In House vs. Agency

by NoD Staff | May 9, 2008

in house vs. agency

I have been asked this question on several occasions: “Where is the best place to work: at an ad agency or an in-house design department?” So, I though it might be helpful to give a breakdown of what are generally considered benefits and drawbacks of both. For the sake of a broad comparison, I include design studios along with “Agency” because they have many similarities.

Agency Drawbacks

1. Job Insecurity: You or your design team may be assigned only one or two accounts at a time. If they loose an account, they may loose you as well. Some agencies are not as well prepared to weather economic downturns as are the corporations that hire them.

2. Long Hours: These employers tend to “own you” and convince you that there is no life outside of your job. When you are just starting your career, “paying your dues” can be exciting, but it looses its appeal over time after you begin to develop other interests and priorities.

3. Burnout: Some agencies like to hire young designers, knowing they may only get 2-3 good years out of them before they move on, so they will work them until they are quite toasty. They also know that the pool of designers is huge and vacancies are easily filled after they leave.

Agency Benefits

1. Great Creative: You tend to focus on one or two projects at a time and can devote more energy to experimentation. The projects you work on can be very prestigious and the final deliverables become premier portfolio pieces.

2. Great People: At an ad agency, there is a larger group of “creative types”, such as artists, writers and directors that collaborate on projects. This environment provides opportunity for more honest critiques and a higher level of inspiration can be derived from other members of the team.

3. Higher Budgets and Salaries: More money is allotted for custom photography, illustration, travel, and…you, provided you survive boot camp and advance to a senior or director level, which can take 3-5+ years.

4. Cool workspaces: When I worked in Miami we had creative briefing sessions out by the pool… then we went swimming. There are some funky (good) spaces where the work environment is just a fun place to spend the day… good music, great food, friendly pets and mascots of varying species all add up to a great time.

5. Bonuses: Chances are you will share in the company’s successes by receiving an annual cash bonus that correlates to the year’s profits. They are great incentives to make you stay “just one more year”.

In-house Drawbacks

1. Less Creative Challenges: Although there are some creative opportunities, a large quantity of “bread and butter” work with the same branded messages is produced in-house. This can get monotonous if you don’t find way to stay inspired. At times, there can be even no work at all.

2. Less Pay: I’ve noticed the salaries can be slightly less than agency and studio designers and there is a lower chance of receiving an annual bonus. Read on for some possible reasons why.

3. Dull Workspaces: Accountants and creatives work in the same environment. Enough said here.

4. Dress Codes: Goths and dreadheads might have a hard time getting hired, but then, they are the types that would probably not prefer working under such conditions anyway. Unless you are employed for Apple or Google, a more conservative dress is mandated.

In-house Benefits

1. Job Security: Most established corporations have deep pockets and can afford to staff up on designers to make sure their services will be available on call. It is usually more cost effective for a company to have an in-house design staff than to pay for outside creative services. Even when you are idle, the company still saves money by keeping you.

2. Company Benefits: This has always been a good selling point for working in-house. High quality health insurance, disability, retirement, severance, daycare, etc., tends to offset generally lower salaries. These perks may appeal more to an older designer with a family and a mortgage than to a recent graduate, but they are very valuable part of the overall compensation.

3. Predictable Hours: “9-5” is pretty much the rule. There is usually little need to work overtime and lately, more employers are allowing for flexible workweeks.

4. Respectable Portfolio Pieces: If you work for a “Big Name” corporation, your portfolio featuring design pieces with a recognized brand will bolster your confidence and reputation when you decide to interview for your next job.

Hopefully, these points of comparison will help you decide where you would like to start your first job. If you are already employed, maybe this can be a revealing glimpse of “the other side”. I have had several opportunities to work in both environments and I think that your station in life will determine which scenario works best for you. There is no real good or bad and each company and employment situation is unique.

When I first left school, I wanted to work in ad agencies and design studios so I could start creating “awesome”, award-winning work… I really didn’t care how much money I made. Later on, however, I began to care more about making money and paying bills, so had to adjust my expectations accordingly. Job security and 401Ks became more appealing to me.

So, again as I recall writing in an earlier post, it’s about balancing what you want with what you need. The best advice I can give is just to get some experience of your own working at an ad agency, design studio and a corporate job, then decide for yourself where you want to invest your time.


This post was authored by NoD staff. Notes on Design is a design industry blog sponsored by Sessions College for Professional Design.


Sessions College offers accredited fully online degree and certificate programs in Graphic Design, Web Design, Digital Media, Illustration, Advertising, and Photography. Federal financial aid is available for eligible students. Contact Admissions for more information. 

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