2019 / 18 April

Why I’m leaving the agency world

I’ve built my career in agency over the last seven years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some smart, passionate, creative people and helped a lot of clients achieve some major business outcomes.

I started in a fairly entry level job working as an account manager. I quickly moved up the ranks, skirting the lines of general manager, senior manager and eventually director. I cannot explain why I was able to progress at the rate that I did. I’m not sure where else there is to go outside of starting my own agency, but even with tapered growth it would only work if my heart was still in it.

However, I have decided now is the time to move on.

Without working in an agency, it’s hard to understand what the life is like. It is not normal. You are able to do extraordinary, diverse, sometimes award winning things. But you are beholden to clients, to budgets and an underlying pervasive feeling that (in my experience) you’re not working towards your own purpose. You’re creating a negotiated version of someone else’s.

Agency life has introduced me to incredible people, incredible opportunities and a network that I feel I can rely on for the rest of my life — both professionally and personally. But it’s also lead me to tears and to mental breakdowns and for periods of time, a sense of dread about waking up every day. There are, after all, two sides to every brief.

The greatest tension I’ve felt since day one is the lack of understanding about the value of creative, digital and communications strategy in meeting business objectives. True, some people just get it, and they’re the best to work with. Yet so often, you can pitch the most well researched, logical, often conceptually brilliant and articulate proposal for new work, but if someone doesn’t buy your budget sheet, it’s a non-starter.

So many conversations become about squeezing every dollar possible out of every person in an agency to get all the work done for a fraction of the cost. In principle, I understand the economics of it, but in reality, it becomes tiring. Every single person I have worked with has had their value undercut and negotiated down by a client.

I think I’ve developed a level of empathy with addicts as a result of the sheer relentless process of trying to win new business. When you win, dopamine floods your brain and it is a fantastic (albeit fleeting) feeling that cannot be rivaled. But when you lose, particularly a project you really wanted, it is crushing. So you keep chasing that elusive win. But in this highly competitive sector, wins are much less frequent than losses and that crushing feeling builds over time and is compounded when the work you’re doing and are winning doesn’t align with something internally.

Burnout is real and it is all consuming. I’ve witnessed it and I’ve felt it. Burnout can come through volume of work, but it can also happen when the mental stimulation disappears and the balance of wins VS loses shifts too heavily downward.

I’ve made no secret about the fact that I want to tackle complex issues that haven’t been cracked before. I want to work on things that challenge and change the face of business, particularly in the sectors I am most passionate about. But I have found that either through a) my inability to communicate this vision and its potential impacts to organisations or b) organisations I speak to aren’t ready for the things I want to do, there’s no longer a fit for me in the role/s available to me.

So instead, I have decided to seek the things that satisfy my desire to work on more innately conceptual and complex problems than before. And with the time and resources to achieve demonstrable, meaningful impact.

I’ve also recognised that I need to take some time out to just stop, breathe out and take stock of where I’m at in my career. I’ve been part of a team building an amazing product in Health Delivered, I have a mental curiosity that is only getting more and more hungry and I am fortunate enough to have the space to sit down and define what its future looks like, then work towards that. I’ll still be doing some independent work on the side, as there are always bills to pay, but I need to dedicate time and focus on our company first.

It is difficult to close a chapter of life, particularly one that has been so defining. But it’s for the right reasons, at the right time, instead of letting it fester too long and being forced out for all the wrong reasons.

What comes next excites me. I’ve already been able to consider the options and thinking through and discussing opportunities is providing me with a world I never considered.

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