Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Crossing over: Making the switch from an in-house role to an agency

Back in 2006, I was an in-house internal communicator at Whirlpool in Michigan when a friend suggested I check out some place called Edelman. The firm’s Employee Engagement practice was looking for someone with my background, so I made a day trip into Chicago to meet with the team. Afterwards, I walked out of the Aon Center knowing this was going to be my next job. I sat in the building’s courtyard and made three immediate phone calls: to my boyfriend, my mother, and to the apartment building at 2555 N Clark St. in Lincoln Park to reserve a unit. I packed up, moved to Chicago and began my agency career. Six years later, I’d still do it all over again.

That’s how I wound up at Edelman, but there are many possible paths. Some of my colleagues started here as interns straight out of school, others are former journalists, management consultants or in-house corporate communicators. No matter where you’ve come from, your first agency experience always comes with a tricky learning curve. (Actually, it’s so steep it’s more of a vertical line.) But, as I describe below, the transition can be especially tricky for internal communicators. If you’re thinking of transitioning to an agency role, here are five things to expect:
  1. Your time is literally money. When I was in-house, I’d take on any project tossed my way. Need focus groups? Town hall presentation? Cupcakes for your staff meeting? I was your girl. (Fun fact: My first job out of college was updating various bulletin boards around the office, so I called myself The Board Lord.) But agencies make money via billable hours, meaning that before you agree to do client work, you have to formally agree on what it is you’re going to do, how long it will take and how much you’ll charge for it. That can be a serious departure for internal communicators who pride themselves on never saying no. 
  2. Appearances matter. A lot. I don’t mean that you must have flawless teeth and the latest fashion (which I understand is, at the moment, neon.) It’s all about the way you present yourself and your ideas. The unofficial agency term for how someone comes across is “polish,” as in, “her work is great, but she needs to work on her polish.” Of course this is also important in an in-house setting, but there, you see the same colleagues day in and day out. You have plenty of time to prove yourself and build relationships. Agency life, on the other hand, is one continuous string of first impressions. You may meet dozens of potential clients in a month, and sometimes you have just nanoseconds to establish credibility. In those critical moments, the client is deciding whether they want to work with you. They’re sizing you up and asking themselves, “does this person understand my needs? Will they help me meet my objectives? Can I trust them?” YOU are the product. When you’re working within a company’s communications department, your clients – typically people in other parts of the organization – don’t necessarily work with you because they’ve chosen to do so. Clients always have a choice. That brings us to point #3…
  3. You must be able to sell. I have a completely nonscientific theory that more introverts work in internal communications than in external/PR/media relations. If there’s any truth to that, it explains why transitioning to an agency – where your ability to bring in business is a factor in advancement – can be particularly tough for internal practitioners. My colleague and fellow blogger Bob Bullen calls the “art of becoming a salesperson” one of the biggest adjustments when crossing over to an agency. You’ll notice that many of the people who advance quickly are incredibly persuasive. They can hold court on virtually any topic. They always sound credible. They are supremely confident in themselves, the firm and the value their team can bring to clients. They believe in themselves and their work. For an internal communicator in a behind-the-scenes role, this may require learning to take the credit they deserve (and becoming comfortable doing so!) 
  4. Ambiguity is a way of life. When you’re in-house, if an internal clients emails you with an incomprehensible request, you can simply pick up the phone and ask for clarification. At an agency, you don’t have always have that luxury. Clients may be too busy to talk, or you may be responding to a request for proposal where limited information is available to all the agencies competing for the business. Similarly, while in-house communicators get to know their own company and industry very well, at a firm you may join a brainstorm or project team on a topic you are hardly an expert on. The key is to learn how to get up to speed fast despite little context and apply what you’ve learned from working with other companies and sectors. (Check out my post on tips for dealing with ambiguity.)
  5. You are no longer a one-man show. Especially at smaller companies, internal communicators are used to doing everything themselves: They’re master focus group facilitators, executive coaches, PowerPoint designers and newsletter editors. (Ask any internal communicator to describe the strangest, most random thing they’ve had to do in the line of duty and you’ll get a story to last you at least through a glass of red.) At a firm, you typically have more team members to tap, and larger agencies often have full-service capabilities in research, design, production and event planning. This isn’t always true – we all have moments where we wish we had yet another set of hands – but remember, clients don’t just hire YOU and your immediate team; they hire the whole firm and its collective capabilities. Learn all you can about your agency’s strengths and service offerings and how to get results through the people around you.
In my next post, I’ll share some practical tips for getting off to a strong start during your first 100 days at a firm. And I’d love to hear from others who’ve gone from in-house to agency – what have you found to be different (and perhaps the same?) Please post as comments.

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