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Home  > Article

Working at a Marketing & PR Agency Versus In-house

By Susan Johnston

Marketing and public relations agencies offer plenty of opportunities for recent graduates interested in learning the business. But that isn't the only way to launch a career.

Working in-house for a company or organization can immerse you in that company's marketing strategy and its day-to-day workings. Read on to see how these two career options stack up. 

Breadth vs. depth
Working at an agency will expose you to a variety of different clients and a breadth of marketing or PR strategies. Some agencies focus on a specific niche (like food products or the fashion industry), while others cover several different practice areas.

Deann Mayeda of San Francisco,Calif., started her career as an intern at a public relations agency and worked her way up to Account Manager before switching to a position as communications manager in-house.

"I had to learn every aspect of PR, from placing executives at trade shows to writing press releases and being the person who counsels clients," Mayeda says. "It's good training ground and you're exposed to every part of the business. You get hands-on experience doing everything that PR involves."

She also points out that working at an agency often gives you access to lots of mentors in your field, since you're surrounded by people who have similar career interests and might be a few years ahead of you.

Gail Sideman of Milwaukee, Wisc. took a different career path. She started out in sports information, working for several colleges and organizations, then spent about six months at an agency before opening her own one-woman agency, Publislide ( ).

Based on Sideman's experience, "[working in an] organization gives you more responsibility. I think because you're focused on publicizing the one business, service, or product, you can really get in depth on the different ways to go about it." 

Often you'll feel a strong sense of camaraderie working as part of a larger company and interacting with other departments. Being an insider can also help you find new angles to pitch to the press or ideas for an advertising campaign that an outside agency might not know about.

Still, Sideman says working in an agency taught her a lot in a short time. "That's what brought me into my own business," she adds.

Choosing Your Loyalties
If you aren't sure of where to apply your marketing or communications degree, working in an agency can help you hone in an area of interest. "You're exposed to different industries, different sizes of businesses, different personalities. You get a sense of what you like," says Mayeda. "Based on that, you're able to focus a little more."

But if you have definite preferences about the kinds or companies you're interested in promoting, then working at an organization or company can ensure that you're marketing something you really believe in. Some agencies will take your interests or preferences in account, but others will expect new employees to take on whatever accounts they're assigned to. 

When Sideman started at the agency, her boss knew she was a non-smoker. But that didn't stop him from asking her to work on a project for cigarette manufacturer Phillip Morris. "I told him no," she says. "Knowing the health risks, I was not willing to promote a company that was targeting young people. I don't even know if the agency ever took it into account. I saw that as a test. Where were my loyalties? Are my loyalties going to be to my true feelings or are they to the agency?"

She suspects that incident may have contributed to her short tenure there.

Preparing for a Job in Marketing or PR
One way to decide if you're better suited to working with many clients at an agency or focusing on a single company or organization is to get an internship. You can also conduct informational interviews and talk to people already in the field.

"It really helped to walk into an entry-level position [with internships under your belt]," says Mayeda. "It also gives you the opportunity to test the waters and not be committed to a position."

Sideman agrees that internships are key for those who want to work in marketing or PR. "Take good advantage of it," she recommends. "Tag along if there is crisis communications. Be open to learning absolutely everything. People who you apply to later on will have that much more respect."

Whether you're working in a one hundred person PR firm or the marketing department of a small nonprofit, strong writing and interpersonal skills will help you land a communications job and stay ahead of the curve.

"Remember that there's a more business-conscious way to communicate rather than texting," says Sideman. "People are going to be more receptive to you when you communicate if you express yourself in a self-confident manner and know how to carry on an intelligent conversation."

That advice will serve you well in whatever career path you take.

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