PR professionals: What works better for you? Agency or in-house?

As a PR agency recruiter in Sydney, I face a different challenge to many recruiters in the current economic climate. There is no shortage of jobs, but there is a definite shortage of great PR agency talent. And the million-dollar question that my clients ask me is ‘WHY?’ In a job market that is often deemed to be suffering, shouldn’t people be standing in line for new roles at great agencies? Why is there not enough qualified talent to go around?

PR agencies struggle to identify, attract, and retain great talent in spite of competitive salary offerings, good benefits and great brands. My own observations from speaking to many PR candidates are that a lot of great talent, especially senior talent, are moving in-house, within corporate departments.

I found this intriguing and I wanted to know more, so I have asked questions from clients and candidates alike; those moving from in-house to agency and vice versa; those with strong opinions on either and both; and here are some opinions i’ve encountered:

– Hours are too long
– Culture at their organisation
– They are spread too thin
– Not getting credit for the work they are doing as a team (senior person gets the credit)
– Not enough support from their manager
– Frustration that their concerns are not heard

Some feel they have just had enough; that all agencies are the same and their issues will persist at any agency they move to, so they opt to move in-house.

The thing I’ve found, however, is that agencies in Sydney all have vastly different cultures, and this stereotype is not the case at all. I have met with many agencies who have “non-burnout” policies in place, people-centric hiring ideals, career-path mapping, access to top-level management to mentor and guide, and those who simply take the time to listen to their staff’s concerns and make changes to the role to keep them interested. These are the happiest candidates I’ve spoken to, and the agencies that retain the most staff.

So this poses the question: which is the right choice for you, agency or in-house? In order to answer that, you must first identify the true motivation for leaving your current place of employment, and then examine all sides of both agency and in-house.

In an agency, you will be exposed to a variety of clients, and are likely to work with a team of people to bounce ideas around. You’ll always be working on something new, and yes, you’ll be spinning a lot of plates at once. You’re likely to have the opportunity to manage and mentor staff or teams as you progress. Hours can vary and in some cases be longer than an in-house role, but again, this depends on the agency. Base salaries are overall lower than in-house, but there is opportunity for uncapped bonuses through new business wins. Some people say that they don’t get to know clients as well as they would in-house, however some agencies are so client-centric that it feels at though you’re working in-house for each client. On the downside, there may be less stability in agency-land if an account is lost. On the upside, positions open up and agency structure changes rapidly which allows for quick career progression.

In-house, you’re working on one client and learning it through and through, which some people like, but others miss the variety of agency. Some in-house companies do have multiple brands, which gives the feel of working for an agency. Hours are generally more predictable and stable, and many in-house roles offer extended paid maternity leave. The team is usually quite small, and could be just yourself or one other person, so ideas are likely to be more autonomously generated, and brainstorming creative ideas with a team is not possible. The pace of in-house is generally slower than agency, which suits some and not others depending on your personality. Your base salary will probably be higher than in agency, but you won’t get bonuses from bringing in new business.

While in a PR agency, people have different roles as they climb the ladder, in a client-side role you will still have the opportunity to execute all aspects of your PR strategy. Due to having smaller teams and less available roles, people staying in roles longer when client-side, so career progression in one company could be difficult.

So whether you’re working in-house or agency, if you’re making this change because of the culture, do a little more homework. There are companies out there that really care about their staff and will fix all the issues that aren’t working out for you, whilst still ticking all the boxes about the type of environment you love.



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(17) Readers Comments

  1. I have worked both in-house and agency side in both Australia and the UK. Much of what you say about the various contrasts is true. I think one aspect of both thats always worth considering is that when operating within an agency, you are a “rain maker” – you bring in revenue. Working as a PR in-house it is fair to say that you are always a “cost” on the business, not directly bringing in revenue in the same way that Sales does. This brings its own pressures but also its own rewards.

    • Yes, great point, Gareth. Great to hear feedback from someone who has worked in both.

    • My observations are similar to Gareth. I have worked in-house and agency in a variety of UK and international markets, some mature, others maturing.

      For in-house, I would only add that sometimes your expertise is not always seen as such when you advise a course of action or campaign requirement etc. Consequently, several times I have briefed agencies on what is required, they pitch and then the penny drops, as agencies are seen more as the experts. For me, that has been my main frustration working in-house.
      For working agency side, it is a lot more interesting and challenging and the variety definitely keeps you on your toes and your intellect and creativity alive. The frustrations can be slow approvals, and of course, being seen as a service rather that adding value to the business, as has been previously mentioned.

      • Hi Sheena, it’s interesting that you say that your previous organisation saw agencies as the experts in your previous role. I’ve recruited client side roles where they would only look at in-house talent because they felt that agency talent didn’t do enough execution. I informed the client that there are many agencies that are so thorough that they act as an in-house entity for each client. Interesting to hear this side from an in-house person – but sorry to hear that that was the case for you! Sounds like you’ve found your perfect fit now, though! :-)

  2. As someone who has worked in both, I certainly felt that my work/life balance was much better in house, although that does always depend on the business. I am currently in an agency role and considering a move back in house, these insights were very useful.

    • Thanks, Julie, best of luck with the decision and feel free to contact me if you want to bounce ideas around.

  3. PR is “dull” with “little incentive and “less appreciation”, this is the general phenomena when you do discussion with the young professionals. Actually PR is a blend of Creativity and Passion with commitment. Unlike the conventional media, where results start coming in shortest span of the campaign. Just having media relations does not qualify you as a PR professional , and unfortunately this is the major dilemma you l see when you meet the senior level of any PR agency ,they need to be creative thinkers along with the adaptable mindset to deliver the best possible. I Have been in this field for 16 years now and trust me every day it’s a new learning , the ideal strategy is to have an extended PR wing within the agency so strategy ,creativity and media relations can be used simultaneously to achieve the PR results .

    In short PR is a game of Patience, thou slow outcome but promising prospect and Digital PR is the future.


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Hasan. Cheers!

  4. Deborah,

    It really comes down to who you work with: colleagues, the nature of the business and the environment

    That can be heaven or hell whether you are in-house or agency

    I do think though in some ways there is more security in agency life and you can stick in agency or move in-house with more ease than an in-house PR if that is all they have done


    • Thanks for your contribution, Rob! That’s very true!

  5. Over the course of my career I have only ever worked in in-house PR roles. I guess my perception of agency work is that it is lower paid, has longer hours, and is very, very competitive.

    I think, however, I would enjoy the variety of projects it would bring. It does get a bit tedious strategising and writing about the same organisation and services over and over!

    Thanks for a great article!

  6. Pingback: Q&A Series: When should you start your job hunt? « First Comms Job

  7. This was just posted on Ragan in the U.S. and I have to say I can absolutely relate to this. Thank you for writing something that really struck me. I work in an agency setting right now and am feeling all of the things you state as reasons people want to get out of an agency. I’m pulling out my hair trying to find a new position fast because I’m so worn out and frustrated in my current position. My boss claims Corporate (in-house) is terrible and has worse hours than an agency but I have heard very differing opinions from people I know in those settings.

    Thanks for this article, I absolutely can relate and enjoy reading something that makes me feel more optimistic about my future!

  8. Pingback: PR Agencies: Why your staff are leaving, Business

  9. Very interesting topic! I wonder if things will change this year in Sydney because in Uk the picture is a bit different.

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  11. Pingback: Q&A Series: When should you start your job hunt? » FirstCommsJob

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