On recruiting for agencies vs in-house roles

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard the phrase:

I’d never go back in-house

Or the phrase:

I’d never go agency-side again…

… I’d be so rich I wouldn’t have to run a recruitment agency.

And yet people don’t get that entrenched that they can’t be pulled out of one situation into another. It happens, and I am living proof of that, having gone in-house to agency for ten years, and back again.

And I’ve heard the arguments:

  • You get so much variety working agency-side
  • You get so much done working agency-side
  • You get to be so creative working agency-side


  • You get to see the full picture in-house
  • You get to do so much more in-house
  • You get paid more in-house, so nur.

As a marketing agency, you could be tempted to stick to hiring people directly from other agencies, but that does come with its own risks – I’ll get to that, be patient – OR you could go scouring for people currently in in-house roles and convince them they should be agency-side. Again. Risks.

So what is the best way of hiring for agencies?

Let’s look at some typical career paths, and the challenges that come with them…

Going in-house to agency-side

Most agencies wouldn’t want to look at candidates that have spent their careers working in-house. Indeed, most candidates working in-house probably don’t want to go agency-side, see bullet points above. There can be a view that agency life is so hectic, so fast-paced, so measured-to-the-second that those coming from the allegedly more languid back-to-back conference call life of the in-house role can’t cope with. There can be a view that in-house marketers have been mollycoddled and can’t put up with the strains and stresses of agency life.

I’ve heard those views many a time and all I can say is pfft.

There is in-house talent that’s bursting to go agency-side and use different skills agencies could really do with. Diplomacy, strategic-thinking, a wider view on things… the question for recruiters and hiring managers is how do you find those people?

Well, talk to them, that’s one way.

Discern whether they’re ready for the move to agency-side, and what skills they’ll be bringing with them. Can they handle the fast pace and can they handle the deadlines? Can they cope with only knowing part of the picture?

Going agency-side to in-house

A lot of in-house hiring managers may shy away from hiring people who have come out of agency-side, and I’ve heard a variety of reasons for this. They’ve not gone deep enough to work in-house, or they’ll get bored. Seriously. Have heard that.

It’s an interesting theory, and it’s mostly true. Most agency people are thrilled by the pace of agency life and the opportunity to do what they’re best at. The chance to spin plates and discover new industries every day, to say that you’re doing something different in the morning and something wildly different in the afternoon.

And yet some are itching to go deeper and really get their teeth into something. And those are the people who deserve the opportunity in-house, because they have the desire to have an impact and have some focus.

Going agency to agency

By far the most common hire within an agency is from another agency. And while it’s more common, it’s something that hiring managers and recruiters often struggle with. After all, if you’re at one agency, what’s the difference between agency A and agency B?

Well, lots…

  • Your client list (it’s better)
  • Your work/life balance (it’s more balanced)
  • Your work environment (it’s so much nicer)
  • The work (we do so much more here)
  • The management (we have beards)
  • Your team (you’ll fit right in)
  • Your chances of progression (you were so wasted there)
  • Your benefits (they had a pool table? How quaint, we have health plans)
  • Your management style (yes timesheets, but nice ones)

It’s a case of knowing which levers to pull. And that means knowing where they’re coming from and how to pitch where they’re going.

Agency to agency is far less risk than in-house to agency, as you’re far less likely to suffer a culture shock once your new recruit starts. But the risk is that what you’ve sold is untrue, so when you pull those levers to attract candidates, be honest about where you are and where you’re going. And be honest about the career path you’re offering.

Agency-to-agency hires fail if hiring managers haven’t been honest about why the candidate should have made the switch. So while it may seem easier than attracting from in-house, the longer term risk is disillusionment.

So, basically, how do you hire digital agency teams?

You’ll forgive me for having a forthright opinion on this, HAVING DONE IT ALL BEFORE, but hey ho, here I go:

  1. Look at your competition, define why you’re a better place to work and refine your pitch. Oh, and actually BE a better place to work. Then you can go approach those fantastic people and say – hey, they’ve got a pool table, we’ve got a pool HALL. Or something to that effect.
  2. Look at career paths and what you can offer people both NOW and NEXT YEAR. Imagine you have three years for that person, and each year is an effort to keep them another – so what can you do for that person’s career. Be a very good stepping stone, and they might turn out to be a rock. (yeuch, that sounds like a Simon Sinek webinar, sorry)
  3. Look at your local in-house talent. Who’s been doing their HubSpot courses? Who’s gone out and done their Google Analytics qualification? Five pounds says they’re just dying to go agency-side.
  4. Develop a talent pool. Identify people you’d like to hire in 6 months, 12 months and 24 months. Do some marketing to them, I don’t know, you’re marketers. Work it out.
  5. Understand what drove people to you, but also what drove people away from where they were. In other words, stay good at what you’re good at, and don’t let your guard down and become what forced someone to leave where they were. Agencies change over time, so keep hold of your vision and don’t let it go.
2560 1707 Example Recruitment - A New Breed of Digital Marketing Recruitment Agency