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How to land an agency role?

5 months ago from , Sr. Visual Designer

Hey DN, I'm a senior product designer with almost all of my experience in digital products for start ups. I've worked in the search field, AI, eccomerce, enterprise and cryptocurrency and am now looking for my next role.

I've always loved the idea of an agency but in the past have always been overlooked. This could be from a wide range of things so I thought i'd ask DN what are some things I should focus on showing in my portfolio/skills that agencies will be attracted to?

As far as skills and programs go, I pretty much have the full list as i'm often bored and trying to learn new things so I'm a bit of a jack of all trades but specialize in Visual UI. Any tips or even leads would be greatly appreciated, thanks guys/gals :D

18 comments

  • Account deleted 5 months ago

    are you mental? more than half of the agencies (including big names) are just existing to squeeze out money from larger corporations. Most of the time you start a project with a hype that you could change the world end up doing a shit microsite with basic animations.

    They look playful from out there but believe me, most of them are shit and filled with people just talk.

    As far as I understand, you're a person who does actual design. Be ready to get your hard work trashed over and over for no reason, get bossed around by people who don't know shit and get the role by pure luck. Oh, most of them are really good with greasing up clients.

    I know I sound pretty negative and pessimist but just think about like this. Which company's ice cream taste better, Cornetto (who owned by unilever who also makes cleaning products and just focusing on global sales) or your local italian ice cream stand who makes just gelato for years right in front of your eyes?

    Anyway, if you really want to get a job in agency, just present your works casually. Since no one does actual work in those places, they'd be jumping on you to hire.

    7 points
    • Joseph Barrientos, 5 months ago

      lol appreciate the response but don't think product work is all that much better. You spend months to years on features and projects that just end up getting trashed as your company pivots or loses funding. I've worked on more products than I can name, and all I have to show for it is my linkedin resume and a couple of US design patents.

      I understand the constant burn and aggressive nature of agencies but I feel at least with that mentality things will actually get built.

      Maybe I'm just jaded and need to find the right product for my next place but not being stuck to one product and the ability to flex all of my design skills seem like something worth looking into

      1 point
      • Thomas Michael SemmlerThomas Michael Semmler, 5 months ago

        don't think product work is all that much better. You spend months to years on features and projects that just end up getting trashed as your company pivots or loses funding.

        Then you could consider leaving the startup bubble. Not all companies are operating on that model. Look for a company that operates on a sustainable business model and aims to improve their product instead of accumulating enough attention to get acquired.

        4 points
  • Guy MeyerGuy Meyer, 5 months ago

    You'll need to learn how to sell your work. Agencies can't afford a client-led design process.

    3 points
  • Frédéric AudetFrédéric Audet, 5 months ago

    You'll have to accept the reality of the agency world though. It's all about RFP's, winning those RFP's, then handing over the production work to team B.

    Find an agency with strong ethical values that are known for their expertise and play hard-to-get. Avoid joining an agency that relies on just a few clients, or that are part of large networks (think Publicis, Havas, Dentsu, etc).

    Also, learn to sell yourself. You'll have to present work to clients, which is probably going to be a whole new language to you. Client terms, not product terms.

    I worked for agencies, I owned a 25+ people agency for a few years and now I work in digital products, AMA.

    3 points
    • Joseph Barrientos, 5 months ago

      This was my thinking as well, looking for a company that plays hard to get and has some presence of value or mission. My issue with that is wouldn't they be less likely to hire someone with purely product and no agency experience?

      Luckily i've dealt with selling/presenting to partners so in those instances i'm very confident though I will need to remember to focus my vocab to client speak.

      In your experience, when it comes to portfolio reviews what's the most important content or processes you expect to see/would like to see?

      0 points
      • Frédéric AudetFrédéric Audet, 5 months ago

        "My issue with that is wouldn't they be less likely to hire someone with purely product and no agency experience?"

        That's a good question. IMO, if you find the right agency, they'll focus on making things right, not making things only look good. An agency winning the brand aspect of a project could easily be asked to consult, even champion the product side of the project. That means your expertise could come into play! Nurun are known for this... They do brand, strategy and product.

        "In your experience, when it comes to portfolio reviews what's the most important content or processes you expect to see/would like to see?"

        That really depends what role you're applying to. I hired people who were really good at translating strategy into bespoke interfaces, but also hired people who focused on product decisions and strategy—more UX driven.

        It all comes down to your T shape personality. You can be good at many things, but find what you're very special at. Build a portfolio so you can tell the story on how your approach projects and can effectively build strategies or/and translate strategies into nicely branded digital products.

        I'd be curious to hear what other people from DN have to say about this, but I believe product companies look for the journey when hiring people (process, design mindset), whereas agencies will focus on the result.

        0 points
  • Ashraf AliAshraf Ali, 5 months ago

    Woah, this is fascinating. I'm on the other end of the spectrum! I've been in agency world for the last 5 years and not been able to break into Senior role in Product Design. I'm also a jack-of-all-trades/generalist in my skillset so I empathize with you!

    I've worked up the ladder from Junior Art Director to Senior Interactive Art Director, all in agency land. It has been a fascinating and wonderful ride, with a lot of good learnings along the way.

    When it comes to your portfolio. the key thing for agencies is your understanding of client relationships and client work in general. Concepting and selling your concept work is highly valued from a work perspective—how strong is your idea? How interesting or captivating is it? Does it sell while being memorable and showstopping?

    I'd focus on showcasing through a client lens the projects that you work on. For instance, imagine if your client was ACME and you created a mobile app to crowdsource bicycle sharing. You'd say all the same things you'd say in a typical Product Designer portfolio, except frame the story as "client's problem" and "our solution to client's problem" along with things you learned along the way.

    Other things that help with breaking into agencies include: —Showcasing your collaboration skills with copy, editorial, project management, strategy, data, and account —Showcase your thinking with a design process that you embody, from start to finish —Apply to jobs via LinkedIn, through 2nd and 3rd degree connections and their related companies. Networking and relationships help you break in much quicker to a role. (If you are interested in a NY or DC role, lmk and I'd love to help out.)

    All in all, best of luck and God speed :) Feel free to send any other questions you have.

    2 points
    • Joseph BarrientosJoseph Barrientos, 5 months ago

      Thanks for the insight :)

      I'm great at vocally selling but need to put a little more work into my design presentations to get them to that next level

      Feel free to hmu for pointers on getting product roles. I've also done the hiring of that role so I know from a company's perspective what they look for. Buzzwords, design processes etc.

      jbcreate - on almost all platforms, just google it and you'll find me lol

      0 points
  • Du HoangDu Hoang, 5 months ago

    Agencies can be fun places to work. But the pay is always terrible (compare to startups and big cos), and the work is always superficial and not fulfilling, unless you are really into making marketing websites 24/7

    1 point
    • Joseph Barrientos, 5 months ago

      Ideally I want to work for an agency that builds more developed products than just landing pages and marketing material. When it comes to my expertise I think thats why i'd be hired but I'm sure a crap studio would lie to get me into the door just as well lol

      1 point
  • Art VandelayArt Vandelay, 5 months ago

    DON'T DO IT.

    I wrote this in caps just to catch your attention. Not to yell. So sorry :(

    Anyways, I've worked at big agencies and small agencies and they are all terrible.

    1. Pay sucks. No matter where you go the pay is pretty trash compared to non-agency companies. The biggest reason is employees are a huge risk to a business model with such thin profit margins. Imagine running a company where, at any given time, 10-15% of your employees are getting paid to do work for clients you don't even have yet. Now imagine that happening and a paying client canceling a project or leaving the engagement for whatever reason. For these types of things and general greed, agencies pay like shit.

    2. The billable hour is terrible. If you want to talk about ethics and morals ask any agency if they accurately bill clients. Better yet, ask the employees if they accurate bill. Not saying people fluff their hours but since most agencies are time + materials hourly billing is the core of the revenue model and if its not being met you don't get paid....so its shitty.

    3. A lot of work doesn't make it to reality. A lot of work is changed because clients suck. A lot of work gets changed cause "our CEO really likes green" or "our Marketing Director doesn't like how this paragraph wraps". Not lying, I had someone tell me "these paragraphs look odd on mobile. And all the person was referencing was how they naturally wrapped on a device...

    4. Hours suck terrible. Especially if the client director or project manager is afraid to push back on the client. I've watched Directors go home at 4 PM every day expecting anyone beneath them to do all the work until late nights. On many occasions, I've stayed until 12-1AM to get work done because a PM or client director wouldn't push back cause they didn't want to make the client mad. All this so a timeline doesn't get pushed out...which it does because the client doesn't respond in a reasonable amount of time.

    5. The projects are rarely good. While working at a Branding Studio (big red horn logo.....so startup branding) the branding team (note not all teams) got to literally create brands from scratch. That was cool. Every one else tho...marketing campaigns, outdoor ads or microsites. Any established client we had (non-startup) work was "busy work". Meaning, work that the client didn't have time to do themselves or the work wasn't important enough to allocate time. Agencies rarely get work worth doing. Why give an agency your biggest product when they don't know shit about the brand, business, audience, etc as intimately as the company who created it?

    6. Did I mention the work is never what you think it'll end up being? It's never what was pitched because someone doesn't like the design or it can't be built to full-spec in the timeline or...the best one...not enough budget to get it built, etc. It sucks. Less control over the overall outcome and finished product.

    More than happy to chat more about my experience in the agency world. I've worked at large, 1000+ employee agencies, award-winning agencies, branding agencies that work with premier startups (Caspers, etc) and small, 20+ employee agencies.

    They all literally had the same exact issues mentioned above.

    I can tell you know, there is nothing fun about agency life or working at one. If I could restart my career I'd have never gone there. My salary ended up being about 20k less than it would've had I gone corporate or startup because agencies suck.

    1 point
    • Yannic NachnameYannic Nachname, 5 months ago

      Thanks for your insights. In what kind of company do you work now?

      0 points
      • Art VandelayArt Vandelay, 5 months ago

        Freelance!

        I will say the biggest upside to an agency is access to people (and possibly clients). So if you plan on going freelance it could help.

        However, not sure it'd help as much as having access to leadership in a startup or corp.

        0 points
  • Thomas Michael SemmlerThomas Michael Semmler, 5 months ago

    I don't think it's wise to go that way. Agencies are closing left and right and that will continue to be the case. Design work is getting eaten up by streamlined tools that offer services to people who really only want any of a visual product, may it be a website or anything else, considering that you specialise in UI. The rest is taken over by freelancers. The market that remains has a need for high end speciality work that require dedication and attention over a longer period of time, considering that you use the marketing term "product designer", you should be familiar with that. It all depends on what you want to do, but it sounds like you are looking for a freelancer lifestyle, not an agency job. Before my recent job on a continuously integrated project, I did that type of work and I would never go back, ever again.

    0 points
  • Ryan MiglavsRyan Miglavs, 5 months ago

    Wow, lots of really negative comments here about agencies. Those are fine opinions, but having worked both internally on products and quite a few years for agencies (both contracting and full-time) I think both are fun and challenging and worthwhile — and each has its pros and cons! I'd be happy to expand on that another time.

    For getting hired at an agency: Be willing to start as a contractor. Having hired many designers (mostly as contractors) at the agency where I led design, I'll be honest, the #1 qualifier is "Can this person actually, literally do work, and do it in the time they said, and more specifically the time we need right now?" So for that, I'd say start reaching out to agencies, grab some coffee, send them interesting postcards. I received a postcard every few months from a designer, and each one made me laugh — when I needed a designer right away, he was on the list to call.

    Hiring at an agency is insane — it's all based on projects and contracts, so an agency will often suddenly need either contractors or FTEs, and they need them this week. That's why it's so important to build that relationship ahead of time, because when an agency has that problem, suddenly you're their solution. Don't wait for an opening on LinkedIn and apply, just meet them. In my experience, a huge percentage of agency hires are based on "I know this person is available and someone has vouched that they got work done".

    If you build that relationship, and you hit your deadlines, they'll come back. Someone who can deliver is gold in the agency world.

    Once you're in, it's your job to make sure you do good work in the agency world. The owners are busy worrying about other things (business), so don't expect them to care too much, though it's a great idea if you occasionally find something that the agency owner thinks is really cool and just play to that hard — nothing wrong with being remembered.

    Be sure you're open to working the way the agency operates — if they want Sketch files, use Sketch, if they say they want it all on a team Dropbox folder do that, use whatever the plugins they do, etc.

    Finally, don't waste anyone's time. Owners or creative directors or UX directors or whoever are crazy stupid busy. Name a client or two they know you've done work for, share your work, listen to their problem, then negotiate on how to solve it. Boom, you're in.

    Good luck, and I hope the agency world is fun and exciting for you!

    0 points