In Singapore, finding a job that both pays well and provides good career progression or opportunities is almost like finding a gem, and especially so in 2020’s context.
Just to clarify, I’m talking about the majority of Singaporeans who has a Bachelor’s with little to no work experience, aka the late Millennials (born after 1990) and Gen Z.
If we’re working in a start-up or SME, getting paid a handsome salary is almost out of the question but the learning opportunities are infinite. Let’s also not forget the slightly shaky job stability for the start-ups.
Working in an MNC or established company, on the other hand, might pay well but it might also take us ages to get the chance to progress in our career.
I’ve worked in SMEs all my life up to now, so I might not be the best person to talk about working in a sizeable organisation.
That said, I believe the experience I’ve had at SMEs and a start-up (that is now an SME expanding regionally) can possibly help those who have worked at MNCs all their lives and thinking of trying out something new.
Specifically, I want to share how it’s like to work in an agency, a type of business that (almost) promises a decent salary with quite immense learning opportunities.
A Caveat before jumping into the details
I would say that the time and effort I’ve put into the 2+ years of agency life is probably more than what most people would.
I say that because I don’t believe I’m a very capable individual – I don’t have special talents or a very high EQ or IQ – and I’m still questioning my career fit in an agency.
A lot of what I’ve achieved so far has been through pure hard work, curiosity to dig deeper, and some luck (I joined the agency when it was in its very early stages after vigorous screening).
My take is that if you want to gain the most out of agency life (since you’ll be suffering almost every day), you better put in more work than you would in any other company.
LearniNg to Be a generalist
Agencies exist because almost every company outsource some aspect of their business operations.
In my case, I’m working in a digital marketing agency that helps SMEs generate leads.
And while our agency technically “specialises” in digital marketing and I’m a client success manager, I have to know more than just client success and digital marketing – I’m expected to give some basic business advice too.
For instance, a client will ask how a specific digital marketing campaign will benefit the business, other than the obvious “generate leads and increase sales” schtick.
The client wants to know the added benefits and how we’re different than our competitors, why they should continue using our services, and what are the next steps to improve even further.
Without going into too many specifics, I’ve developed consultation skills in the full-stack marketing and business aspect, negotiation strategies to arrive at a compromise between the agency and clients, and most of all, managing a digital marketing campaign from start to end in various industries.
I’d like to think of working in an agency as the equivalent of serving several bosses simultaneously, with the compounded stress, of course.
No day or night, for the most part
For some, working for one boss is enough stress to send them into a mild depression, especially when the boss is a self-serving, ruthless business owner who doesn’t care about his or her employees.
Can you imagine working for 20 or even 30 of such bosses?
Most agency employees work more than 9 hours every day, myself included (8+ hours in the office and 1-2 hours after work; variable hours on weekends).
What’s worse is that some agency owners might even bow to these unreasonable clients because they pay the dollars to keep the lights on. (Fortunately for me, my bosses aren’t like that; the employees are still more important than saying yes to everything the client wants.)
Of course, not every client is unreasonable and tough, but just a few of them would give you a headache (quite literally).
Work-life balance in an agency is almost impossible, even in global agencies, as what some colleagues and friends who have had the experience can attest to.
Building an extensive network of contacts
While you have a lot of less free time for yourself because you spend more hours working, agency life exposes me to not just clients, but many different people in the digital marketing vertical.
I’ve come to know great performance marketers, high performing yet ethical salespeople, creative and effective designers, and most of all, diplomatic and brilliant client servicing managers.
On top of that, I work with strategists, software engineers, and business development managers at Google and Facebook. It’s the kind of experience that doesn’t come easily to a twenty-something or thirty-something.
It’s through talking and working with different people from different industries and departments that you get a rough sense of the many jobs out there. That’s something most people won’t get working in an MNC in their first 5-10 years.
And I would say building a network of contacts, or what some would call “social equity”, is probably the most important resource to build for most who are not affluent from birth, which is essentially 90% of the population.
Should you work in an agency?
If you have a clear sense of what you want to achieve in 10 years, and the opportunity doesn’t lie in agency life (ie. a senior manager or director in an agency), then don’t bother joining an agency. You might be better off slogging in a specialisation role.
But if you’re still figuring out what role you want to work in, working in any agency that is remotely related to your interest (eg. creative/PR agency if you want to work in a branding team) would be the best bet.
Or if you’re willing to slog for a slightly higher than average pay because you can and want to do it while you’re young, then definitely go for an agency.
In fact, if you’re young and ambitious, an agency is probably one of the few places you can be sure that you’ll be challenged.
My only regret is not getting into an agency earlier – I feel that mid-thirties to early-forties is the period where agency life will be too much to handle, especially when I start a family.