What I learned this year: 2018 by John Kovacevich, ECD at Duncan Channon

By thesanfranciscoegotist / /

We’ll end the week with another in our “What I Learned This Year” series. This one is from John Kovacevich, Executive Creative Director at Duncan Channon. Having come from freelance, he tells us about the five big differences between agency side and client side. Enjoy.



After many years as a freelancer, 2018 was the year I pulled in my freelance shingle and got hitched again, taking a full-time role at SF ad agency Duncan Channon.

One of the reasons that I went freelance in the first place was to “date around” and see what it was like at different agencies and at the client-side in-house agencies that have proliferated in recent years.

That’s what I did. I got to see what it was like at lots of different agencies and on “the other side” with assignments at places like Facebook, Google and AirBNB.

Here are the five big differences that I discovered…and why I decided that agency-land is the place where I feel like I can do my best work.

1. Abundant Abundance

Holy shit, the FOOD! As an agency vet who spent years eating a quick desk lunch of Cheetos from a vending machine, the food situation at these tech companies is RIDICULOUS.

Want sautéed pork in your omelet? No problem. Madagascar chocolate in your coffee? We got you, chief. Sixteen low-carb, vegan options at the salad bar? That’s table stakes, sister.

And it’s not just refrigerators stuffed with every beverage imaginable, it’s ALL THE PERKS. Rock walls and on-site laundry and vending machines where you can pick up headphones for free.

While holding companies are cramming agencies into smaller spaces (“Our calculations show that the average worker drone only needs 18.9 cubic feet of space…”) the abundance at these in-house cultures is a stark contrast.

There’s really no way for agencies to compete in the perks arms-race. Your ping-pong table isn’t going to trump a full-sized arcade. And Omnicom is never going to approve Chateau Briand Tuesdays. But the smart agencies look for ways to honor their people and uncover the things that are really important to their employees.

2. Get On the Bus

In the Bay Area, many of the in-house opportunities are at the tech companies down on the peninsula. For ad people that may live in the city, that means a commute. And it likely means you’re going to join the tech shuttle army.

Much has been written about big busses and how they’ve transformed the Bay Area. It’s, uh, not all positive. But the alternative is a gazillion more cars on the roads and that’s not ideal either.

But if you’re used to a Muni or BART commute, the long bus ride down to Silicon Valley can be a big adjustment.

The first couple of weeks I did it, I thought I was going insane. I wanted to scream at everybody else who was plugged into their laptops and headphones, happily clacking away, “WAKE UP SHEEPLE, SPENDING 2-TO-4 HOURS A DAY ON A BUS IS NOT NORMAL!” But by week five, the Kool-Aid is firmly in your veins and you just roll with it.

Your client-side co-workers will tell you it’s fine and that you can work on the bus. And that’s true. But I think you’re either a person who wants to work in a rolling office for a good chunk of your day or you’re not. Only you can make that call.

3. The Chase

As a creative person,I didn’t fully appreciate how much I love the chase.

In agency-land, you’re always trying to make somebody fall in love with you. Pitches are a part of daily life.

And there’s something wonderful about pitching a new client. A fresh start. New ideas. No baggage. Plenty of possibility.

And the pitch process itself is fun. Intense, to be sure, but that intensity forges strong relationships among coworkers. And the deadline pressure can be an adrenaline rush.

Or it can be a nightmare. Plenty of agency peeps have traded in their agency computer for a tech company keycard because they’re tired of the chase.

Not me. I look the chase as a feature, not a bug. And a big reason is…

4. Variety is the Spice

Even in agency land, my brain goes numb when I have to work on the same client day in and day out. I got into the biz to work on lots of different types of things.

One, because it’s interesting to solve different types of problems. And two, because I don’t want to make the same thing over and over again—I want to explore different styles and come up with different creative solutions.

And in-house you…don’t. To be fair, there is variety in client-side work. But you’re telling the same company’s story over and over again. You’ve probably inherited fairly strict brand guidelines and may be limited in how far you can push the voice or visual style.

(I had a tech company approach me once for a freelance gig and they said that they only did six-month assignments because it really took that long to “learn our voice.” Uh, no thanks.)

You really can’t beat agency-land for variety. One day you’re writing a pre-roll ad about a talking toilet bowl brush then next you’re writing a heart-stirring anthem about healthcare.

5. You Beautiful, Cynical Bastards

But the biggest differences—and the one that’s most important to me—is that agency-land still celebrates skepticism, cynicism, and people who aren’t afraid to call “bullshit.”

For better or worse, the tech companies over-index on true believers. They really believe that their app is changing the world. Or that they’re disrupting the economy. Or building the world’s first community-driven brand.

There’s less honesty about what they really are: a media company, a search engine, a cheap taxi service, taking a cut when other people rent out their apartment.

Now, there are plenty of great people at these companies. None of this is a knock on them. It was just that for ME, the ability to call b.s. was more important than stock options. Admittedly, that may not be the best long-term financial play, but I laugh a lot more at work, that’s for sure.

So there it is. Five differences. I’m happy to be firmly ensconced on the agency side once again. But, hey, I’d love a lunch invitation next time the Google chef’s serving up chateaubriand.

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