How Does an Advertising Agency Work?

All agencies share a similar structure

An advertising agency meeting with a client and discussing marketing strategies.
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Before you get into the advertising business, you need to know the basic mechanics of how an advertising agency works. Agencies vary greatly in size and shape, but most follow a tried-and-tested structure that works well, whether they employ a dozen people, or several hundred. 

In the smaller agencies, some people will perform more than one role; one person may actually be the entire department. In larger agencies, some of these departments are broken out again for efficacy. But the fundamentals are the same because this model was born out of necessity, and it works.

Ad Agency Account Services

The account service department is comprised of account executives, account managers, and account directors, and is responsible for liaising with the agency's many clients. This department is the link between the many departments within the agency and the clients who pay the bills. In the past they were referred to as "the suits," and there have been many battles between the account services department and the creative department. But as most creatives know, a good account services team is essential to a good advertising campaign. A solid creative brief is one of the main duties of account services.

Agency Account Planning

This department combines research with strategic thinking. Often a mix of researchers and account managers, the account planning department provides consumer insights, strategic direction, research, and focus groups, and helps keep advertising campaigns on target and on-brand. Chris Cowpe, author of the author of "How to Win Friends and Influence Profits," described account planning as "…the discipline that brings the consumer into the process of developing advertising. To be truly effective, advertising must be both distinctive and relevant, and planning helps on both counts."

Creative Ad Agency Employees

This is the engine of any advertising agency. It's the lifeblood of the business because the creative department is responsible for the product. And an ad agency is only as good as the ads the creative department puts out. The roles within the creative department are many and varied, and usually include:

  • Copywriters
  • Art Directors
  • Designers
  • Production Artists
  • Web Designers
  • Associate Creative Directors
  • Creative Director(s)

In many agencies, copywriters and art directors are paired up, working as teams. They will also bring in the talents of other designers and production artists if and when the job requires it. Sometimes, traffic is handled by a position within the creative department, although that is usually part of the production department. Everyone in creative services reports to the Creative Director. It is this person's role to steer the creative product, making sure it is on-brand, on-brief, and on-time.

Finance and Accounts

Money. At the end of the day, that's what ad agencies want. And it's what their clients want, too. At the center of all the money coming into, and going out of, the agency is the finance and accounts department. This department is responsible for handling payment of salaries, benefits, vendor costs, travel, day-to-day business costs and everything else you'd expect from doing business. It's been said that approximately 70 percent of an ad agency's income pays salary and benefits to employees. However, this figure varies depending on the size and success of the agency in question.

Media Buying

It is the function of the media-buying department to procure the advertising time and/or space required for a successful advertising campaign. This includes TV and radio time, outdoor (billboards, posters, guerrilla), magazine and newspaper insertions, internet banners and takeovers, and, well, anywhere else an ad can be placed for a fee. This usually involves close collaboration with the creative department who came up with the initial ideas, as well as the client and the kind of exposure they want. This department is usually steered by a media director.

Production From Ad Agencies

Ideas are just ideas until they're made real. This is the job of the production department. During the creative process, the production department will be consulted to talk about the feasibility of executing certain ideas. Once the ad is sold to the client, the creative and account teams will collaborate with production to get the campaign produced on-budget. This can be anything from getting original photography or illustration produced, working with printers, hiring typographers and TV directors, and myriad other disciplines needed to get an ad campaign published. The production also works closely with the media department, who will supply the specs and deadlines for the jobs.

Human Resources and Facilities

Most businesses, whether they're related to advertising or not, will have an HR department. This is the department responsible for the nuts and bolts of hiring and firing employees, dealing with state and federal employment laws, monitoring vacation and sick time, and the overall wellbeing of the staff. They are often rolled in with the facilities department, which is responsible for building maintenance and keeping everything in the office working, safe, and up to code. 

Advertising Agency Research

Larger agencies will rely heavily on their own research department to provide a wealth of data on current and future clients. This is the department responsible for focus groups and testing, analyzing and interpreting data, and helping the creative and account teams focus on new market trends.

Online Development

Once relegated to a designer who knew a bit of coding, this is a fast-growing department and deals with everything from website and mobile design, to apps and interactive experiences. This department may have its own creative director that specializes in web and online design and will have a staff that could rival the size and strength of the creative department. 

I.T. (Information Technology)

The I.T. department is no longer just a couple of nerds in a basement. It can be a huge department, especially in agencies that have a large creative presence. Most I.T. departments in advertising agencies will specialize more in Macs than PCs, as most creative departments run on Apple products. 

Traffic at an Advertising Agency

In small to mid-sized agencies, traffic is rolled up into the production department. It is the job of traffic to get each and every job through the various stages of account management, creative development, media buying and production in a set timeframe. Traffic will also ensure that work moves through the agency smoothly, preventing jams that may overwhelm creative teams and lead to very long hours, missed deadlines and problematic client relationships. Traffic keeps the agency's heart beating.