Retrospective: My Experience In Agency vs. In-House Roles

In my career as an SEO professional and digital marketer, I’ve spent time on the agency side as well as an in-house and as a consultant. For context, my “agency days” were roughly between 2012-2015. Cough, cough, so I suppose, at the time of documenting my reflections that’s now about 6 years ago which, isn’t that long ago but I also realize a lot has chanced since then. Especially since in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic effectively redefined the nature of remote work. In any case, I felt it was important to at least acknowledge the timeframe of my “agency days” because for me at least, that was earlier in my career.

Many of the questions below were sourced from Twitter to other industry friends exploring the same topic and who have also spent time in both professional environments. So, let’s dive in.

Q: How the following have changed: levels of stress, working hours, skills you had to learn/unlearn?

A: there’s a lot to unpack there. I’m going to take this in sections for agency & in-house so that it’s easier to read.

Levels of stress

Agency – Anytime you have more than one client (which is typical at agencies, where Account Managers handle strategy for a number of websites called your “book of business”) your stress level goes up. It’s a fact. You have more stakeholders, more meetings to coordinate more websites to oversee and industries to stay on top of, more internal politics to learn and navigate etc. Typically, when you’re at an agency that has SEO clients and services, at the account manager level you’re going to be in charge of a handful of domains that can vary across industry verticals. Which means, you’re going to become an “SEO expert” across a lot of different areas. That, in and of itself is a lot to stay on top of because Google is constantly evolving its algorithms and evaluating what it considers to be trust signals, especially for industries related to YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) such as finance, health and wellness.

Brand – When you’re on the brand side in-house, you’re typically working on one domain. Even if there are multiple domains (i.e. international sites that can be part of regions), generally speaking, they’ll still all be within the same vertical. In my experience, the level of stress in house varies in terms of the amount of resources available to you, whether or not you are the only SEO or if you have a team, how frequently you need to be surfacing strategy and updates to leadership, carving out time for educating cross-functional teams and providing direction (i.e. providing a specialized function like technical SEO Requirements in JIRA tickets).

Balancing all of that in a given workday/week can be stressful because even if you’re amazing at managing your time, there’s still a lot of ad hoc questions that come up or requests from leadership that take time to research & respond to accordingly. When you’re part of an in-house team, though, I feel the stress level is less because you have more people to help shoulder the work load. This is especially important at enterprise level companies with a large, matrix organization; the more SEO’s on your team the better your offense and defensive plays.

Working hours

Agency – I think I worked more hours when I was agency side for a few reasons: I was young and learning how to refine my deliverables and the amount of research I needed to do to shape the strategy I was recommending. Again, I was also managing up to 10 domains so it was important for me to prioritize my time accordingly. Agencies have more of a built in need to continue to solidify the customer’s business and trust by reflecting a certain level of visual presentation and strategic information that gets delivered. In that way, it takes extra time and attention detail to consistently deliver a polished product.

Brand – I find this relates to whether or not you’re the only in-house SEO or if you’re part of a team. I’ve been the lone SEO and I’ve been part of a team. At this point, I’ll take a team. It’s kind of the best of both worlds when you’re in house and you get to work alongside a team of SEO’s because having a team inherently brings together a unique set of knowledge and expertise. It’s hard to say if working hours are more or less when you’re in-house because at the end of the day it’s really about doing what it takes to get the work done. I do feel there are less hours with in-house roles in the case where you’re part of a team and are primarily overseeing one website.

In terms of skills I had to learn/unlearn

Agency – hands down, the skill you have to learn (that also serves you well in-house) is how to think. Agencies are arguably the best place to start out professionally because this is an environment where young professionals are naturally exposed to variety of professionals in both earned, owned and paid media where you can learn about how they approach SEO.

When you’re starting out, you want to seek out mentors and model your work after senior leaders as you develop your own approach to how SEO is applied to business strategy. More importantly, exposure to seasoned leaders teaches you how to think about the fundamental aspects of SEO that deliver results. The best skills at an agency a junior SEO can learn are:

  • How to diagnose the technical and content related symptoms holding the site back from driving meaningful organic traffic and subsequently, business revenue.
  • How to assess and identify what aspects of the various Google algorithm updates apply or don’t apply to a website or URL in a given industry and then distill the recommendations into actionable priorities to various stakeholders.
  • Developing your own voice and brand by writing and speaking at conferences sharing your SEO hypothesis, projects, analysis and results.

The variety in agency life is simply unmatched. That being said, I feel it’s important to also poses the traits and personality type to enjoy keeping pace with a very dynamic professional environment. It helps if your life is simple in the sense that it’s just you and your cat you have to worry about and take care of. It can be emotionally draining if you’re not up for the customer and employee churn at mid to large size agencies.

In terms of skills I had to unlearn, for me that applied more in terms of having to learn not to be so personally impacted or apprehensive when external things like employee or client churn started happening with more frequency.

I credit a lot of the skills I learned while being an agency SEO to serving me well as an in-house one. I gained experience working with partners in areas like Paid Search and Email Marketing which helped me become a better holistic marketer when it came to understanding and operating acquisition channels. Communication, public speaking and presentation skills are a must do sharpen. It’s easier to do this agency side because as an account lead, you’re often the one leading the strategic approach and communicating it to various stakeholders from executive leadership to engineering.

Brand – There are a few skills an SEO should develop, if he/she wants to be successful in-house. These are:

  • A zest for collaboration and building relationships with cross functional teams.
  • Storytelling using data. It’s important to be able to help other teams conceptualize why SEO initiatives are important and how the impact the business.
  • The ability to break down the strategy into actionable tactics and prioritize the work. In many ways, being a Product Manager is the best place to be in order to help build the strategy and sequence the work.

SEO is definitely a team sport and you’ll need support from product to content to legal teams if you’re going to get initiatives across the finish line for a large organization. You learn that the level of education about SEO work is crucial to a successful SEO program. SEO isn’t just the SEO’s job, it’s everyone’s job; everyone that’s involved with making the website and digital customer experience better has a part to play in SEO.

Q: What is your perspective on working for an agency vs. in-house when you’re entry-level and still learning SEO? What are the possible pros and cons for each?

A: I believe entry level SEOs should work at an agency. It doesn’t matter the size. A smaller agency might allow you to take the reins more whereas a mid-size to larger agencies will have you shadowing the more seasoned account managers, which is also helpful in your development. You may even get some accounts but it’s more likely you’ll be assisting the AM and learning. The benefit to working at a large agency is exposure to working on accounts of major brands and getting to see how their in-house teams are structured, what kind of & how many engineering resources they have, what’s on their product roadmap, and what resource challenges they have internally that the agency is being tasked to solve. In a way, the entry level pro of sitting on the agency side with exposure to multiple brands gives you perspective about the in-house jobs you might like to take on some day.

A con of being agency side is that you often do not have access to the various in-house teams carrying out the SEO recommendations. The success of the SEO strategy and recommendations you provide to your point of contact on the client side are essentially directly related to their internal resources and capabilities. That’s ok but, as a young professional, it’s a lesson in humility of making others look good. Conversely, the pro of being the in house SEO subject matter expert (SME) is that since you’re also under the company umbrella you have a bit more access to the different internal teams. As an entry-level employee though, you’ll want to cultivate a level of self awareness about how you come across and continue to hone your communication and presentation skills.

Q: How important is it to meet with cross-functional teams prior to accepting an in-house role?

A: It’s absolutely important. Ideally, you wan to be able to get a sense of how receptive they are or are not to SEO initiatives and the level of internal education that exists. Hopefully, each employee is honest with you during the interview process. I feel that more recently, more companies are getting better at including more cross functional teams during the interview process especially when vetting the type of SEO experience their organization needs. Now, don’t worry if it’s the first time they’ve ever seen an SEO unicorn (that’s you). That’s not a complete red flat. You’re simply looking for areas of opportunity to contribute to the process of how code and content gets published. And where you can help advocate for incorporating more data to the conversation and drive decision making.

Q: What was hard about your switch? What did you like about it?

A: In my case, events outside of my control like a company re-org or mass layoffs have contributed to my having to look for my next opportunity. In a way, over the years, that has taught me the importance of investing in building a personal brand though things like maintaining a presence on social media, attending in-person networking events and industry conferences and sharing what I learned as an SEO practitioner on my professional blog.

Q: What does a career progression typically look like in-house vs. agency side?

A: This question is complex because so much of it depends on the organization itself in terms of how it’s structured. As I’ve worked at more places, I’ve found that sometimes the leadership team knows how to cultivate and promote talent and other times they don’t. I’ve also found that the presence of professional development documentation and how to demonstrate the qualities that result in an internal promotions is correlated to the presence of a strong human resources team.

In most agencies, the growth is pretty clear: Junior Account Manager, Account Manager, Senior Account Manager, Manager, Director…VP. That’s if they don’t all of a sudden introduce a new structure due to a re-org.

In a best case scenario in house, at an enterprise level brand, the executive leadership has seen the long term value of investing in, hiring, incentivizing and building out both an earned and owned media teams because SEO is a marketing channel that contributes to business revenue. If the core SEO team has a Director that indicates there’s a pathway to a leadership position for more junior team members. Alternatively, you might want to stay at the company and therefore grow your skills into other areas like Product, Marketing, Content or Technical.

My friend Martijn Scheijbeler blogged about this on his site: What’s Next After SEO?

The reality is, the business can choose to change its structural hierarchy at any given time. It’s just the way it works. If/when it happens, it means your career trajectory can be impacted. Depending upon your personal level of tolerance to change, you can either choose to stay and make the best of it or leave.

Fundamentally, that’s why it’s important to be good to people you meet in the workplace. Maintain a professional online presence and cultivate a personal brand so that you’re ready for whatever opportunity may present itself. A good mantra is: try to leave any organization better than when you found it.

Q: What’s universal between the two?

A: There will be churn and change. Prepare to adapt organizational changes in your own way. For me it’s maintaining an investment in my personal brand by blogging and seeking out speaking opportunities to share what I’ve learned or making an effort to regularly attend industry networking groups.

In either environment, you will grow if you keep an open mind, apply yourself and be a sponge to good information and finding good mentors.

Another universal aspect is people. In-house or agency, you’ll always find great people willing to invest in you and you’ll always find people whose personalities challenge you and may stifle your growth. That’s where having a great network and mentors comes in. It’s always beneficial to get perspective and/or mentorship in order to navigate the different personality types in the workplace.

Q: Which offers more stability? Why?

A: I don’t think one over the other has more stability because both are fundamentally a business and businesses can choose to change direction at any time. I’ve mostly worked in California and it’s an “at will” state which means your employer can terminate your employment at any time.

Having gone through the experience of being at Macy’s Tech in early 2020 and the announcement of the San Francisco HQ “plant closure” we were given 90 days. That’s about as much advanced notice as any in-house employee can hope for.

On the agency side, I remember being notified of my termination in early January and basically being given a week with the company.

In that sense, I feel like larger agencies are less stable since if they lose enough of their two main assets: people and clients, they may not have the operating capital to keep everyone on board. But, conversely, I know a lot of great SEO and marketing agencies run by very smart leaders that look out for their people and have navigated through different economic recessions. A brand can be harder to dissolve but it doesn’t make it any more stable than an agency. The key traits are adaptability, product market fit, and knowing how to financially run a business.

Here’s something else to consider in terms of workplace stability: it really depends on where you are personally in your own life. I think when you’re younger, agency life is appealing because when it’s just you, you have more flexibility to develop personal relationships outside of work. But I also knew plenty of co-workers at the same agency who had spouses and kids.

Sometimes, an in-house role offers stability in terms of the ability to work from home or the time and insurance benefits to balance growing a family.

Q: Please provide a comparison; how much easier it is to get things implemented when you’re in-house?

A: It’s not any easier. It just means you have more context into the broader business initiatives, priorities and operating teams. You still have to advocate for things like resources and budget.

Here’s what I’ve learned being in-house in Product leadership roles; that’s where it’s at for getting things done (or at least being in the best position to do so). Especially for SEO professionals, having access to engineering and product resources is crucial for getting SEO initiatives worked on. The unlock is to be able to work within the organizational framework of how work gets done. Does it need to be on a specific product roadmap and then part of a sprint or do you need to partner with a cross functional team to help integrate SEO Requirements to a marketing campaign launch they’re launching? Typically, Product Management is the place where the rubber meets the road: where ideas are turned into actionable steps.

When you’re agency side, you’re typically viewed as the outside consultant and no one in the client organization directly reports to you. All you can really do is provide case studies and similar client examples of results to help your internal advocate sell the business benefit behind the SEO work.

What’s similar about the two is that you need to be skilled at convincing, inspiring and communicating your initiatives to cross functional teams that will ultimately be implementing the SEO requirements which ultimately make the online business as a whole successful.