by Erna George (@edgeo23) While chatting to an ad agency colleague recently, we were lamenting the often-encountered mindset of wanting to pop between spaces to progress or to move to ‘sexier’ tasks and territories. Our stories reflect two things: hard work is fairly key to progressing faster; and, while the concerns and considerations for agency and client-side are similar, there are distinct differences that must be taken into account when considering a shift between the two worlds.

Not a simple shift

Experience across both is a great asset but don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s a simple shift. There are two key challenges with the move from agency to client that, while not insurmountable, must be considered before making a move.

The first is that an agency offers a breadth of experience and learning across multiple brands and categories (with an in-depth understanding on the agency focus area) while, in brand management, you have to get to a depth of understanding on only one or a couple of brands — and you have to know these inside and out, which requires focus, patience and scratching well beneath the surface to understand drivers of cost and growth. This is not everyone’s cup of tea.

The second is that, for agency work, you need a strong level of expertise in your area, and assimilating needs bundled in a high-service approach client side requires commercial capability (thinking and application) — and numbers or commercialisation aren’t necessarily a universal passion.

Success and failure

I’m not by any means suggesting that agency people have no depth to contend with. Think of it this way… the depth required to thoroughly comprehend the creative process, the media landscape, finished art, traffic, ad production etc is what a marketer needs across multiple brand facets. In discussions with a brand person itching to progress, my advice is to fully understand the value chain and its contributors. Knowing how it’s made (and cost contributions of labour, ingredients and processing) and where it’s made (are there synergies with other products or impacts on distribution?), in addition to trade costs and cost of marketing, is a core focus. Knowing that the global oil or wheat price is increasing, placing pressure on margins or on requirements for a PI or requiring product reengineering will make a difference between success and failure.

While some areas may be tedious, this comprehensive view of the value chain is one of the key ways to impact the P&L so that price and cost-saving initiatives are done with respect to maintaining the integrity and growth of the brand. Similarly, understanding the ship to trade process, costs and how to influence this is key to landing successful, sustainable launches and gain trade support for promotions.

Ultimately, this means that management from behind a desk is never going to change the world. Know the teams within these structures so that getting buy-in and impacting change are made simpler.

Commercial responsibility

In brand-management roles, commercial responsibility starts almost at day zero, from tracking sales and shares and calculating impact or ROI of promotions. These are given equal weight to the imagery and brand communication aspects. When I asked a new brand manager (just joined from an agency) to download the brand, they started with the latest launch and support comms. Given their history, this was completely understandable, so I remained patient and let them free wheel on the items that excited. When I asked about pack and customer contributions to revenue and market shares, they said, “Oh, I don’t know that off-hand.”

Similarly, sitting in a Nielsen presentation, I turned to a junior team member who I know is keen to be promoted soon and asked the top-selling variant in their brand and they said they would have to get back to me.

Marketers, you have to be commercial beings. While the look and feel are very important, how it impacts and how it will operate within the market is the measure by which you are judged. Absorb the figures so you have credibility. Know for certain that brand marketing is both a left- and right-brain function. You are lost without a keen balance between creative that impacts and the calculation of that impact. If you do not know your P&L ie what GP, NP, sallies and tallies are or how to impact these, find out before making the move to brand team.


While these may sound like the boring sides of the role, these aspects are the foundation to good business practice and sound brand growth. The value chain and commercial depth are actually empowering as you can be in control of your brand’s destiny. Love the numbers and learn to work with them, and you will unlock more growth because you have interrogated where the best places to unlock growth are. This also provides a strong base to discuss brands with executive board members and could unlock a future career in general management.

So, if anyone wants to choose marketing or shift from agency to brand side:

  1. Learn the numbers: maths plus a strong appreciation for accounting is key (your P&L must be your friend)
  2. Spend time with the finance, procurement, manufacturing and sales teams, as the value chain has a critical impact on the 7 Ps
  3. Learn the rules so you know how to break (or shape) them properly (in brand worlds, learn the critical contributors so you know how to impact for optimal profitability).


Erna GeorgeAfter starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.

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4 replies on “Fair Exchange: Challenges with shifting from agency to client-side”

  1. @Simone, love the image.

    @Erna, very intriguing piece. Pertinent points you made – I’d like to invite you to be my panelist? I’m hosting a Strategy Session event at Vega on 02 October 2018, 17:30 for 18:00 – 20:00/30. The purpose of the session is to discuss the role of strategy inside advertising agencies. My belief is that strategy can and should play a pivotal role in ensuring that creativity and strategic thinking from within not only rewards the agencies with silverware ( creative awards), but also adds favourably to a clients P&L.

    Part of the panel, we have clients who will be talking about their expectations from agencies. You have the perfect balance and comprehension of both client and agency.

    If you are keen, I’d like to invite you to be on the panel – and your brief would be to talk about what is it that you expect from agencies? What is your expectation of a strategist and strategy coming from inside an agency because I believe that agencies can and should provide value beyond communications, and that d agencies should also be concerned with a brand’s entire value chain, and not just advertising.

    Here is the link to the event:

    1. Hi Bogosi
      This sounds like a great plarform. Can we chat further so I can understand requirements in more detail?
      Kind Regards

      1. Background:
        The industry is in a peculiar space with ad agency’s role being put into question everyday. The industry or businesses and industries are being disrupted, and clients are looking for much deeper solutions with depth and results. Traditional Advertising won’t cut it anymore.

        Clients needs solutions, and not necessarily advertising.

        Inside ad agencies, strategy and strategists are being underplayed and undervalued, not to mention being under-utilised for their true potential. For a strategist to truly deliver on client’s needs, things would need to change – strategists are stretched and there’s never enough time, only enough to back rationalise creative output, which is not the purpose or role of strategy – as strategy is meant o guide and drive creative excellence.

        Purpose of event:
        Strategists and other facets of the industry will get in a room to discuss how we can better position and equip strategists with not only the tools, but the time to do what they are meant to do, which is to solve business problems. To come up with solutions, not only confined to communication – doing ads – but to produce solutions that actually matter.

        How it will work:
        On the day we will have two sets of panelists/speakers. First up will be strategists from Digital, to Local, To Africa and to Media – sharing their opinions on the current state of planners inside agency world.

        The second set will be from clients and agency POV. Clients will talk about what is it that they actually require from ad agencies, and agency leaders (CEO and CCO) will speak about how they see strategy and what is it that they do to help position strategists as catalyst to business growth.

        There will be an interchange between the audience and the two sets.

        This looks to be an insightful, informative, and thought-provoking event where different perspectives will be shared.


        There’ll be two sets – SET 1:
        Strategists speaking from their POV – talking about their experiences and how they see strategists playing a role to help build healthy brands. We will also discuss what should strategists really be concerned about.

        SET 2:
        From client and agency lead POV. On the panel for this set will be clients talking about their true expectations from agency, with a particular skew towards strategy. What do they expect from strategy and strategists.

        You would be in set 2 if you are keen and agree to come. Each speaker should have at least 10-15 minutes to say their piece.

        Hope that helps?

        here’s my email address:

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