After nearly eight years in startups, I changed sides and went to work for a digital marketing agency.  It was very different from what I had known, and different is always exciting to me at first, but as time went on I developed an analogy to help me identify exactly the change I was experiencing.

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startup : otter :: agency : cruise ship

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Let me break that down. Cruise ships are huge, slow-moving things being steered by a committee. They are difficult to maneuver, but they are great for taking a lot of people to the same place. Otters, while they exist in the same basic universe as a cruise ship, are self-directed, nimble, and really only have to take care of themselves and their own little family.

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Inefficiencies create jobs, and that’s a good thing.

The agency I worked for was quite small, but our clients were huge. Huge. I often found myself exploring their org charts and business practices, in an effort to find any consideration for efficiency. My mind boggled at the model that I saw repeated over and over: Employees of MegaOrganization hires multiple agencies to recommend and execute marketing tactics, then spend all of their time managing said agencies. The agencies, on the other hand, might be efficient and well-informed and good for their clients (as ours was), or it might be behind the times, the unqualified product of nepotism, or simply negligent.

No matter the case, I often found myself baffled by the inefficiencies, and I had to come up with a story that I could tell myself that would make it slightly less soul-crushing: Inefficiencies like this create jobs. In fact, they create lots of very high paying jobs, which is very good for the economy. Sigh.

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Reluctant diplomacy.

I am a very direct person. Very. If you ask my opinion (and often if you don’t), you’ll get it, straight-shootin’, call-it-like-I-see-it, no candy coating. Anything less feels too much like deception. In my past experience, this was valued and encouraged. If I spotted a pitfall, an opportunity to improve, a hidden strength, I would call it out, make sure it got the proper attention, and the business was better for it.

It was very difficult to me to learn that this is not how life on a cruise ship works. I was constantly told “Be more positive!” and all I could think to say was “I’m positive these conversion rates could be improved significantly!”

Emphasizing the positive (no matter the relevance), downplaying the negative (no matter the importance), highlighting achievement (no matter the value), hiding underperformance (unless explicitly asked) were the tactics I was taught, and though it was incredibly difficult for me, I think I managed to almost be able to do it.

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Now that I’m on my own, of course, those lessons are important to me knowing what a client may expect, and how to prepare them for the efficiency they can expect from working with me.

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