Do you know what to expect when working at a PR agency? Agency life has been glamorized by shows such as Mad Men and Sex and the City, putting the spotlight on glitzy parties, client dinners and brainstorming over martinis. At the start of my career, I couldn’t help but wonder… did these shows get it right?
Upon completing my postgraduate certificate, I interned at an events agency and currently, I work at a boutique PR agency as a media relations consultant. My day-to-day involves navigating multiple accounts, having a hand in various campaigns and participating in creative meetings. I’m privileged to be a part of an incredibly supportive, driven and inspired team, which has helped me grow immensely as a PR practitioner.
You may have heard that when it comes to working at a PR agency, there is no such thing as a “typical day”. That rings true especially when it comes to working at a PR agency. That being said, there are some common aspects to working at an agency that you can definitely anticipate.
Throughout this article, you’ll hear from industry professionals who shared with me their personal knowledge of agency life. As part of Generation PR’s #MeetThePro series, various agency professionals also shared their experiences and you’ll find those excerpts included as well.
Becoming a jack of all trades
Working on multiple accounts at any given time is the defining characteristic of agency life. Where working in-house means specializing in that brand, at an agency you’re working with multiple clients on various campaigns. Some agencies specialize in a specific industry, like food or fashion but it remains true that on each account, mandates and campaigns will vary.
Furthermore, an agency’s size will inform your interaction with clients and the work you will do. At bigger agencies, chances are that when you’re assigned to an account, you become part of a larger team. This means you’ll be able to lean on the expertise and support of your teammates.
At smaller agencies, there may be only one or two people assigned to an account. Being a part of a smaller team provides an opportunity to work closely with your client and ultimately harness a better understanding of their expectations and goals. You’ll get crucial experience managing an account and plenty of client-facing time.
But don’t get too comfortable! In public relations, things can turn on a dime. A mandate can be modified, roles can change internally or your agency could win new business. All of this can have an impact on your workload, forcing you to switch clients and teams.
Sometimes, this can be a heartbreaking breakup. Once you’ve immersed yourself with a brand and built a good camaraderie with your client, it can be hard to let that go. However, going with the tides is something you will have to learn to be comfortable with while working at a PR agency.
Switching up your clients and campaigns also poses an unrivalled learning opportunity. It offers you the chance to dip your toes into multiple aspects of the public relations practice. “Being able to experience and garner results for different kinds of clients in varying industries, along with working closely with multiple teams internally, makes for an unmatched learning experience,” says Cheyenne Freitas of APEX Public Relations.
Keeping up with the changes
At an agency, deadlines and projects can change quickly so you have to be able to think and act on your feet. It’s an essential and fundamental part of good public relations as continuous evaluation and modification are crucial to the success of any campaign. This is usually what people refer to when they call agency life “fast-paced”.
In my experience, two skills are necessary for navigating the hectic nature of working at a PR agency: organization and flexibility. When you’re organized, you know exactly what is going on and what is expected of you. When you’re flexible, you’re able to adapt to modified deadlines or project changes to meet new expectations and deadlines.
“I needed to learn to adapt and meet the requirements of multiple clients while fielding incoming requests from media, all while supporting my colleagues. Here’s the good news — this is totally doable and I’m picking up some important life skills along the way,” says Marissa Tiano, an account coordinator. She cites three vital skills you’ll learn working in a public relations agency: pivoting, remaining calm in high-pressure situations and knowing when to ask for help.
If evenings and weekends are sacred downtimes for you, an agency may not be the best fit. Flexibility can also look like veering away from the nine to five. It’s not uncommon for employees to respond to emails after leaving the office and catch up on work on the weekends.
Alyson Leigh has experience working in two distinct Toronto PR agencies. She recalls how “useful and enlightening” it is to see a brand activation or event come to life. However, you can expect those events to happen after typical work hours.
A closet full of hats
Team structures and dynamics will vary greatly from agency to agency, which will also impact what kind of work you do. In some cases, teams function more traditionally, specializing in specific skills such as social media, media relations or experiential marketing. You could be hired to work within one of these teams, which will limit your scope of work to a particular area.
In other cases, an account manager is responsible for executing and/or overseeing all components of a mandate and could manage multiple people within their team. Within that team, you could be responsible for social media, media relations and event coordination depending on the needs of the client on any given day.
Either way, it’s true that “multitasking is crucial when managing different projects, client needs and deadlines,” as explained by Emilita Dela Cruz, an account coordinator at Argyle.
This means that flexibility can also look like being comfortable taking on different roles. “At a boutique agency, there isn’t always a set guideline or overview for what each person’s role is in each team, so I get to diversify my experiences. I’m not just writing the press releases or doing entry-level tasks — I’m able to do a lot of different things,” explains Abbie, an account executive at a Boston agency.
While you should step outside of your comfort zone to build new skills and strengthen pre-existing ones, it’s important to be transparent with your team about your limitations. That way, you won’t make empty promises about what you can deliver. Abbie goes on to say that “if the expectation is set, you can’t fall through on it because the client is relying on it — you have to be honest about your capabilities and bandwidth. It’s okay to say no sometimes.”
That being said, one of the most appealing aspects of working at an agency is mentorship. “There’s a large focus on [it] and developing the skills of other team members, which is something unique at an agency,” Abbie says. Let your superiors know your interests and where you want to grow. It isn’t a signal of weakness to mention the professional areas where you need more development. Rather, it’s an indication to your team you’re eager to learn and want to strengthen your skills.
Jorielle Nunag, an associate consultant at FleishmanHillard HighRoad stated that the opportunity to learn from the network of people she’d been able to surround herself with was what she’s enjoyed most when working at a PR agency. She explained, “my experience at the firm to date has been so invaluable it’s insane — I feel like I can’t fully put it into words.”
The unique opportunity to take a stab at so many areas of public relations can also be incredibly helpful in guiding your professional interests. Melita Kokkinos, an associate consultant at Hill+Knowlton Strategies said: “The beauty of working in an agency is that you can get your feet wet in a number of areas and start to figure out what area of PR you love most.”
A whole new world
There are foundational aspects of agency life that remain true among the majority of firms, but ultimately, each agency is unique. And so are the experiences that people have when working at a PR agency.
Well-established firms with a worldwide presence have a lot to offer entry-level professionals who want to tackle complex campaigns and work among multiple, specialized departments. Meanwhile, boutique and mid-sized agencies are much more common now than ever before. They’re nabbing big-name clients and breaking the decades-old corporate mould, taking with them aspects of PR that still work in the modern world and rejecting those that don’t.
In my experience, employees are prioritized in boutique agencies. Nowadays, the glorification of “hustle culture” is being questioned more and more. This has led agencies to consider the importance of work-life balance and its role in the productivity of their employees. Alyson shared that “the wonderful thing about agencies is that they care a lot about the staff.”
While that statement represents my experience at agencies, it’s certainly not the case across the board. Turnover at PR agencies is still notoriously high and many leave agency life vowing never to return. So, agencies may not have unlocked the key to an idyllic work environment just yet but many are taking the opportunity to evolve as a workplace. We’ll see if their efforts will renew the reputation of agencies, which are seen by some to be high-stress work environments.
Agency life comes with its unique set of challenges and an agency job may not be your dream job. However, it is a great starting point for the rest of your PR career. If you can succeed working at a PR agency, you’re likely to succeed elsewhere. Expect to become a strong PR practitioner from the unparalleled learning experiences, access to clients and skill-building you will get from working at an agency.