In our digital marketing and e-commerce careers guide, published at the beginning of the month, we put together some of the industry’s best advice on how senior digital professionals can improve their career.

As so much great advice was contributed that we couldn’t include in the report itself, we’ve been publishing blog posts featuring the commentary we received.

Last week we asked whether it was better to be a generalist or specialist in digital marketing, and the week beforehand we asked what attributes were most sought after in senior digital professionals

This week our contributors answer the question: do digital leaders need both client-side and agency-side experience?

Though the answer may appear obvious for some, this question provoked a variety of responses with some interesting points on the merits of having such a background. We’ve compiled some of the most valuable insights below.

Rosalie Kurton, head of new business, LBi:

Not necessarily. It helps to be able to understand a client’s challenges operationally, as well as from a marketing and technology viewpoint, but this is often the result of forging strong partnerships and relationships with clients, including periods of co-location to create a blended client/agency team.”

Claire Higgins, head of digital marketing, Selfridges:

I think having both is an advantage, as well as having a variety of experience across different sectors.

The benefits range from the consultative approach and strategic insight that an agency background can bring to the table, to understanding the pressurised dynamic of agency life that can help the team perform well under tight deadlines.”

David Paice, e-commerce director, Merlin Entertainments:

If you can speak an agency’s language it will generally help speed certain processes up and you will have a better appreciation of whether you are getting value for money, but this is not essential.”

Chris Ketley, head of digital and e-commerce, Bupa:

No, but I have, and it helps in two ways from a client perspective: first, to appreciate how an agency might add value and also its limitations; second, because in many companies the digital function operates and acts like a central agency resource. Business capability assessment, internal specialist digital skills and relationship management and are all important elements shared by clients and agencies.”

Allison Wightman, head of ebusiness, Virgin Atlantic:

Not necessarily. Both client side and agency side are exciting jobs but it’s often considered much cooler to work in an agency with different accounts, varying projects and new opportunities, particularly when you are getting a grounding in all things digital. If you work for a brand you have the challenge of growing a profitable digital business and also enjoy the perks of whatever company you work for, but you may not stay put as long as to grow in your career, as there is often only one website in most companies.”

Matt Simpson, head of digital for EMEA, OmnicomMediaGroup:

Absolutely not, although it has some advantages. The benefit of having a background which includes both client and agency experience is a generally better understanding of what people want out of a situation, a better ability to read between the lines. There are many issues which affect a client’s ability to implement certain recommendations which are often not explained, having some knowledge of these is of course very helpful.”

Alison Lancaster, CMO, Kiddicare, and marketing director, Morrison’s Non-Food:

I’d say yes, because I do – and you get very different perspectives depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting. Having worked on the agency and consulting side, and then become a client, I think you are able to get closer to the commercial priorities, trading issues, available data and wider business needs.

However, when the chemistry is right, great agencies really listen and invest the time to get to know their clients inside out as if they are part of the client team. Great clients really appreciate and understand how to get the most out of their agencies – sharing information and insights as if they were an extension of their own team, and knowing what motivates them.  So if you don’t have experience on both sides, take the time and trouble to really engage, listen, question and view things from both dimensions – and, of course, always view from the customer perspective.”

Tessa Cook, e-commerce MD, Dyson:

No, not at all. Agency side people are often great at prioritising, project management and strategy. Client side people tend to be more grounded in reality, and great at getting stuff done.”

Paul Wishman, group e-commerce director, LV:

This isn’t mandatory, as experience gained is usually sufficient to understand how to manage and work with respective agencies. This said there is value in having someone who is able to better empathise when dealing with their agency counterparts, and often people with this background do have greater technical depth.”

Russell Gould, former MD,

This is nice to have but I don’t really see any great value here. The key is to understand both sides.”

Fiona Spooner, head of acquisition and optimisation, Financial Times:

I’m sure it’s helpful but not necessary. I would say that though as I have always been client-side, but I make a point to spend constructive time with agencies, learning how they work and think.”  

What are your thoughts? Do you need both client-side and agency-side experience to succeed in digital marketing? How useful is it to have? Have you made the transition from one side to the other?  Join the debate and share your thoughts in the comments below.

For further information, download our free digital marketing and e-commerce careers guide (registration required) or find out more about the other free reports offered by Econsultancy.