Blurring the lines between agency job roles – and how this can only be a good thing

Alexa Turnpenney

Before I became a content editor at Cavalcade, I was an account manager at our parent agency, Partners Andrews Aldridge. If I was saying this out loud, that would be the place where I’d pause for dramatic effect. Account manager.

There’s a lot of baggage that goes with the term – and indeed with every agency job title. Job titles are in danger of defining us as one thing, and one thing only. And in a world where we’re preaching collaboration, partnership and integration, this can only be a very bad thing.

The road less travelled

When I moved from ‘account management’ and into ‘content’, I was the first person in our agency to have switched departments. The move took about a year in total, quite simply because there was no precedent for it.

Everyone knew me as an account manager. An organiser, a client-appeaser, a facilitator. How could I be a ‘content editor’ all of a sudden? In my mind, I already was one. I had all the skills – a background in writing, experience in PR, good knowledge of the content industry. But my job title meant I also had a perception problem.

The rarity of these kinds of moves in agencies speaks volumes. For an industry that prides itself on constant innovation, this is something we really need to address. We’re ignoring people’s skills and potential value by pigeon-holing them at key stages in their careers. We’re missing out on the bigger picture.

And more than that, we’re rooted in the idea that only certain people can do certain things. But our industry hires some of the best and brightest. So why would we restrict them to performing just one set of tasks?

That’s not to say that everyone should now be moving job role or demanding a position in a new department. But how can we make sure we’re getting the most out of our people? And how can we make sure we’re not fencing ourselves in to specific job titles that could prove reductive?

Japanese agency Kettle tried to solve this problem by getting rid of problematic job titles altogether. In a move to create more integrated campaigns, staff retained their traditional specialisms, but ignored the hierarchy of the associated titles. The result? A melting pot culture that prized the idea over tradition and ego. I don’t know many agencies that’d be brave enough to go as far as Kettle have done, but it’s an interesting thought.

Why content agencies can be the driver

As anyone who works in our industry can attest, things move at light-speed. The word on everyone's lips is changing – 10 years ago, it was 'digital', now it’s 'UX', 'CX', 'content' and next year it'll be something else.

So it’s even more important that our agency structures adapt – and this is where content can be the poster child for alternative ways of thinking. As a component of the industry mix that didn’t exist five years ago, content is more resistant to the legacy of agency life. The content industry is made up of specialists from other disciplines who flocked to it precisely because it offered a new outlook.

And that’s in part why it’s become such a successful part of the comms mix. Teams of journalists, PRs, video producers, authors, musicians and designers have found a new discipline – whilst retaining their old skillsets.

The result is something that clients can really get behind – strategy and creative based on the correct solution for business and customer needs, not bound to the discipline of the people creating it. It’s a success story for what happens when you let experts branch out to new avenues.

The small changes that make a big difference

So how do we get there? It can be as simple as a mentality shift.

If traditional agency job roles are restrictive, then we need to start thinking beyond them. That means we need our new hires to be people who do more than one thing. And for our existing staff, it’s an invitation to move beyond established ways of working. Want to try your hand at something new? Do it. Want to be brought into that pitch that usually goes to a creative team? Put yourself forward. Your expertise is your anchor, but there’s no reason you can’t apply it to a non-traditional arena.

That’s how we foster a culture of people who are used to turning their hand to new things. That’s how we create an agency full of people who believe they can be the right person to pick up that last minute proactive piece that could just win a piece of new business.

Looking to the future

In my own experience, the strategists who started their careers off as copywriters write the best creative briefs. The content editors who started off as journalists understand the most newsworthy hooks. The creative technologists from the startups know the importance of agility in a way that excites and scares projects managers. And yes, my own background in client services makes me a better content editor, without doubt.

My biggest hope for the industry over the next 10 years is that traditional agency job roles continue to merge and that people can cross over when their skills allow it – and that we ultimately create an industry of hybrids.

So at Cavalcade, we won’t be thinking about our next hire as an ‘account manager’, ‘designer’ or ‘content editor’ – after all, what the hell do they even mean anyway? We’ll be looking for something much more ambitious – potential.

Alexa Turnpenney is a content editor at Partners Andrews Aldridge

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