I started off my career working in public relations (PR) and communications agencies for eight years. Although I heard it would be challenging, I was eager to dive in to my first agency job and start my dream communications career.
My roles were focused in health and wellness practices, working with clients in the pharma, health and nutrition industries. I had the opportunity to gain experience working on consumer and technology campaigns too, which provided fascinating insights and contrasts. Over the years, I evolved in my roles, was promoted, and gained the ability to think both strategically and tactically when helping clients meet their communications and business goals.
If you haven’t worked in an agency before, you might be curious what it’s like. The rumours are true: it can be fast-paced and demanding. At the same time, it made me the sophisticated strategic communicator that I am today.
Want to know what I learned in agency settings, beyond technical skills?
Here are six things I learned working in communications and public relations agencies:
1. Your time is valuable
Always being conscious of the time you’re allocating to tasks, along with the budget implications of spending billable time on activities, made clear the value of my time. In an agency, people in senior roles bill clients at higher rates. In other words, the more experience, skills and wisdom one brings when serving a client earns the agency more in fees. This learning stays with me in terms of the value I in my day-to-day work now, post-agency.
For example, it’s not the 20 minutes it takes you to complete a social media post that makes you valuable. It’s more than simply picking a visual and writing a caption. What makes you valuable is the years of experience that have molded you into a communications professional with the ability and intuition to know what kind of content will resonate with the audience, the strategic thinking about communications and organizational goals, and the technical know-how that allows you to execute the task quickly.
Remember to keep your “hourly rate” in mind when you’re job searching, negotiating a salary, or setting your rates as a freelancer.
2. Manage up
When you’re reporting to managers, directors and vice-presidents, one might assume that this more senior player has an eye on all of the balls in the air. Being in a more senior role in an agency requires focus on problems and projects that often doesn’t allow bandwidth for thinking about the smaller of details of projects.
Being able to manage expectations and action items for a more senior player is a skill that working in an agency brings. Need someone more senior than you to review something you’ve been working on? Set clear deadlines, explain the background, and outline action items. Follow-up with enough lead time before a deadline.
3. Keep your cool
If you’ve heard that stressful times are present when working in an agency, you’re right. In my personal opinion, the benefits of what can be learned outweigh the negatives associated with frequent stress. That said, learning to stay relaxed and calm in a high-pressure situation would be critical for maintaining positive interactions with your team, and also making your work experience generally more positive on a day-to-day basis.
What’s a perk of moving from an agency role to another non-agency role? The stakes tend to not seem as high out of an agency. Comparatively, life will seem like it’s all downhill from here, baby!
4. Always be prioritizing
In a fast-paced agency setting, new tasks, meetings and deadlines will continuously changing. You’ll thrive if you can quickly assess what’s most important and when these things are due, then assess what you must do yourself and what others can take off your plate, and adjust your workload accordingly.
This is a constant exercise. Many days you’ll walk in to work thinking you’ll be working on one thing (such as sitting quietly at your desk, sipping a latté and writing media materials for client A), and your day will end up being totally different (instead, taking an Uber across town to a media interview and doing a crash course in media training with a spokesperson for client B). Pivoting your focus and doing the new activity well is critical.
5. Make connections
Agencies attract brilliant and strategic players. Get to know them professionally by working with new folks whenever possible, and get to know them personally at social events.
6. You’re capable of so much more than you think
Whether it’s managing several projects and deadlines at once, taking on a new task and making it a success, or presenting a high-price communications plan to a client at a pitch meeting, you can do it – trust me. Working in an agency provides constant opportunities to do new things that might seem intimidating at first. With training, coaching, and a little being thrown into the deep end, you’ll elevate your communications career in ways you never thought possible.
What have you learned from working in a communications and public relations agency? Share in the comments!