An Army of (not) One


An article by Saya Weissman titled, “Why it’s not such a bad thing to get fired from your agency job,” caught my attention today. I read it with a lot of snorting and nodding (good thing I work from home).

I’ve been self-employed for twelve years which (as I gaze out the window of my home office at the rapidly receding snow on my lawn) feels like kind of forever.

But that wasn’t always the case. I was laid off from an digital agency that I’d poured my heart and soul into but, alas, suffered the same limitations as all agencies (e.g., it was a victim of supply versus demand.) And 2002 was a particularly rough year for online marketing agencies because it followed 2001, the year of the almost-apocalypse. After September 11, many advertisers pulled back and the first place to cut budgets (back then) was the relatively new tactic of online marketing. That long-ago agency I worked for suffered from multiple problems that plagued the digital advertising space – it grew far too fast, it had too few clients funding too much revenue and it had a bad case of we’re-cutting-edge syndrome (that’s when an agency is first into a particular space and thinks that means they’re cutting edge, but really they’ve stagnated in one spot – in this case, that spot was 1998).

Ms. Weissman’s article definitely struck a chord with me because even back in good old 2002, online marketers were agency hopping. And, actually, more than one of my colleagues got out of the business altogether and changed careers because it was all so volatile and unstable (and soul crushing). But not me! I wanted to strike out on my own and figured that this industry was a great place to do it because of all the job hopping/layoffs/instability. I chose to stick with SEO and paid search at the time, although now my focus is exclusively paid search (Google has grown quite a bit since 2002…)

So it all worked out in the end. I built a solid consulting business, didn’t have to leave the industry that I really loved and got lots of freedom with my schedule (which came in handy since my kids were 1 and 0 at the time I went out on my own).

But after about seven years of going it alone, I realized something. Working for yourself is…well…it’s kind of lonely. And something else interesting began to happen. As I gained experience and loyal clients, I noticed that I was often the most stable person on a given account. I had one client who went through three marketing directors over the course of about five years until they finally got someone who wanted to bring their own agency in on the project. I was able to recap the entire history of that clients’ AdWords account to the agency (thus making the transition much smoother than if it had been bumped to three or four different agencies over the course of five years).

I’ve crossed paths with many clients of all shapes and sizes and I can honestly say that no one is particularly happy with the phenomenon on agency-hopping. Agencies are always scrambling to find good talent, then turning around and laying them off when things got slow. On the other side of the coin, all that instability has created an (accepted) culture of job hopping from young, hungry online marketers who realized that the only way to move up in the industry was to get a job with a better title, higher salary and more prestige at a different agency (or they’d simply defect and move to the client side of the coin – where things have always been much stabler). I mean, can you blame them?

And yet, agencies do blame the people who leave even though they create the culture of instability in the first place. This hurts clients because there’s no one person (or team) that lasts long enough to provide strategic insight (and oversight) to an account  – the kind of oversight that was likely lavished on the account in the first place. But it also hurts agencies, because when the lay off their experienced people then their overall work suffers and they lose even more clients.

It’s a cycle of stupidity!

But let’s get back to me being lonely. In order to circumvent the above cycle, I went out on my own and lavished attention on my own clients. I paid for my own industry education (mainly conferences) and wrote my own rules of engagement with clients. I offered supreme flexibility to direct clients and agencies alike. Do you want to work with me for three months to see how it goes? That’s fine. Do you need me to fill in over the holidays while half your staff is away? No problem. Do you want me to work on this account forever and ever and be ultimately responsible for it until you say otherwise? Can do, thank you very much! This worked out really well – when I stopped being afraid to call myself a freelancer or a consultant, and started embracing these terms as viable solutions to clients who desperately needed expertise – I found that I’d unexpectedly filled a much-needed niche. I was a resource that wasn’t going anywhere.

But…(you knew this was coming)…I was doing it all on my own. I had developed a streamlined process for managing search and a style of communication that clients liked (I’m here when you need me) – but I could only take on so much work, and there were only so many hours in the day. It was also unstable – if it was only me then there was no one to check in on campaigns and get back to clients when emergencies cropped up during weekends, or vacations, etc.

So three years ago I became an army of two and hired someone else who was sick to death of the agency hopping bullshit. She had a baby and another on the way. She couldn’t put in scores of hours on accounts each week and still stay sane. I love babies – and people who are really dedicated and good at their jobs. It was a perfect fit. It became even better when we brought in a third person, trained him up and became a full-fledged team.

All three of us have kids. We have crazy schedules and sometimes we nap in the middle of the day because we’re sleep deprived and it’s not unusual for us to do most of our work in 90 minute bursts in between feeding, naps, driving to/from school and doctors’ appointments. But we’re stable. None of us are going anywhere. It’s been three years and I have many of the same clients as I had when my team first came on board. My longest running client just hit six years last month.

I guess what I’m saying is that while job hopping and getting fired may be the norm in agency life – it’s not the only way to things. Don’t give me that crap about building it into the business model. Maybe it’s time to CHANGE that model. There can be a better way – maybe by embracing the freelance consultant model (on the agency side) rather than shunning it. For agency employees who are caught up in the crazy merry-go-round of job hopping, remember that you will eventually get to a point where you can get off the wild ride. You’re taking your experience with you, after all – and that’s what clients want in the first place.