Hello from the other side

Seven things I learned while working at a creative agency.

This post originally appeared on Ueno’s blog.

Friday was my last day at Ueno, and today is my first day at my new job. It’s a bittersweet feeling. Ueno is a great company and I’ll miss my lovely colleagues (who, by the way, are not paying me to say that). When this post will be published, I’ll probably be introducing myself to my new ones.

I joined Ueno two and a half years ago, as the company’s first Director of Marketing. Agency life was a new experience for me, but I did know the company a little, having been Ueno’s client at my previous job at Reuters. So I guess you could say I’ve been on both sides of the table.

During my time at Ueno, the agency more than doubled in size, and worked on more varied projects with more varied clients than ever. So before I forget, and for anyone who might be in the same shoes I was in once, I thought I’d jot down a few things I learned along the way.

#1 The customer isn’t always right
An agency’s job is not to agree with the client and do what they say, but to open minds and push boundaries. A lot of the value from working with a good agency comes from the different perspectives and ideas that they bring. Your clients will trust and rely on you more if they know you will give an honest, thoughtful response. That’s why they pay you the big bucks! The reason many clients like working with Ueno is that every team member has the confidence to speak up when they think the client is wrong.

#2 Trust is everything
No project will ever go perfectly. As Ueno’s CEO often says, “no one comes to us hoping their project will be a disaster.” We all want to make great things. But to do great work you need trust. Without it, you’ve got problems coming. If an agency and a client aren’t on the same team, the project has failed before anyone has moved a pixel. And how do you build trust? By having a real, human connection. (Yes, clients are people too!)

#3 Life is tough, but so are you
For a lot of agencies, work comes in big chunks, and the schedule can be unpredictable. Plans constantly change, directions shift, and things fly in from out of left field. Clients want lower costs and higher quality. It’s exhilarating and exhausting, and it’s not for everyone. Processes can be difficult to establish because every client and project is different, so sometimes it feels like you’re constantly reinventing the wheel. The most successful people at agencies are those who can adapt quickly, keep an open mind, and find new solutions.

#4 There’s no such thing as ‘a creative’
I have come to hate it when people use ‘creative’ as a noun. It implies that creativity is a gift that only some chosen people have, which is wrong. (Some of the most brilliant creative problem solving I’ve seen involves the production team playing schedule-tetris on the fly to pull together a project team on a moment’s notice, and the People Experience team wrangling 65 employees for a week-long company retreat.) The right to be creative isn’t reserved to the design team. If you acknowledge that a great idea can come from anyone, then great ideas will start coming from everyone.

#5 Culture is the big differentiator
What makes one agency better than the next is not just the individuals who work there, but the overall culture. You can have the most talented individuals, but unless they respect and support each other you won’t get far. Culture is also how you treat people. If an agency’s MO is to work people into the ground, the revolving door will keep flying, and there will be no space or trust for creative ideas to flourish. (When people at Ueno go on vacation they really go on vacation.)

#6 Clients want to be good — sometimes agencies just have to show them how
Why are some clients more fun, productive, and easy to work with? Maybe they’re born like that. Or maybe their agency took the time to teach them what to expect from their partnership, explaining things like how the creative process works, and how to give constructive feedback. Not all clients know how to be good clients. Sometimes you have to help them.

#7 Agencies also want to be good — sometimes clients just have to show them how
Why do some agencies bring more value to the projects they work on? Maybe they were always like that. Or maybe it’s because their clients treat them as equals (not as a mere vendor or a “resource”), take time to get to know them on a personal level, and share as much information as possible about where they’re coming from and the problems they’re trying to solve. Communication is key. The more information you give an agency, the better they will be able to help you, and the more they’ll want to.

Having said all this, my biggest takeaway is that your job is what you make it and who you surround yourself with. Ueno is a special place because the people are so talented, welcoming, and different from each other. The culture that grew from these people makes Ueno unlike any other agency I’ve seen or heard about, in a good way. I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity and made some really good friends in the process. No bullshit!

Catch ya on the flip side!