Deciding When To Leave Your First Agency Job (Or Second, Third And Fourth)
Shortly before the world turned upside down due to a worldwide pandemic and its subsequent impact on the global economy, I published two separate articles that provided some thoughts as to how college graduates can break into the ad industry and once there, successfully hit the ground running at their respective shops.
While logical follow ups to the above articles could be “Unprecedented: How Agencies and Brands Can Navigate The Post Covid-19 New Normal Era” or “Five Ways To Make Your Brand’s Social Content Contextually Relevant to Epidemiology,” the fact is, I’ve got zero authority to provide insight into those complex topics and will instead leave that to industry thought leaders and talking heads that think they have the answers.
Though the ad industry is certainly in flux right now, as is the rest of the world, one thing is for certain: Agencies will begin hiring again, young people will start their ad careers and at some point, the following question for each new associate will arise: “When should I leave my job for a new agency or opportunity?”
The following article, which I resisted titling “Should I Stay or Should I Go” as to not 1.) Be so obvious and 2.) Disappoint the spirit of The Clash with my corporate livelihood, seeks to provide some navigation for a decision that is quite significant at the start of any young person’s career. Hopefully the key points listed below, designed to help one evaluate their decision, will not only come in handy the first time this question arises, but for all subsequent times as well.
So, with that, wash your hands, stay away from Grandma, grab a quarantine coffee or beer, and let’s get started by looking at some key areas one should explore when it comes to the matter of staying at your current agency gig or deciding to leave….
What Is Your Major Motivation, Private Pyle?
Prior to starting a hunt for a new job or entertaining any calls from recruiters or other agencies, it’s very important to have an honest assessment of why leaving your current team and position could be intriguing. By honing in on what’s wrong, or more importantly, what’s currently right, you’ll better inform not only your ability to evaluate external opportunities, but also be able to guide your internal discussions with managers/team to map out desired growth within your current agency. Below are some more granular areas of one’s career that are worth taking a close look at when the moment comes to decide whether it’s time to take one’s talents to Cleveland, San Francisco or Playa Vista.
A Matter Of Growth
One of the most important questions to ask yourself is quite simply “Am I happy, challenged and learning in my current role?” The next question, logically, would be “Is there room for me to advance and grow at my current shop?” If the answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes,” there may be good reason to stay put. At all stages of your career, it’s imperative that you feel challenged and are legitimately building your knowledge within your respective vertical and the industry in general. When professional growth is combined with an agency that recognizes your value and has a vision for you to be promoted/grow within the ranks, you have a winning combination. Of course, other things that we’ll cover below play a factor, but these two crucial questions certainly help guide the way.
Conversely, if you feel stagnant, underutilized or simply not challenged, I’d say you’re on the right track if you’re considering making the jump to a new opportunity or different agency. If you combine a lack of perceived development with an agency that has no vision for your growth or has stated that your advancement is only dependent on other associates leaving, then I’d say you’ll strongly want to consider pursuing an external opportunity.
When I worked at Saatchi, the CEO (Kurt Ritter) had a sign on his door that read “People Matter.” Despite leaving after a short stint for a different opportunity, I really liked that statement because it told me a lot about Kurt and about the agency.
Leaving Saatchi was a tough decision because it was a challenging job, I was growing and I really, really enjoyed the people and leadership there. That is something you’ll need to assess as well. Do you like who you work with? Do you like your team? Does your agency have a culture that resonates with you? If the answer is “No,” then perhaps your decision to stay or go becomes easier, because the human aspect of deciding whether or not to bail is often what makes things most difficult. Subtract the co-worker element and you’re left with more rational buckets to assess such as growth, opportunity, money, balance, lifestyle, etc.
However, if you love your team, the people and the culture, but suspect that something may be missing, your decision can become quite difficult. On the one hand you’re not growing as fast as you’d like, but on the other hand, you love the people you work with. A tough, tough call indeed. It might be time to ask yourself if you’re comfortable or complacent.
Comfortable or Complacent?
While characterizing your career as “comfortable” can certainly be used in a derogatory manner in the workforce, I’m going to position it more in a positive light. You’re at your first job, you like the people that you work with, the brand you’re on is challenging/enjoyable and you see a lot of opportunity for growth at your agency. In essence, you dig your job and you’re comfortable with where you’re at professionally. That is certainly not a bad thing.
Now, let’s flip that scenario ever so slightly…
You’re at your first job, you really like the people and agency, but there don’t appear to be many challenges or career growth opportunities on the horizon. But hey, you get home at 6 PM most days and work is low stress. I’m going to characterize this as being complacent. Complacency is dangerous because while you’re casually enjoying the ride, someone else is being pushed, tackling challenges and growing into a stronger professional. When it comes time to interview for the job you may eventually want, they are potentially going to beat you out for it because they’ve been cranking and collecting experience while you’ve been coasting along.
So, when evaluating whether or not it’s time to seek a new opportunity, ask yourself this: Are you comfortable right now? Or are you just complacent?
Cash Rules Everything Around Me
Dolla, dolla bills y’all are certainly an important and personal factor to consider when choosing to stay put or leave your first gig. It’s no secret that entry-level pay doesn’t amount to much in the ad world and doesn’t exactly correlate to being on easy street, so it’s understandable that the prospect of making more money is often a strong component of deciding whether to stay or go, especially in the early years of your career.
A harsh reality of the ad game is also the fact that associates will often be paid more making an external move vs. when being promoted to the same position internally. While it’s tough to sit here and say that money isn’t everything to someone who is 24 years old and living paycheck to paycheck (as I was at the age), I’d be remiss not to warn you that greenbacks are not the end-all be-all.
Trading in a good team, people you care about, challenging assignments, a fun brand and career growth for seven or ten grand more a year at a shop that doesn’t provide those same solid intangibles will feel like a bad trade-off rather quickly. And that’s before Uncle Sam dips into your pocket and that big bump goes from visions of two weeks in Hawaii to the reality of three days, two nights and an all you can eat buffet at Harrah’s of Laughlin, Nevada.
The money, as they say, will come. So, for now, if deciding whether to stay or leave, focus on the opportunity vs. your current position. Which excites you more? Which direction feels like it has long-term potential and will allow you to grow into a professional that has tremendous value five, ten or fifteen years down the line? Money is important, but it should be equally balanced with other factors that greatly contribute to your overall happiness and satisfaction with your career.
Paging Dr. Duration
Another factor to consider when weighing whether or not it’s right to leave your agency for a new opportunity is the amount of time that you’ve been in your present job. Like it or not, optics are a factor when it comes to one’s career story and a suspiciously short stint at an agency can often times raise some very valid questions, as it signifies that something may have gone sideways.
A rule of thumb, for someone that is fulltime, is that it’s typically good to last a year in your first job (and even those thereafter). Now, if you’re in a nightmare situation or your dream job comes along, then by all means, throw caution to the wind and take it. However, you only get one of those in my opinion.
If your resume starts to look like short stints in the county jail, employers could become wary of your ability to stay put or grow with an agency. So, all things equal, and if you can manage it, try to stay in your first job for a year before entertaining the allure of other suitors. You’ll have given yourself some time to learn more about yourself, your position/department, the industry and ultimately what’s best for you.
Devil You Know Vs. The Devil You Don’t
Sometimes the decision to leave an agency is pretty easy. You’re not challenged, perhaps leadership/management is lacking, you see no foreseeable areas for growth on the horizon, client is a nightmare and the free blueberry bagels on Monday are always stale. Well, I suppose it’s time to go.
But, not so fast, my friend…
Just because you’ve determined that it’s time to seek or take another opportunity does not mean that you should take any opportunity that comes around. The last thing you want to do right now is to make an uncalculated move out of frustration with your current gig. Your current goal should be to go from “Bad” to “Pretty, pretty, pretty good.” Not elevate things from the status of “Bad” to “Oh my God I wish a cargo jet would crash into my apartment while I’m sleeping to end this.”
So, a word of advice. If your present job isn’t ideal, be patient and make sure you wait for the right opportunity to come along. The last thing you want to do is make an ill-informed move out of desperation that takes you in the opposite direction of where you’d like your career to be headed.
Are You There, Gut? It’s Me, Margaret
“Trust your gut” is a cliché saying because there’s great value in it and often times, it just works best. At the end of the day, if you feel torn between staying at your job or leaving for a new opportunity, take a moment to sit in silence and really explore how you feel. Are you nervous, but excited by the prospect of taking on a new role and challenge? Then I’d say go ahead and take the plunge. Or, are you intrigued by the money and title, but sense that something feels a little off with the team, direction of the agency or your interest in the client? If that’s the case, I’d say you need to listen to that internal reluctancy quite closely. In my experience, that is enough to pass, stay where you are and either keep growing or wait patiently for the right opportunity to present itself.
More Than One Way To Skin A Career
At the end of the day, deciding to stay at your first agency job or to move along to other shops to pursue new opportunities is entirely up to you. I know people who have built very long and successful careers at their first agency, I know others who have moved around a couple times and I know people like myself who have worked at more agencies than Liz Taylor has had husbands or Larry Fortensky has had debt collectors / loan sharks come to his former residence.
I suppose I could write an entire article solely weighing the pros and cons of staying in one place vs. deciding to play the field. The reality is, there’s no one right way to manage your career when it comes to deciding whether or not to stay at your current job or leave to pursue a new opportunity. As detailed above, the number of variables involved in choosing what’s right for you can be terribly complex. While the decision can admittedly be tough, hopefully the topics covered today can provide you with some clarity when it comes to doing what’s right for you.
Good luck out there. I’ll be rooting for you.