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How the Other Half Lives

I spent a few days in Chicago last week and dropped in to see our own Mr. Vit at Norman Design one evening. Even beyond the typical design firm detritus, like row upon row of stock photo books and enough paper samples to choke a colossus, I was struck by how foreign the workplace culture seemed. In stark contrast to my warren of lofts and offices—including three conference rooms and an army of employees to populate them—their operation seemed comparably lean: a whiteboard, an open work space, and not an intern in sight.

I’ve never worked in an agency environment and have always been curious about it, in particular how it might differ from working for a company whose business strategy depends on good design but is not defined by it. On the one hand, things can get uncomfortably tribal when competing department goals come into conflict; on the other hand, it must be exhausting to conduct every project on a client basis. Does it ever get old to work with just designers and marketing people? Or is it a relief to be unburdened from bureaucracy? What keeps you from changing lanes, whichever lane you happen to be in?

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PUBLISHED ON Oct.02.2003 BY rebecca
Brent’s comment is:

My first job right out of school was a small agency and looking back it was the best experience of my career. I've only worked in larger corporate settings since then and I long for the days of working with just designers and marketing people. To me, it was a healthier environment creatively and the work in my book from that time is the stuff that gets noticed the most. I'm happy to have lived on both sides of the fence but right now the grass is definitely greener back on the other side.

On Oct.02.2003 at 08:57 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

unburdened from bureaucracy

You can get bureaucracy in any company--regardless of size and/or industry.

I now work in a large government department. I find that there's (ironically) less bureaucracy here than in the larger agency I've worked in and much less than in many of the client companies I've worked with over the years.

As for Brent's comment, that about sums it up...the grass is always greener... ;o)

On Oct.02.2003 at 09:43 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

I will say that working here has left me a bit of a loner in terms of being able to talk about design and other designy-insterests as I'm pretty much the only one here. On the plus side, it's pushed me to partake in more design-related events outside of work to make up for the difference.

On Oct.02.2003 at 09:44 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Does it ever get old to work with just designers and marketing people?

As much as anything else gets old. I can say, after working at marchFIRST, that I don't miss the slew of incompetent "account executives" that roamed the floor. It was cool to work with the web developers and have them around for questioning. Accountants, HR people, PR people, QA people — never crossed paths with them, I simply smiled if I ran into them in the bathroom.The politics were horrible and the inter-office gossiping was exhausting. Fun at times though.

And we don't have that many stock phot books. I actuallu never use them, they got here before my time. All the new ones we get go into the recycable trash can.

On Oct.02.2003 at 11:28 AM
pk’s comment is:

at leapnet, we had assloads of so-called producers who could barely get anything done. there was one who would invariably end up on a crying jag near the end of a project and would come running to either me or the lead programmer i was working with. thanks, i'm not busy. plenty of time for your drama.

said producer is now a life coach. ironic.

at thirst, if something needed to be done, you just fucking did it. i liked that so much more.

i ended up learning more about working with others at leapnet than thirst for obvious reasons. the combination of the two experiences has, as a result, made me really bossy...but in a nice way.

On Oct.02.2003 at 03:31 PM
steven’s comment is:

I am like Brent currently. The grass on the other side is definitely greener. I started out in agency life and now that I am a loner in the corporate setting, I long for the days of agency life. I had no idea how well I had it there even though it was a politically charged atmosphere.

I like dealing with creatives and clients daily more than working for the client. I personally learn more that way, but that's probably just saying I'm not experienced enough to hack it on my own.

And other than the obvious "go beg for an internship at Hatch Show Print" there aren't a lot of opportunities to hang around with other creatives.

I think everyone has their own atmosphere that suits them best for work. For some an agency, others a corporate setting, and still others on their own. I think some of us can be inspired by working constantly with other creatives. Others need to work through creative problems on their own. *** Thank you Captain Obvious****

On Oct.02.2003 at 04:44 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> at thirst, if something needed to be done, you just fucking did it. i liked that so much more.

Same here. I like that feeling, if something happens is because the time and effort was put into it, and it's very rewarding. Although I do wish there was somebody here to clean the toilet so I wouldn't have to... no, of course I don't clean toilet bowls.

On Oct.02.2003 at 04:53 PM
rebecca’s comment is:

> at thirst, if something needed to be done, you just fucking did it. i liked that so much more.

I hear you, although I think that might have more to do with the general workplace culture than with the big company/small firm thing. The last place I worked was tiny and the bureaucracy and infighting was insane; where I work now is twice as big but much more efficient and professional.

On Oct.02.2003 at 05:03 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

It really comes down to the staff makeup of any size organization. The larger the size, the more likely it is for people to form cliques and splinter groups. But there is more chance that you'll find yourself within one of those groups and have people to with which to commiserate. In a small studio — say 3-10 people — if you don't mesh, you're often the lone outsider and not there for long.

On Oct.02.2003 at 05:42 PM
Patrick’s comment is:

What I did was intern part-time at two places the summer before my last year in school. One was a design firm (small studio). The other was the in-house design dept. of a big quasi-governmental agency. I learned first-hand the difference and decided I never wanted to work at a big company again. We were treated more as the bottom of the production chain, not as designers. "Here's some copy for a brochure we decided we needed. Can you lay it out, and have a proof on my desk in the morning? Thanks."

So I only looked at design agency jobs when I graduated (not coincidentally, I got hired by the firm I interned for) and have been happy ever since. Of course, it's a whole different ball of wax now that I've gone out out on my own, but I'm still happy.

What I'm trying to say is, it helps to try different jobs early on. Internships can help a lot on a number of levels (paid of course). Assuming you can find one.

On Oct.02.2003 at 05:48 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I started out interning, then working in-house at a large art museum. Looking back, it was one of the least work-political environment I ever had. Surprising.

Since then, I've been strictly on the agency side, in large, medium, small studio, and now medium-sized again. There were good and bad team situations at all of those places -- even for a period at my own small studio. I've come to realize that it's human nature, and a fact of any employee environment.

I have a theory I call "employee entropy" -- a natural law which states that all good work environments will eventually degrade to dissatisfaction and hostility, with no obvious cause. Nothing stays constant. People will eventually bitch about everything wherever they work, even if it seems to be the best working environment on Earth. Some places may experience extremely slow entropy, but just like everything else in the universe -- it will eventually destroy itself in some fashion. Like I said, it's human nature.

I wouldn't mind working at an in-house situation again, if the right opportunity came along. Bureaucracy seems to be as related to experience and responsibility, as much as it is to a particular work model. I'd rather avoid it, but I've learned to live with it.

But one thing I do love about working on the agency side is the variety of work. Every client is an opportunity to learn something new. I think I'd get bored working in-house for the same types of projects all the time. But that's me.

On Oct.03.2003 at 12:45 AM
steven’s comment is:

But one thing I do love about working on the agency side is the variety of work. Every client is an opportunity to learn something new. I think I'd get bored working in-house for the same types of projects all the time

This is the point I think I really wanted to get to eventually. You are able to learn a lot when you work for several different clients in different mediums. I was lucky in the agency atmosphere to be able to work on almost all of our clients. But not many of the designers or ADs were able to do that. Most were stuck on servicing one client.

And although I typically only get to work for one client in my current corporate atmosphere, I should feel lucky in that I get to do print, web, and photography work on a regular basis. So I do get the change of pace work that I feel is necessary in keeping burn-out at bay.

On Oct.03.2003 at 09:43 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

In my early interning days during summers between years of college, I worked for a couple of different places. The first was in-house corporate, very bizarre and Office Space-like, little to no communication and your other office stereotypes. The next year I worked for a "start-up" in some dudes basement--he and his other "partners" smoked a lot of weed, and they also listened to a lot of Phish, so I was frequently treated to a house reeking of weed and numerous lectures on the greatness of Phish. While they were stoned. That place was just smelly.

At my first real job, it was a mid-sized place with a lot of hard workers in a totally open environment. Which seems ideal, and I used to fantasize about it, but it really didn't suit my fancy at all. The people surrounding me were specifically design-oriented in one way or another, even in the multiple layers of project managers that existed there. I found that things happened at an inordinately slow (yet somehow fast!) pace, and because of some of the structure nobody was really responsible for anything. What disappointed me was that we didn't really create more opportunities than those originally assigned.

At my current workplace, things are different and much better suited to me. Its an advertising agency that will pretty much do anything that has something to do with furthering a brand, selling more products, increasing awareness of our clients--so we don't shy away from brochures, identities, posters, packages, whatever else, in addition to ads in newspapers, magazines, TV. If someone here, a creative, an account manager, whoever, identifies an opportunity, we fill it. Quickly and efficiently. There are no preconceptions or limitations on what we can do, except for what the client is willing to pay for. And while at so many places no one really gets what the account managers do, around here they really sell the work (among many other things). Which is cool.

This is also the first office I've been in which uses "Traffic Folders," these wonderful little devices that contain EVERYTHING about a project, from briefs, strategy, and comps, that identify who had what where and when. Makes for a very efficient workflow and paper trail.

Not only that, but everyone is pretty nice. First time I've ever come across that.

On Oct.03.2003 at 05:37 PM
pk’s comment is:

i must say that currently, the smartest culture i'm involved in is...ogilvy and mather. no, really. i'm not joking. i'd never expect it from a monstrous agency, but the chicago office is one of the flattest heirarchies i've ever seen anywhere. the moment you finish anything related to your account, you tack it on ten-foot black boards in a common area. everyone's encouraged to come up with new concepts for the account, everyone leaves post-its on everyone else's work.

i would expect this to result in a highly politicized environment (considering the size of the agency) but it doesn't and i have no idea why. everyone's working against the same criticism all the time. it's pretty great.

On Oct.03.2003 at 10:14 PM
Bradley’s comment is:


Seriously??? That's insane...but, then again, Ogilvy has a pretty solid reputation and I guess that can't all be bullshit. Rick Boyko, even though I think he's gone, is one of the greatest creative leaders ever and his influence obviously still lasts.

So its one big common area then? I think this sounds great, but do the other people judging the work have any idea who the audience is or what the strategy is? Do you think that necessarily makes a difference? What role do the CDs play? This is interesting...my agency has been looking into ways of doing this type of thing, because right now you basically just show your stuff to other people in their offices. Which isn't too convenient, and we don't have a big open space...anyway, this is very cool, I'm glad to see things like this going on.

On Oct.05.2003 at 11:52 PM
rebecca’s comment is:

WOW pk, that is so cool! My theory is that when people know they're being trusted with a lot of freedom, they handle it responsibly. Do people ever abuse the system? What happens?

On Oct.06.2003 at 11:41 AM