I went to the client side. Those words, when uttered by a creative person, are tantamount to career death. It’s the dark side. It’s selling out. It’s giving up. It’s admitting it’s over. Going to work for the client means losing your creative mojo, trading in your black T-shirt for a security pass. It means following the rules more than breaking them. It means compromise at every turn and serving in a production capacity. At least that’s what I’d always heard.
Over the years, I’ve had friends go to the client side. Typically, they never return to ad agencies. Did they go soft without the adrenaline rush of deadlines? Did they lose their competitive edge? Did their passion begin to fizzle? Or were they actually happier in their new jobs?
As I grappled with the answer, I couldn’t help but notice a growing trend. In-house advertising was becoming more prevalent. According to the Association of National Advertisers, businesses want to do more with less in order to reduce costs, and they want to be nimble with the increase in digital, social and mobile marketing—those are cited as two of the biggest reasons prompting the change.
And it isn’t just the small brands that no one has heard of going in-house. Big blue-chip brands like Apple, Coca-Cola and Land Rover have all moved some of their advertising business in-house. And they are attracting fresh millennial talent, creatives who are becoming less enamored with the traditional ad agency model.
I’ve always believed that great work can come from anywhere—freelancer, ad agency, client, some hybrid model linking disparate talent from different locations. Target’s in-house agency, aptly named InHouse, is proof that good creative people will go wherever they see the creative opportunity.
So after 30 years of working at ad agencies, I decided to take the leap. I joined Garmin as its global creative director. If you aren’t familiar with Garmin, it pretty much created the navigation device category. Now the brand has expanded into the fitness, outdoor, marine and aviation categories.
And after less than a year, I already see one clear advantage over working for an ad agency—I am the client. I don’t work for an ad agency with a roster of different clients. I work for Garmin. We’re all on the same page. There is no “us vs. them.” Which means the insecurity of losing clients, which all agencies face, goes away.
Instead of always being in pitch mode, we can focus on the work. I think back on all the time that went into keeping the ad agency relevant to prospects. We logged countless hours creating work for clients we knew nothing about and then flew to their offices to put on the dog-and-pony show. Now I spend my time focusing on our customers and how to be relevant to them.
I no longer fill out time sheets. Man, that’s a good feeling. I go where I see the need and stay until the job is done, no matter how big the project. Nobody’s going to tell me to skip an important TV shoot because I’m running long on hours.
I’ve also discovered that working on the client side isn’t quite the frenetic pace of agency life. I work hard during the day, but then I go home and join my family for dinner. I know there’s more to life than advertising, and I actually get to experience it.
However, I do need to safeguard against getting too comfortable. The same standards of excellence apply on the client side, and great work doesn’t always happen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. I’m not looking for people who want to coast—I still want them to set the world on fire. I just happen to believe it’s possible to do it at a company that preaches work-life balance.
The client side isn’t perfect. Getting an ad approved inside the corporate environment can be tedious. Budgets are smaller. Compromise does happen. Occasionally, it feels too collaborative. I have so many wildly talented, sarcastic friends in the ad biz whom I see too infrequently. And I still miss having a bar on premises…
But the bottom line is, we’re starting to do great work. And I’m just an elevator ride away from the engineers who make the products and the people who sell them. Recently, I was talking to Joe Schrick, our fitness business lead, about doing something different for Garmin’s vivoactive GPS smartwatch. He said he just wanted people to “wear this” as he lifted his wrist.
I loved the simple honesty of his words. So we revised the TV commercial voiceover to be more real and free of fluff: “If you like to do this or this or this, then you should probably wear this.” That one exchange impacted the tone of all of our advertising.
For me, being client side is a better dynamic. I like being closer to the business, being part of the team, and feeling a stronger connection between the work I do and the success of the company.
I know some people don’t believe great work is possible in a corporate setting. They don’t believe you can do great work unless you’re committed to late nights and missing your kids’ birthday parties. They don’t believe you can do great work unless you stay out of the corporate nest. To those people I say, don’t believe everything you hear. ca