Developing a Career in SEO – 3 Reasons to Work for an Agency
Search Engine Optimisation

Developing a Career in SEO – 3 Reasons to Work for an Agency

8th October 2013

In my second post as part of the three part series of “How to Start and Develop Your Career in SEO”, I interview those who have been working agency side to find out about what it is like working for an agency.

For those starting off in SEO, they will have to decide whether they want to work for an agency or work for in house, working for the one client.

1) What are the skills you look for when interviewing SEO candidates for agency side?

Erin Everhart, Director of Digital Marketing at 352

Erin and Kris at SES NY
Erin and Kris at SES NY

Creativity and diversity. I’m not looking for someone who only excels in one area. I’m looking for someone who can take ideas and translate them to the right medium — organic, content, email, PPC, social. Everything we do is so integrated, so it’s more important to me that they an understanding and can work across all facets of digital/SEO. They’re the “general specialists” — a term I adopted from Marty Weintraub — the T-shaped marketer.

Agency experience is also critical. It’s not required all the time, but knowing how to navigate the politics of an agency, juggle multiple clients and keep up with the industry is a big plus. Those are stuff you can’t really teach.

Joe Lewis, SEO Strategy Director at iProspect

We hire a range of skill sets internally, from strong team managers to technical staff who have no interest in man management.  That said, there are some core skills and attributes that we always look for.

There’s often a great need to be able to defend ideas and present in a captivating way. Though not all agency staff are outgoing and argumentative, there is a certain cache associated with ‘lighting up a room’ whether someone has a technical or an account management role.

The ability to handle multiple threads is also really useful (a bit like a web crawler) because agency life is all about being able to handle tough questions at short notice, as well as handling multiple tasks at once.

Aleyda Solis, International SEO at SEER Interactive

On one hand, the attitude: The willingness to learn, contribute and grow, both individually, as part of a team and within the specific company –with its culture, philosophy and characteristics.

On the other, the capacity: The knowledge and experience that the candidate already has, as well as the ability to communicate and coordinate, which is key when you work at an agency with clients, especially for more senior roles.

Annabel Hodges, Editor at State of Digital

Agency life is incredibly varied and often reactive with last minute requests thrown at you from all sides, so the number one asset I would say a candidate needs is the ability to multi-task and prioritise on the fly. Keeping a cool head when last minute deadlines are thrown at you can be far from easy however those ‘throw everything in’ late night pitch brainstorms and planning sessions can also be incredibly exhilarating.

My general philosophy is that attitude and passion can’t be learnt. SEO can. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t look for good background experience within the industry, but when it comes to the crunch, I would always choose to work with the person I feel has a real desire to do or try more over the one that has the additional years of experience.

Aaron Friedman, Director of SEO at Kahena Digital

Actually, since I joined Kahena, we have done a TON of hiring, so this is something I am extremely passionate about. Depending on the position I am hiring for, SEO experience is somewhat important. But even more important than those are a few key character traits which standout and really encompass who we are as a team. I look for individuals who hustle, but in a humble way. I like self starters, people who have a drive to learn, and those who want to keep growing and innovating. I am not interested in people who are happy with the status quo. Definitely not in the SEO world since a status quo doesn’t exist.

2) How would these skills differ if interviewing an SEO candidate for client role?

Erin Everhart

They’re not differed that much. Maybe a big more project/client management, but everyone should be able to talk to clients. That’s why we don’t really have project or account managers because everyone on the team has some face time with the client. That way you hear it directly from the client and eliminate as much middle man as possible.

Joe Lewis

Having worked for FTSE 250 companies in house, as well as at the largest search agency in the country, I can attest to the very different nature of the lifestyles. Sometimes agency staff can feel overwhelmed by the volume and intensity of the work, but when most of us stop to think about it (usually in the pub) we realise that we’re somewhat addicted to the challenge and the buzz.  Pleasing challenging clients and meeting tough deadlines with a strong team can be very satisfying.

Additionally, the range of work that agencies have to deal with means that a typical week is often varied and people are quickly channeled in directions that they feel are right for their skill sets.  Becoming a specialist is much more achievable in agency side.

Aleyda Solis

I’ve worked both in house and at an agency.  The difference is that when working client side, you usually look for someone who has had already experience of working agency side.  This is because in house roles require the person to know the product inside and out and the role requires someone with a strong background to be able to lead or manage by themselves the activities that an agency would, but from the inside.

Aaron Friedman

That’s an interesting question because in many ways, when we take on a client, we consider ourselves part of their company. We don’t bill them by the hour, rather they have an assigned Account Manager who is responsible for their success. But as far as the quality of work, that doesn’t change. We do the same type of work that they should be doing internally. I have never been on the hiring end of a client, but I imagine it wouldn’t change all that much, except I would probably demand the SEO knowledge.

3) What are the three advantages of working agency side?

Erin Everhart

  • You get to learn a little about a lot of different industries and subjects.
  • Agencies are probably more willing to encourage you to guest blog or go out and speak because it helps build their name and get business
  • It’s a different beast every day. Everything is constantly changing because we have to stay up to date. Keep things exciting.

Joe Lewis

On the flip side in house work is more stable and if you’re the kind of person who wants to live, breath and eat one umbrella of brands until you have optimized every last detail, this could be the right thing for you.

Aleyda Solis

Aleyda at Mozcon
  • Diversity of work & experience: You will see much more diverse scenarios from many companies, usually across different industries and even countries.
  • SEO focused & specialized resources: You’ll have the support, input and validation of a bigger SEO team, of people totally focused on doing SEO, with diverse profiles and specializations.
  • More integral view of the SEO landscape: Due to the previous two aspects you will also end-up staying more up to date of what’s happening across many industries and countries, not only in one, with more resources –and input of other people– doing research and testing.

Annabel Hodges

There’s a never dull moment working agency side. In fact ‘agency’ is far too broad and all encompassing, which doesn’t do justice to the variety of roles and opportunities that exist across this side of the industry. I’ve worked in start-up agencies, dev & creative agencies, content agencies and media agencies. Every one brings a different challenge and greater exposure to a different channel. You are exposed to not only hugely varied industries, with totally different approaches to digital marketing – you also learn to hone your specialism within that world.

Aaron Friedman

I like working agency side because:

  • I have received more exposure to more SEO challenges than if I were only working on one site.
  • I have had the opportunity to be creative, innovate and test on a multitude of sites given the vast client roster.
  • I feel like I have had more exposure to industry experts and that I am better  informed with regards to breaking industry news.


4) What are the  three disadvantages of working agency side?

Erin Everhart

  • You learn a little about a lot of different things. It’s hard to really dive into one thing since you’re likely working across clients.
  • The hours. It’s a lot of work and it’s not 9-5. If you’re on the east coast and have a west coast client, EOD to them is 8pm your time.
  • It’s extremely competitive, which I frankly love but that may not be some people’s cup of tea.

Aleyda Solis

When working at an agency you usually handle many project with different clients and industries, so it’s easier that you might end up in situations where:

  • It’s more difficult to have a complete understanding of the client company and industry characteristics, stay up to date with every day news and opportunities.
  • It’s more challenging to dig deeper, since it’s usually easier to gain support, internal resources and work along the different teams when you’re “inside” the company and also, it’s harder to do it since you won’t likely be completely focusing on only one client.

Annabel Hodges

Annabel Hodges

Agency side can be high pressured and highly demanding. Your role is to ensure your clients sites work as hard as they can and achieve the KPIs set for them. This can mean last minute requests, short turnaround times and a requirement to do things the way the client wants it done, not the way you would prefer to do it.

You can also become silo-ed within your specialism, losing that holistic approach and focus on the ultimate end goal for the website as a whole. This isn’t always the case and shouldn’t be if your strategies are truly focused on business objectives!

Aaron Friedman

Can I pull a “not provided” on this one?. This is a tough one especially since I have never worked on client side before. But I would say

1. We are removed from the internal conversation of clients sometimes, so it’s not always easy to get things implemented or know what their priorities are.

2. It’s hard to do things beyond scope in some cases without “up-selling” and

3. Working in house, you may have better proximity to the big picture and marketing goals of the company.

5) How would you advertise working agency side compared to client side?

Erin Everhart

Why should people work in an agency as opposed to client side? I’ve never worked client side so I don’t think I can best answer that question without being completely bias.

Aleyda Solis

If you look to whether start in SEO or look to have a broader SEO experience across many clients and industries, growing your skills with the support of an experienced and strong team of SEO specialists and resources, agency work might be much better suitable for you.

Annabel Hodges

I’m not sure I would want to advertise either agency or not to be honest, I think that’s something that is very dependent on the individual and the specific role. I would however say that agency is likely to be a faster learning curve for more junior team members as so much is happening around you so quickly.

Aaron Friedman

Aaron Friedman speaking


Honestly, it really depends on the person and what they are looking for. If they already know what they want out of their job, and they find client side, great! If you aren’t entirely sure what you are looking for or you want a broader exposure to many different facets in the industry, I say agency is the way to go. You will be exposed to a wider range of site issues across many different verticals.

Next steps

Thank you to everyone who took part in the interview.

From personal experience, I have learnt a lot from working agency side, coming from working in house in an online marketing role.  As Annabel mentioned, there is a very steep learning curve when working in an agency, but there are great rewards including having experience across a broad range of different clients.

The next and final post in the series will look at what it is like to work in house and the different challenges and opportunities that exist, so watch this space…

[Featured Image source]


Written By
Jo Juliana Turnbull is the organiser of Search London and the founder of SEO Jo Blogs, which provides practical advice and tips for those in SEO.
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