Making the move from agency to in-house Article icon

Making Mary Whenman, former interim communications director at Callcredit, shares her lessons from moving to in-house communications from agency life

Last October I left the offices of one of the UK’s top five executive search firms with the phrase, ‘You’re more Lidl than Tesco,’ ringing in my ears.

Personally, I thought I was more of a Waitrose kind of girl. What the (very good) consultant was doing was to give me some sound career advice and to help me secure an in-house role after a 25-year career spent almost entirely working in global agency.

His advice was that I wasn’t going to walk into a role as a communications director at a classic FTSE 100, with no in-house track record. Instead, he advised that I first look at the FTSE 250, challenger brands and private equity-backed firms.

One thing that I wasn’t prepared for when I left agency life last summer, was the prejudice which exists among a, fortunately, small number of recruitment consultants. One categorically told me that it would not be possible to place me in-house, despite the fact that I’d been running a 60-person, integrated corporate communications team and had spent my entire career working in reputation management.

Less than a month later, I’d secured a role as interim communications director in a company backed by a global private equity firm. The consultant at the top five executive search firm had been right. So, in my first 100 days, what have I learnt about making the transition from agency to in-house at a senior level.

Here are ten things I’ve observed:

1. It’s more flexible: in my new role, I work three days a week in Leeds and two days a week from home. At first I thought this would be a huge disruption to home life, but we’ve not found that to be the case and are all in the rhythm of the new routine. I’ve since discovered that many people across our organisation work flexibly and some are home-based so come into the office just one or two days a week or fortnight.

2. Extreme commuting is the new normal: up until a year ago, I’d spent my entire career living in Zone Two and working in Zone One. Now, my weekly four-hour commute from Surrey to Leeds does not seem like a long way and is pretty commonplace. Once you get outside London, there’s an acceptance that if you want a career, you need to travel for it.

3. It’s more diverse: one of the big issues the public relations industry is grappling with is diversity. This is an agency-only phenomenon. When you work in-house, it’s naturally more diverse. Not everybody is white, middle class, university-educated or living in the London bubble. Virtually the opposite is true and employees come from a far broader range of backgrounds.

4. No ‘dragoons of young men’ (or people who only turn left): two years ago my former chairman said in an interview, ‘We can’t just have dragoons of young men in crumpled suits smelling of last night’s nightclub doing public affairs.’ He’s right of course. I’ve not come across this sense of privilege in-house. Nobody is going out and spending £40,000 a year in The Ivy or only insisting on getting on a plane if they can turn left. In a private equity-backed firm, the bottom line matters.

5. The buck stops here: Last year I read a blog by Mike Love @mikelovesPR, in which he said if you work in agency and give a client some bad advice, there aren’t any real consequences; but if you work in-house, you could lose your job. Since the day I started in my new role, his advice has been ringing in my ears. I work for a Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) regulated business. We were Big Data before big data was even invented. Data privacy, data protection, data breaches and cybersecurity are just some of the issues I’m dealing with every day.

6. Being at the heart of the business: this might be an old chestnut but it’s true. When you work in-house at a senior level, you are thrust right into the heart of the business. The range and depth of issues that you are required to get involved with is far greater than working in agency and often goes beyond communications.

7. Less pigeon-holing: the challenge which faces most global agencies is the ‘silo.’ While it may be different in large FTSE communications teams, in my role, communications is communications and silos don’t exist and the range of work, from regulatory affairs to consumer PR, is more varied.

8. Writing, writing, writing: in the past three months, I’ve probably written more than I’ve written in the past ten years. I’ve rediscovered how much I enjoy writing and that it’s a core skill if you want to work in-house.

9. PR has a lot to learn from marketing: a big trend is the convergence of marketing and communications. In my new role, we’re doing this for real and have a converged marketing and communications team. PR has a lot to learn from marketing. It’s more disciplined, has better developed and relevant processes and links everything back to the business. Every day I learn something new from my marketing colleagues.

10. KPIs are King: working in a data-driven business, analytics informs everything. This means key performance indicators (KPIs) are King when it comes to marketing and communications. I’ve learned more about measurement and evaluation in the past few months than I have in the past five years, despite having worked in agencies which take measurement seriously.

In summary, I’ve found that a career spent working in corporate communications in a global agency, has been a fantastic training ground for being a communications director in an issues-rich business.

Every day I draw on the skills and techniques I’ve learned in my career and the experience I’ve gained advising a wide range of clients during periods of corporate change. I’d recommend any other agency director or managing director to consider making the move.

When it comes to working in agency again, I’d never say never; but I would say, not right now. And I’m proud to be ‘more Lidl than Tesco,’ (with a healthy dose of Waitrose)!