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Why Did You Go Back to the Agency Life?

“Why did you go back to the agency life?”

Those were the words a friend messaged me on LinkedIn when she saw I was working for WillowTree. “You got out!” she continued, and I laughed. This was not the first time someone reached out to me with a similar question, but perhaps after I write this, it will be the last.

I could’ve gone into a description of how we’re not an “agency”, but I knew they’d heard it all before. Most of my friends are agency veterans who’ve become semi-cynical by their experiences at previous companies as well as broken promises of “a new way of doing things”. Most times, those “new ways” usually turned out to be the same way, but with a foosball table, a gaming system, or balance balls rolling around the office. Those companies rewarded burnout behavior like badges of honor for how long someone worked in a day, how many late nights were spent finishing projects, or awards for the most billable hours in a month. Those superlatives honestly didn’t interest my friends or me. This would usually be the point where I’d tell the inquisitive friend that I actually hesitated when I landed my first interview with WillowTree.

During my visit, I was struck by the things they talked about, but I was more impressed by the things they didn’t mention. Most places like to brag about the projects they enjoyed, like an award-winning site or an app, but WillowTree was different. They talked about the people they worked with and how they found a company that accommodated their schedule. And when they did talk about projects they liked, they talked more about the clients and the solutions they enjoyed creating for them. They talked about real things. They didn’t brag about profits, awards, or “the Holiday Party with fire-eating break-dancers”. Instead, they talked about leaving the office when they needed to go home or when they needed to spend time with their children, and how they were supported when they needed to put in extra work on projects. They were transparent, buzzword-free, and real. I instantly felt at ease with them.

Once I started working at WillowTree, I learned something about these nice people. They were telling the truth. They backed up being nice by also being smart. Like, really smart. I walked out of my first team meeting with the impression that every person in the room was the smartest person in the room regardless of their age or title. Some of the questions presented were, “How does this benefit the client?” and unironic statements about how our core values informed how we needed to handle a situation. I’ve been doing this for twenty years and I’d never actually seen a team member bring up a core value in service of a client.

It only took me one week to know without question that I was with the right people in the right place. Even if we are all now in different physical places working from home, the people have not changed. We’ve adapted to these challenges and embraced new ways of doing things for each other and our clients (and we’ve done some silly stuff along the way).

Since our culture was already focused on acceptance, inclusion, and empathy, it’s made the unexpected child cameos, barking dogs, and sometimes messy room backgrounds more of an opportunity to bond rather than awkward moments to feed anxiety. Plus, now we get to have contests on who can come up with the most ridiculous Zoom backgrounds.

So, why did I decide to go back to the agency life?

I don’t think I did. I decided to work at WillowTree. And I’m happy to say some of my inquisitive friends have now decided to work here as well.

To be fair, we do have a really fun Holiday Dinner, but that’s because it’s with the same super nice, smart people — not because of fire-eating breakdancers.

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