wanting to change industries. For some, it’s because media is a tough business where there are not many job openings for experienced reporters, while agencies can fill the gap; for others, the switch is just a natural extension of their long-term agency relationships.

Agencies have something of an underreported ageism issue, but the phenomenon is even more pronounced at media companies, said an editor who moved to an agency this year. “As you get older, it’s more difficult for you to get a job as a reporter,” she said. “Publishers are seeking young people because of the cost to retain experienced journalists. Perhaps you can go to BuzzFeed or Vice, but most are low-pay jobs or contract positions. There are just more openings at agencies.”

It’s not always about reporters looking to flee, either. Sometimes, they get recruited by the agencies.

Last year, the digital agency Huge reached out to Erin Collier — who was senior editor for Fast Company at the time — saying that the agency wanted to change the way it produced content and wanted to build a team for that. So she joined as Huge executive editor in May of this year.

“I talked to Huge a lot for articles when I was at Fast Company. So part of my switch is just my relationship with the agency,” she said. “I was also excited to help them build something from the ground up.”

Code and Theory’s Berentson shared a similar experience, saying that his recent move is just “turning an over-the-drink discussion into a real thing.” While Abbey Klaassen, CMO for agency 360i and former Ad Age editor, simply wanted to try new things.

“I had been in journalism for around 15 years. I made the move because I was curious to work in another type of organization and challenge myself and grow,” she said.

Agencies have always hired former reporters, but the trend has seen an uptick recently as more brands are looking to flex their publishing muscles. Clients started realizing the importance of creating content across different channels that can provide value, rather than simply serving ads on a campaign basis, explained Amy Cheronis, managing director of MSL Group.

“I’m looking for people who can think creatively, tell good stories and understand the news cycle,” said Cheronis. “I think more and more agencies are looking at the opportunity [of bringing in journalists] in this content-driven world.”

Cultural differences
There are lots of similarities in terms of job functions at the agency and in the newsroom, as they are both information-based. But there are cultural nuances between the two industries, from the writing style to the number of meetings to the overall vibe.

“I thought it would be a really easy transition, but it’s actually apples and oranges,” said the anonymous source. “I used to write under a byline, but now I do lots of ghostwriting, so I have to learn how to not sound like myself.”

Meanwhile, there isn’t the same sense of urgency at the agency. In the newsroom, he added, you need to push out something as soon as possible so you are not the last one to the party.

Huge’s Collier agreed that agency life is less about staying on top of the news cycle. Instead, it’s more about having a smart point of view on trends in technology and design that can affect the clients. But her biggest “culture shock” is no longer worrying about the media industry’s challenging business environment.

“I loved working at Fast Company. But media companies — even the great ones — are struggling to find a profitable business model,” she said. “As a journalist, you tend to worry about how that will affect your career, and unfortunately, it shapes at least some day-to-day decisions of writers and editors.”

Collier also thinks that her coworkers at Huge have super-edgy fashion sense and their sneakers are way cooler than hers. “I guess I’ll have to upgrade my wardrobe,” she said.

While for Teressa Iezzi, former Fast Company and Ad Age editor, and now director of PR and publishing at agency Wieden+Kennedy in New York City, the biggest cultural difference is the number of meetings.

“Journalism, the writing part, can be a little solitary. You have edit meetings, you work with an editor, and you’re doing interviews. But you’re pretty much doing your thing, ultimately, by yourself,” she said. “Advertising is a more collaborative enterprise.”

The future
Reporters interviewed for this article all said that they had lots of fun working in the newsroom, but the majority seem to favor the agency world where they can have deeper understanding of marketing and all the things that go into branding and strategy.

When asked if he is open to going back to media, the anonymous journalism refugee answered warily: “Maybe. But I’d be extremely picky about it.”


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