How to choose your first agency home
A view from Kevin Chesters

How to choose your first agency home

Going to work at a famous agency isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's the people you work with that will make the biggest difference to your career.

It’s very, very hard to get a job in the creative industries. Virtually no-one has the luxury of choosing the perfect agency home in the early days – it’s about getting a foot in the door, any door. So before I start dispensing advice about how to "choose" where to work, it’s worth me saying that if you get offered something – anything – take it. All experience is good experience at the start. As Damon Albarn once said: "Nothing is wasted."

But once you’re "in" (and I’d even argue before you are), it is worth giving some proper thought to the kind of agency you want to spend your time inside.

Whenever I’ve recently asked anyone in intern interviews where they want to work, the same three to four names always come up without fail. And it’s unsurprisingly always the biggest, most famous names. It’s very tempting to get seduced in that way. I suspect that all 14-year-old aspiring footballers want to play for Chelsea or Manchester United. But ask yourself: how many of the folks who start their youth careers at the Premier League top four end up in the first team after a couple of years? Exactly.

I’ve worked for agencies with 20 people and ones with 1,200. I’ve worked at networks, independents and micro-networks. I’ve worked for the "cool" names and I’ve definitely worked for the not-so-cool (and the no-longer-exist). I’ve worked in impossibly sexy offices and in an office above a curry house where the pigeon-crap-encrusted windows were permanently nailed shut.

It’s very easy to get seduced by the coolest/most famous name. Caveat emptor. The biggest names can be brutal schools. BBH wasn’t known as GBH, and Wieden & Kennedy didn’t get the nickname of Weekend & Kennedy, for nothing.

I’m not telling anyone not to try to get their first placement at Adam & Eve/DDB (and if you do, bravo), but there are a lot of different styles and sizes of agencies where it could be just as useful and potentially more successful to begin at. Everyone wants to be able to tell their mum that they work at the place "that does those meerkat ads", but I’d suggest you might find that your career goes faster and further in the early days at a place that not even Campaign has heard of.

From watching interns and graduates over the past 20-plus years, I think that the biggest names aren’t necessarily the best places to gain experience or learn/develop/grow in the early days. They are often, in the words of an old colleague, not the place "to find your confidence".

I would strongly advise you not to worry about a famous name on your CV at first. That’ll come. The simplest lesson I’ve learned so far in 20-plus years is that far more important than where you work is who you work with (colleagues), for (immediate manager) and to (agency leader).

Who you work with

Find your tribe. Don’t worry about the name above the door; worry more about the atmosphere of the place when you walk inside the door. It is more important that you get on with the people you are going to spend a lot of time with. Lean heavily on evolutionary psychology – how does the place "feel" to you? Worry less about how many Bromptons there are in reception and spend a bit of time looking about and seeing if people are smiling. If they look miserable, they most probably are.

Who you work for

This is really critical. Whatever meagre success I’ve managed in this industry, I attribute to the mentoring I received when I was young and clueless. If you can, seek out an immediate line manager who really wants to develop you (a lot can’t be bothered). Find someone you can really learn from. You should feel a little in awe of them, too, from personal experience. 

Who you work to

The best agencies and the most successful agencies have inspirational leaders. These are the men or women at the top who know what they want their agency to be and are experts at both communicating it and bringing everyone on the journey with them. They don’t need to be massively famous. They just need to be someone who you really aspire to be like. They need to be someone you respect and would run through a wall for (although if they ask you to do that ever – quit). It’s worth reading up a bit first about who is leading the agency you want to work at. It’s quite easy these days to do some research.

That’s it.

I wish you the very best of luck finding the right place for you. When you do find the right agency with the right tribe, this industry is the best fun in the world. And don’t worry if you don’t find the perfect place first time. I got unceremoniously sacked from my first agency job and it all worked out OK in the end. Trust me.

Kevin Chesters is a former chief strategy officer at Ogilvy UK