Smaller Agency To Bigger Agency: My Experience

So as some of you know, and for those that don’t, I left my Technology Analyst role at Volume last week and will be starting next week at a white-label SassS company as a Digital Project Manager on the development team.

Oh, and I’ll also be working on a Mac for the first time ever – yeah laugh it up fuzzballs, you know who you are!!

To get myself back into the article writing zone I thought I’d write transparently about my experiences at Volume, why I chose to move on and what I’m hoping to gain from my new role… plus do a little bit of pimping for both companies on the job front in a subsequent post.

I can’t promise any digital project management tips here, but perhaps can shed some light on the experience of moving from a small digital agency to a larger one – something I know many wonder about but fear. Would it be what many small agency teams think; red tape and processes getting in the way of real work, or not?

Well no, it wasn’t any of this, in fact it’s been a completely positive experience and, despite a serious shock to my system in the early transition days, I can honestly debunk the myth that working for a larger digital agency cannot be as much fun, creative and rewarding as the smaller ‘cooler’ places. Or to coin an ex-colleague’s phrase, it wasn’t “corporate hell” as many thought it may be.

Of course this is only my one personal experience… please post yours in the comments.

Before Volume, the smaller agencies

For years I’d worked solely in small digital agencies as a Digital Project Manager where I would be given digital projects, either just before pre-sale was complete or just after, and pretty much told to run it from there – I loved it.

Learning the ropes at small agencies is way fun

During my time at these smaller agencies I picked up invaluable skills in client and team management, plus got a swift kick in the naivety area with regards to commercial realities for both clients and agencies.

Despite being a tough manic life in a smaller agency, I don’t regret a minute of it as its hardcore valuable deep-end learning and you make friends for life by overcoming massive challenges.

It got to a point where I felt that despite the constant challenge that is being a Digital Project Manager in a small agency, I’d tested many of my theories on running projects with reasonable success and it was time to enter into a new area of the industry at a larger agency to find out what it’s like.

I went to Volume twelve months ago with absolutely no idea what to expect. My goals at the time were to experience bigger agency life; see if I liked it, see if I could survive and ideally see if I could thrive and excel in it.

Volume, the bigger agency

Volume is a digital marketing agency based in Wokingham, UK. As well as working with clients like Dell, Oracle and Zebra they’re currently developing a quite frankly amazing social media mapping application called SociView, definitely check it out and tell your boss to!

A screenshot of the SociView homepage, a social media mapping application by Volume
SociView by Volume == sexy

My first few months at Volume were some of the most humbling of my career to date. I went from feeling comfortable, knowledgeable, competent and pretty much at the top of game, to realising my expertise at that stage was very much small agency-based and that this was a whole new ball game!

I was back to knowing nothing and feeling very green indeed – a bit like Luke blasting off from Mos Eisley and losing a laser battle with a retarded looking floating ball.

A humbling experience for even a Jedi

For the first few months the senior members of my team had to endure questions from me almost every five minutes on who I should speak to, what I should do with this enquiry, what happens in the standard workflow now, what does this site or application do – and so on – but the support I received was amazing.

Within a few months I was working away while the frequency of questions slowly but surely became less frequent and then before I knew I was just one of the team running projects and dealing with queries with little support.

Not only was I getting on with work, but I was also observing how a larger digital agency operates and it sure was an eye opener and I highly recommend it to anyone who works at small agencies and think they have a rounded view of how businesses are run – I’m sure you do, but body shape jokes aside, my experience is now all the more rounded.

Volume is a really great place to work and I learnt so much. Not only new skills but also on a human level. Going to a company of one hundred people I fully expected to seriously dislike at least ten, but to my complete surprise that number was zero!

Thank you Volume, you showed me people are nice!

Everyone there is so hard working, supportive, friendly and the management set out plans and actually follow them through. The offices are stunning and the employees are treated really well. Of course I heard a few gripes in my time there (and yes uttered a few myself), but I wouldn’t mind speaking to those people in a few years after they’ve tried a few other places and asking them for a revised opinion – trust me, it’s a very good place to work and there are much worse out there!

On a personal level, from working in such a friendly and positive environment, I also noticed my own personality and outlook on things in general change quite dramatically over the months.

I remember presenting an early detailed digital project schedule to a Senior Management member and feeling really defensive from the start, as if I was ready to fight my corner as to why I felt it had to be detailed and why it would take as long as my schedule suggested – but I wasn’t challenged, in fact the realistic approach and detail was appreciated, boy was I embarrassed at being aggressive – and from that moment on I felt I had exorcised any demons I had, felt valued, motivated and actually positive! Yes I know, me, positive! The mind boggles ;)

…and to anyone reading this and thinking “Wow, what a total arse licker!” – all I can say is, if you know me then you’ll know that licking boss’ arses is not something I do and that I always speak my mind truthfully and openly whether you’re a junior or a CEO, perhaps too truthfully on many occasions. My old MD once described me as:

…having about the same amount of tact as being hit in the face with a brick.

My old MD

This still makes me giggle because he was spot on at the time :)

Watch the video below and imagine you’re the dog, I’m the cat, and I want to communicate with you I disagree strongly…

Simply put, if I didn’t honestly think this about Volume I just wouldn’t have written this post.

All in all at Volume I picked up more invaluable skills than expected. I now have experience in working in that larger environment and the different pressures, priorities and challenges that come with that.

I’ve now worked with comparatively huge budgets and large teams, plus with multiple departments, all with their own set of priorities, and learning how to traverse these tricky waters so that everyone remains happy and gets what they want – trust me, this requires a whole new set of skills to small agency life but is an extension to agency / client relationship management.

Also I learnt what it’s like to have a formal team structure with support lines in place. Coming from a small agency background, this is one of the best things about a larger organisation – never was I alone with a problem, never did I not have people to help me left right and centre – bliss!

I really could go on and on about the benefits of working for a larger digital agency. So what are the downsides? Well for me personally there really was only one and that was no longer being in full control of all aspects of a digital project.

Are Digital Project Managers control freaks?

No longer was ‘I da man’ but instead I was now part of a much bigger project team, all playing their part to bring the project to delivery. But this was my small agency mentality, and to be quite honest, my arrogant side coming out. No, I wasn’t the man anymore, I was part of a large team and this is how larger agencies operate – I had to grow up a little.

But the great thing about working for a larger organisation is if you air these concerns at the appropriate time a good management team look for opportunities in future projects where you can flex the muscles you want to – and that they did for me too.

So what the hell Sam, why are you leaving a job that you appear to love so much!? The simple answer is that despite being pretty damn happy in my job I had this little voice urging me to try and step up again, to venture into uncharted waters – believe me, a part of me wants to punch that little voice right on the big fat nose but I think that may constitute self-harming.

The mindf*&k

After being given an offer for a Senior Digital Project Manager position at a medium-sized well-respected agency, that was more similar to the smaller agency environments I’d worked in previously and clearly full of lovely people, I suddenly had this horrible feeling that this perhaps was not what I wanted right now after all – this was a massive surprise to myself and for weeks I just couldn’t unscramble all my feelings and decide what it was I actually wanted – extremely frustrating for all those involved.

On one side I had Volume, a great place to work with great people where I felt happy and on the other, a Senior Project Manager position – a step up in position, responsibility and for an agency whose work I’d admired for years.

Confusion is a total bitch

What I slowly figured out was that I didn’t want to go back to the smaller agency side of things just yet, not to say I never will, just not quite yet. I felt it was something I’d spent years doing and if I wanted to would hopefully have the credibility to go back into if I wanted.

What I actually wanted was to be a Digital Project Manager in a company like Volume, in terms of size and organisation and all the plus points over small agency stated above – not something I’d done before hence brand new skills. From the Digital Project Manager interviews I’d started last year I’d noticed a few interviewees working in this capacity and I remember thinking at the time “Hmmm that sounds interesting, I’ve never done that”.

A SassS product company, the next challenge

My Digital Project Manager role at the SaaS company will be familiar in some ways in that I know quite a few people that work there, know they’re top notch at what they do and more importantly I genuinely like them, however quite unfamiliar in other ways…

I’ll be a Digital Project Manager who has no clients and isn’t creating a new site or application for various businesses from scratch. Instead I’m swapping clients for management and new builds for new delivery of new features to a large existing platform.

Like with my journey to Volume, my expectations at this point are quite open. All I know for sure is that this seems like it will require a hybrid of my digital project management experience (schedules, budgets and scope) combined with my more recent skills I was able to develop at Volume and particularly relished and enjoyed e.g. liaising between departments, understanding and communicating both technical and commercial requirements to those that need it and generally helping the existing digital project management team deliver projects, and if I’m lucky, try to improve a few things for everyone along the way.

Time will tell if this is how things pan out, but it’s a brand new experience for me, in areas I’ve not walked before, and as sad as I am to have left the awesome Volume team, and as scared as I am to enter the unknown, I do so with excitement, enthusiasm and a whole fresh outlook on what a workplace can be like and how much I enjoy learning new stuff – how can this be a bad thing?

I don’t imagine many comments on this post, but I would love to hear about any experiences anyone has had going from the small agency life to the bigger one, or perhaps vice versa…