Blue Two Rivers Marketing Sign

“What’s it like to work at an advertising agency?”

For the past several years, I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest speaker each semester in the brand management course at Iowa State University (ISU). I’ve spoken with students in the principles of advertising course in the Greenlee communications school at ISU and to advertising and marketing clubs there about what it’s like to have a career in advertising. And over the years, I’ve participated with various business school programs at Drake University, like DiveNOW, mock interviews, and career fairs.

We also host interested students at our agency, giving them an overview of how the work gets done and the different types of careers and roles within an agency.

Once students get past being shocked that I was an English major and have a job in marketing and advertising, their most common question is, “What’s it like to work at an advertising agency?”

To my knowledge, there are no college courses that explain this or prepare one for a career at an agency.

As someone who has worked at five different agencies across my 25-year career, I hope I provide a good perspective on agency life. While agencies may have different cultures, clients, marketing specialties, and working environments, being able to deal with these six aspects is core to thriving in your agency life (even for an English major like me):

  1. Variety
  2. Versatility
  3. Volatility
  4. Creativity
  5. Innovation
  6. Casualness

Variety: The spice of agency life

Group of Two Rivers Marketing Associates Collaborating on a Client Project

Agencies bring together a wide variety of roles, skills, and personalities. It takes writers, designers, communicators, strategists, media experts, data analysts, project managers, videographers, web developers, client services, accountants, support staff, and more to get the work done. Coupled with the internal diversity of functions is the breadth of client relationships that an agency has, each brand with its own nuances and challenges. Thriving on variety and working with different approaches and points of view for disparate clients is key to managing an agency career.

Versatility: Be a Swiss Army knife

You’re going to have to demonstrate versatility at an agency. Clients come to us to solve problems for them, so developing multiple skill sets, constantly learning, and approaching work with a willingness to chip in and help no matter what the task will help you go far. As our strategy director, I often describe my position as a utility infielder; I need to know how to play all the bases. We also look for “T” shaped associates: people who have a variety of skills across various marketing disciplines, with deep knowledge in one or two areas. Making yourself useful in more ways than one helps your career longevity and keeps it interesting.

Volatility: Ride the roller coaster

Agency life can be volatile. Clients come and go, and agency fortunes often rise and fall with them. A major client parted ways with the first agency I worked at, and I was a casualty of the staff cutbacks that resulted (even though it wasn’t a business I worked on), ending the start of my agency career. But I rebounded with a new job four weeks later at an agency that was experiencing growth. And I have (thankfully) survived agency downturns. More often across my career, the volatility has come from growth at the agency, and trying to keep pace with the work and the available staff. It can be unstable, but it can also be thrilling. Can you handle it?

Creativity: Have fun

What has drawn me to advertising and marketing and kept me in it is the creative aspect. I love coming up with new ideas, solving problems in a new and different way, and partnering with colleagues who take insights I provide and come up with something creative and smart. No matter what product you are marketing, even if it seems boring or unimportant to you, it matters to someone. Finding a creative way to connect with those audiences, and seeing results, is the magic that comes from agency work.

Innovation: Keep on your toes

Marketing is constantly changing. Many businesses are very similar year to year, but there is always something new to learn: media opportunities, software, data sources, social media platforms, design trends, and more. Google and Facebook are always improving; Microsoft Office updates itself with regularity; and all the tools we use keep adding features and new interfaces. Changing, too, are the audiences we are trying to reach and the clients we are trying to serve. Many clients have aggressive goals around revenues coming from new products and innovations. Customers get tired of the same-old marketing and tune it out, forcing agencies to find new ways to reach them. All of this innovation and the constant learning that comes with it keeps me relevant, and keeps me young.

Casualness: Wearing shorts and drinking beer

Group of Four Associates at the Annual Two Rivers Marketing Golf Outing

Finally, agency life is casual. I wear shorts in the summer, jeans in the winter, and rarely put on a tie. There’s a keg in our office, and I have fond memories of the Friday drink cart at previous agencies. I curse often (probably too much) and laugh out loud multiple times a day. Friends in the corporate world have told me about colleagues being sent to HR for swearing in a meeting. It’s definitely a lot more casual at an agency.


I’ve built a career at agencies because I’ve made myself a versatile contributor, building on the different roles I’ve had and skills I’ve developed. I’m fine with the ambiguity that comes with working in a creative and innovative environment, and able to frequently shift among the various clients and personalities to get work done. And I’ve thrived riding the ups and downs, and learning how to deal with both. In shorts.

If you’re interested in learning more about agency life and careers at an agency, check out our careers opportunities or stop and say “hi” to me or any of our associates as we are interacting with university classes, school groups, and local marketing associations, living the agency life.