Jon White, managing director, Elmwood
Jon White, managing director, Elmwood
A view from Jon White

There's value in crossing the agency-client divide

The experience of working in an agency environment and client-side is valuable in highlighting the different, but equally valid, approaches they have to achieving the...

There is much curiosity in the industry about the differences in the workplace of an agency versus a client business. It is the first question I am asked when people hear of the move I made, as it is still seen as an unusual one. The answer on one hand is simple, in that the physical differences are easy to see. Agencies tend to be noisier, more vibrant, generally have a younger workforce and are based mostly in London, with all its attractions and downsides.

Agencies' perspective is shallow yet very wide – their strength lies in their particular discipline, but also in the back catalogue of brands and challenges successfully tackled. By contrast, a client's world is narrow and very deep. It is expert in the brands, products and services it provides.

However, the longer answer is rooted deeply in the alternative perspectives clients and agencies have on their common agenda – in our case, brand design and engagement.

An agency lives this world 100% of their time. This is their business, they have expertise in the discipline, they talk about it all the time and variety comes from the different brands and challenges their portfolio of clients brings to the table. Their perspective is shallow yet very wide, and their strength lies in their particular discipline, but also in the back catalogue of brands and challenges successfully tackled.

By contrast, a client’s world is narrow and very deep. It is expert in the brands, products and services the organisation provides, how they are developed and brought to market. The time it dedicates to a specific marketing discipline is minimal and rarely feels adequate. The time between any meetings with their agency is lost to the world of project management, P&Ls, organisational development, internal stakeholder management – I could go on.

Learning opportunity

When I reflect on these differences and what we can learn from them by understanding how each business and its people work, the greater chance we have of working together more efficiently and effectively.

For example, I remind my team at Elmwood that we have to be succinct, efficient and delivery-focused when we have our clients’ time, as it will be hard to get more when and if we need it. By contrast, I would tell my marketing team at Kimberly-Clark to invite our agencies to bring more of the outside in, as we’re always too blinkered and they will help us think bigger and better.

A design thought-leader at the top helps ensure a brand's relationship with its customer remains consistent and, ultimately, effective.

Even with the abundance of amazing design work being commissioned by insightful brand teams, design’s presence at boardroom level is still in its infancy. Design can have a powerful impact across all channels and consumer touchpoints, but brand messaging needs to start in the C-suite for it to trickle down efficiently throughout the company and really show what it’s made of. A design thought-leader at the top helps ensure a brand’s relationship with its customer remains consistent and, ultimately, effective.

None of these observations is a reflection of which is right or wrong. They are simply different views and approaches to a common purpose to deliver groundbreaking and effective work. Being in an agency is right for me at this point in my career, but I would not have swapped my time as a client. I am better prepared to work in this industry as a result of working "both sides of the fence" and would encourage any individual to experience both whenever they get the chance.