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An Agency Education: Tips for a Career in the Agency World

Working at an agency offers unique opportunities for learning and growth. More so than at a product company, you’re usually working on multiple projects at any given time. While I’ve been working on a constantly improving client product for multiple years, often times project duration is shorter in an agency: weeks or months, but seldom years (although many projects move into a maintenance phase, and can stay there for long periods of time, requiring continued attention).

In this way, education is almost built into agency work: every few months, you get a new project, and you can decide how you want to do it. You can apply things you’ve learned on previous projects, or apply new technology or techniques.

That’s not to say that sharpening your skills is automatic, or easy: when that new project lands on your desk, time pressure can motivate you to do it using the tools you know. That pressure is powerful, even when you know there might be a better technology out there.

If you’re thinking of pursuing a career in the agency world, you should consider the diversity and duration of products as a benefit, and an avenue for learning and growth. However, you also need to recognize the challenges, and evaluate the company culture.

As you interview, find out how new technologies are evaluated and applied. You should get a sense of whether the focus is on doing the job with well-worn technologies, always pursuing the latest and greatest technology or, ideally, somewhere in the middle. When you’re being interviewed, are you being asked more about the skills you have, or your ability to acquire new skills? Ask your prospective manager if there is time explicitly carved out for your learning and growth, and how much.

The pace of work in an agency usually weeds out people who aren’t passionate about what they do, and those who are passionate about what they do are more inclined to acquire new skills in their personal time, so you should expect that some of your growth should take place on your own time. However, study after study indicates that downtime is important for effective learning: you need to maintain time in your life for other important things like family, friends, sleep, exercise and entertainment. It’s these pauses that allow your brain to process and internalize the things you’re learning. Your employer needs to recognize this, and make sure you have sufficient time in your schedule for learning & growth.

Another great way to facilitate growth is to leverage the power of community. Thanks to the rise of Meetup, it’s easier than ever to find a community of people who are learning the things you’re interested in – or are experts already. And, as you move from student to master, you’ll find that sharing your knowledge, and helping others make that transition is a powerful way for you to improve your ability.

On the topic of community, it’s been my experience that community is vital to encouraging a culture of learning and growth. Going out into the local community can be part of that, but more important is the community within your own company. At Pop Art, as we learn new skills, we’re encouraged to share them with other staff members in mini-tutorials, workshops, and presentations.

This has several important benefits:

  • It sends a strong message that learning & growth is valued, both in word and in action.
  • Attending a presentation or a tutorial for a technology that is outside of your area of expertise stretches your mind, and improves your ability to “think outside of the box”, make connections between seemingly unrelated technologies, and innovate within your area of expertise.
  • It builds trust, respect, and camaraderie in your team.

For most people, learning & growth is one of the most important benefits of any job – sometimes more so even than salary or benefits. Make sure you’re working for an agency that understands and values this, and doesn’t just “talk the talk,” but also “walks the walk.”