3 Career Paths (Part 1): Agency, Freelance or In-House?

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It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been at this—being a design professional—for nearly 25 years. I grew up around relatives who worked on Wall Street, in the legal profession, sales or other business pursuits. So I’m fortunate that my parents encouraged my talent and pursuit of a creative profession, despite pondering if I could make a living at it since they didn’t know any creative arts professionals who could guide me. The only advice for choosing a career that my father gave me was these three words: “Do what you love, and the money will follow.”
So I had to discover for myself the career potential of, and how to go about landing, a job in graphic design. Early on I was introduced to the trade publications of our profession such as Communication Arts, Graphis, Dynamic Graphics, GDUSA, PRINT and HOW. I joined AIGA and the Art Directors Club as a student and started going to events and networking during my first year of college because that’s just what we did in the pre-internet era.
I started working professionally as a freelancer before I graduated from the School of Visual Arts; I later gained experience working in-house. My career so far has included being a front-line designer, creative director, and in-house creative services leader in a variety of industries, and I have also been self-employed (twice) serving my own clients.
Since 2001, I have been teaching design, marketing and branding to undergraduate and graduate students and have served on the board of directors of InSource—a professional association of in-house creative leaders—since 2007, leading the organization as President since 2010. So you could say I have had a diverse career practicing and serving within the design field.
In my roles as an educator, corporate in-house leader, and leader of InSource, I am most often asked by designers who are just starting out on their own career journey: “Which is better, an in-house or agency job?” My answer is always the same: “It depends. It depends on what kind of work you want to do, what stage of your career you are in, what stage of your life you are in and what you want to do with your career.”
When faced with the “thanks for not answering my question” eye roll, I then—as most teachers do—begin to make my point by telling my own abbreviated story about my career journey.
These two short articles are my written version of what I tell my students and young designers to help them better understand some of the differences between working at an agency or in-house as a freelancer or an employee, leading a creative team or working for yourself.

Some advice I once received on choosing among career paths

I’m going to start this off with some sage advice I received about 10 years ago when I was somewhere at the midpoint of my career. This advice came from a colleague of mine at KPMG—one of the “big four” audit, tax and advisory services firms—when I was leading the creative team that I had started there. She worked in a different department but had become a mentor to me while working at the firm. She told me about a time when her own mentor relayed the following advice: “There are three reasons people choose to work for a living: stability, money or advancement.”
“Some people get a job and work because they just want to have a consistent income and a place to do what they do,” she said. “Those people just want stability in their lives, and want a regular paycheck and benefits. They are not seeking recognition or advancement.”
“Some people will work harder not for recognition, but because they want more money,” she continued. “They do whatever they have to do to make a bigger paycheck. Perhaps that’s working overtime or going above and beyond what is asked of them for a bigger bonus. Whatever they’re doing, it is driven by money.”
“And some people are ladder climbers,” she said. “These people work for recognition and the advancement to leadership positions that comes with that recognition. While advancement does often come with more money, that’s not the driver. No, the driver is the power that comes from leadership.”
“Andy,” she said, “you need to figure out why you work every day.”
I sat back in the chair and thought about what she had just told me. I had come to her on a particularly difficult day at work, wondering if I had a future in the firm…or even in this business. And after a few minutes, I said, “I think there’s a fourth reason people work that especially applies to anyone in the creative field.”
“Oh really? What’s that?” she asked.
“Passion,” I replied. “I think designers, and creative people in general, also work because they are passionate about what they do. They love it, they believe in it and they know what they’re doing can help a business be successful.”
Stability, money, advancement or passion. Those are, in my opinion, the four reasons why people work. Whatever reason you may have for choosing freelance versus agency versus in-house work totally depends on what’s driving you to work each day.
Coming up in part 2 of the series: Freelance, “perma-lance” and the first salaried job in design.

Written by Andy Brenits

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