What Is an Advertising Agency?

Ad agency staff meeting


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It may seem like a basic question with a straightforward answer, but the modern advertising agency is more complex than it sounds.

An ad agency creates, plans, and manages all aspects of a client's advertising. Ad agencies can specialize in areas such as interactive advertising, or they can be a full-service agency that creates advertising materials like websites, online and social campaigns, brochures, catalogs, direct mail, print ads, radio and TV commercials, and sales letters.

Types of Ad Agencies

You cannot simply paint every ad agency with the same brush. That would be like saying every TV station is the same. Yes, they all have very similar functions, but there are many variations that separate them. For a start, there are three different types of agencies:

  • Above The Line (ATL): These are the big agencies that handle the prime accounts and create the national and even international advertising campaigns that take a significant chunk of the client's budget. Their work shows up in big TV campaigns, n magazines, newspapers, and non-traditional media (stunts, guerrilla campaigns). 
  • Below The Line (BTL): These agencies don't have the budgets or recognition of the ATL agencies, but are still vitally important to the media mix (even more so these days with the prevalence of online ads). BTL agencies typically handle direct mail, regional ads, text ads, online text and banner ads. However, they will sometimes handle ATL type of accounts too, although it is not their bread and butter. 
  • Through The Line (TTL): Perhaps the most common of the three, TTL agencies are a blend of ATL and BTL. They create campaigns from soup to nuts, from the big stunts, outdoor, TV and radio, right down to microsites and coupons. Tactics that were once considered BTL are getting big budgets put behind them, including campaigns on SnapChat, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Aside from these three basic types, there are also specialist agencies that include:

  • Digital Advertising Agencies: These agencies have a primary focus on all things digital. They develop websites, apps, online campaigns, and anything else considered digital advertising. While they can also produce print, radio and even TV, their day-to-day operation is all about digital.
  • Healthcare Advertising Agencies: There is a need for specialists that focus on just healthcare products and services because these areas can be a legal nightmare to handle. Healthcare ad agencies handle pharmaceutical accounts, hospitals, medical equipment, and anything else considered too niche for a traditional ad agency.
  • Financial/Tech Advertising Agencies: Just like healthcare, the worlds of finance and technology can be a minefield to negotiate. These agencies have specialist writers and art directors who know the ins and outs of these subjects.
  • In House Advertising Agencies: These agencies are based within a corporation or company and do work only for that entity. Whether it's a big brand like Apple or Nike, or something much smaller, they work exclusively on that product or service and are employed by the company itself. 

Types of Ad Agency Jobs

Typical employees found at an ad agency include the agency president, creative director, account executives, copywriters, graphic designers, and a media director.

Some agencies also work with freelance copywriters and/or freelance graphic designers who usually do not work on-site. More often, smaller ad agencies grow and shrink based on client projects, hiring contractors on an hourly, daily, or project-by-project basis. 

Downsides of the Job

This is not a typical nine-to-five job, and most employees will be asked to work long hours and weekends from time to time.

It is a stressful environment, and layoffs are common. Typically, if a client pulls an account from the agency, layoffs will follow. Clients can be very demanding, and employees can be asked to drop everything to work on an urgent project. 

Benefits of the Job

It's a creative environment that mixes fun with some great opportunities to travel, potentially meet famous people, and even put your feet up while drinking a beer coming up with ideas.

Many agencies have areas that allow the staff to enjoy a game of pool or darts, relax in bean bag chairs, and even take a nap. The pay can be excellent, and some agencies will give you unlimited vacation days—not that you'll often get to use them or, hopefully, want to.