Casing An Agency To Break Into

You’ve probably heard that Ad Land is rife with agencies full of ego-maniacal creatives and despotic account directors. And while the tides are turning against them, the industry still has a long way to go before they turn from the norm to the exception.

As a young creative you may think that people are exaggerating when they say so-and-so agency is terrible. One only needs to look at the advertising sub-reddit to see that every third post is about someone who bitterly resigned from the industry having all their creativity and energy drained from them. Or you may convince yourself that it’ll be a stepping stone, or that this is just the price you have to suffer through for being a junior in the industry. After all, you’re just hoping to get your foot in the door anywhere.

Apart from the most overtly toxic agencies where the bosses are verbally abusing their employees, the distinction between a toxic and a healthy workplace can be subtle. Here are some red and green flags to look out for when casing an agency to work with.

Long work hours

Between pleasing the clients and pursuing good work, sometimes long work hours are inevitable. A healthy workplace aims to limit the amount of time that workers need to stay behind. They accomplish this through effective project management and having respect for their workers. Agencies that cast overworking as a badge of honour may be a sign of an unhealthy workplace.

An easy way to get an idea of a company's policy on overtime is to simply ask someone who works there. It’s a good sign when:

- They are given advance notice on when a project requires working late
- Freelancers are brought in to help with the load
- Managers stay behind as well to help with the work
- Food and travel are covered
- They are given comp days for overtime

Oh, and ask about lunch. Watch out if they say something like “Oh, we usually just eat at our desk but you can go have lunch I guess”.

Work hard, play hard

Does the agency have a tonne of cool stuff that makes it look more like a tech bro’s man cave than an office? If so, they may be trying to overcompensate for your long office hours and trying to blur the lines between work and play. One ping pong table? That’s cool. But a ping pong table, a basketball hoop, a gaming station and sleeping pods? That gets a bit more suspicious.

The work and the people behind the work

While you’re scrolling through their social media, pay attention to what they’re posting. Is it all just showing off the cool work they’ve done for clients? Or do they also show off the people behind the scenes? Are they appreciating their side projects and accomplishments outside of the agency? Note: posts only about the creative director do not count. An agency should show gratitude towards their employees. It demonstrates that they care about them and want to keep them on the team. Bonus points for crediting freelancers (I’m not biased I swear).

A low amount of posts about workers or ones only about new works may indicate a high turnover rate which can be symptomatic of a work culture that undervalues its staff.

Obligatory COVID-19 response

The reckoning - see how the agency has weathered through this. Have they demonstrated an ability to adjust to the situation while understanding the needs of their workers? Or have they been suspiciously quiet and laying people off? Of course, some decent agencies will need to downsize due to the nature of their clients. But the way they go about it can speak volumes to the character of their leadership.

These are only surface factors to look out for, and by themselves are not a 100% sign of a chronically dysfunctional workplace. Maybe they have a flexible work schedule or they really do enjoy their office toys. Every agency is its own unique cultural melting pot influenced by the leaders, the workers, and the clients. But don’t ignore the red flags completely and try to rationalise them away, keep them in mind and question them when casing an agency.

Words by Johnson Ta - QLD Youngbloods Comittee