• Emma Venables

10 things my first agency job taught me

Updated: May 4

Although I'm a freelancer these days, I've always been a strong advocate of working at an agency first before diving straight in as a fresh faced graduate. There are lots of reasons that come to mind, so I've put together a list of the 10 most important things my first agency job taught me and why I will always be grateful for that initial chance they gave me.

Typical studio of a creative graphic design agency
Typical studio of a creative graphic design agency

1. Confidence

The fact I was hired in my first agency role, despite still being a couple of months away from graduation, really gave me the confidence that I could make a go of this after all! Up until then, despite it always being something I had wanted to do, it always felt like a bit of a long shot to land a job in the arts. It also reminded me that the job spec is simply a list of qualities an employer would like you to have. That's it – a wish list. If you have most of the qualities they're looking for, but are missing 1 or 2 things, it's worth applying anyway. Worst case, you don't get a reply. Best case? You land your dream job. Create your own luck.

2. Software skills

Nothing speeds up your learning faster than someone actually walking you through how to do something, and actually giving you advice, as you are doing it. I can tell you that I've been using Adobe software (Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign) for over 20 years now and there is still a whole bunch of things I've yet to learn. Not only are there several ways to do everything but there are always new features being released too! When you are first starting out, having someone who can show you where you might be going wrong, or the most efficient tool for a certain job really can help to speed things along. I learned about tools I never even knew existed after I first graduated. I'll always be thankful to the senior designers for taking the time to show me the ropes on a few things!

3. Presentation skills

From letting me come along to client meetings, without actually pressurising me to say anything in particular, really helped me to observe exactly how it's done and what to expect. They let me speak up in my own time, which as an introvert, was amazing and much more gentler than being completely thrown in at the deep end. Having a more senior person alongside me meant that there would always be someone to step in and answer any questions I was unsure of.

4. Print knowledge

Uni is all good and well, but what didn't it teach me? How to actually output anything for print, that's what. My first job taught me how to set up a job for print, to check the colours, images, bleed and fonts, and how to talk to printers. It taught me about different paper types and print finishes. It equipped me with the information to go it alone, right from the start. My time working in an agency made me confident that I could source quality products for my clients and most importantly know how to ensure I was always submitting quality files from my end too.

5. Troubleshooting techniques

What do you do when something goes wrong, or prints not as you expected? Several (more experienced) heads are better than one, and I can't stress enough how much their knowledge and experience helped me to be confident of solving print conundrums on my own. Why white text might not be showing up (overprint problems), why something might not be lining up properly (trapping/knockout issues), the reasons why that blue swatch might not be printing correctly (is it a Pantone swatch by any chance?), thin white lines appearing on a PDF (transparency issues), or fonts display as missing (try converting to outlines). Thankfully, problems don't crop up all that often, but spending a few years in different agency settings has given me experience of the issues that do arise, and more importantly, how to solve them.

6. How to do the housekeeping

I got to experience the real life way an agency runs. From creating the initial project brief and booking the job in, right through to invoicing at the end. How to keep time sheets, archive a job, and how to organise files were all valuable skills. Who knew that file naming convention could be so important? I now find it easy to keep on top of everything and to know where everything's at, at any given stage.

7. How to deal with clients and amends

Learning how to deal with clients and various requests was also important. I would receive amends over the phone, in an email, as comments in a PDF, and even once, as a very long fax (!) It can sometimes be a bit of a skill to decipher exactly what is meant in an email, and it is equally a skill to be able to extract 'what's in someone's mind', from the snippets they're able to describe to you. A big part of the job is learning to read between the lines. Also not to be offended – not everyone has the same taste, and that's ok. That being said, I once had a client call me to say they hated an ad I had sent, only to then find out, what they ACTUALLY hated was the photo of themself that was on it (which they had supplied!) Keeping a calm head is a must.

8. Not to over rely on one client

It wasn't all rosy in agency life. As with any industry there were ups and downs. I've seen first hand what can happen if you grow your business relying too much on the income of just 1 or 2 clients. Much in the way that businesses over rely on just one social media platform today, anything could change in an instant and come crashing down. Creating more than one income stream is important, and always thinking a few steps ahead will serve you well.

9. The importance of marketing

Following on from point 8, something which I really took on, moving forward, was knowing that it would be very important to never stop marketing. Whilst word of month is amazing to have, it's not often enough on its own – especially if you only have a handful of larger clients like my first agency did. You need to take your own future into your hands and not rely on past clients to spread the word for you. Get out there and be seen!

10. The art of diversification

If 2020 taught us anything, it's the art of diversification, and yet, I saw this myself way back in that first job. Although the consequences of losing 1 or 2 large clients were massive, the company saw a gap in the market and changed direction from print design to specialised photography to fill this gap. I'm not saying it's always best to be a jack of all trades – I myself, only focus on print design – but it's always a lesson to remember and to be thinking about what else you can offer. During the lockdown I found the time to put together my LinkedIn ebook to help other businesses get out there and be seen too. Whilst I don't handle social media management myself, I had the knowledge from doing it for my own business and gaining international clients, along with the design skills to package it up in a way that's easy to read and digest for the user. There will always be something you can add, without changing your core offering!

So there we are, 10 things I learned from my first agency job. For more information on my ebook head over to www.emmajaynecreative.co.uk/ebooks or drop me a message to find out more about my design services.