From agency to “client-side”

james helms
4 min readAug 12, 2016


Five years ago, I made a conscious decision to leave the agency world when I left my VP, Creative Director job at an advertising agency and joined App Development boutique Bottle Rocket as a Mobile Strategist. Three years later, I took my current role with Intuit’s Professional Tax business. The transition was complete.

Going “Client side” always induced an eye-roll when I worked at agencies. It was a sell-out move. A decision to exchange high-pressure agency exhilaration for lower creative standards with bigger salaries. Only account execs did it. Not to mention, professional tax? — where was the creative opportunity in THAT?!

Having now worked client side for two years, I can safely say that’s bullshit. Granted, Intuit is consistently rated as a best place to work, a customer-first, design-led product and platform company and a thriving fin-tech growth stock. But I’ve found the opportunities are bigger, the creative challenges more comprehensive, the ability to make a difference much more tangible and measurable. And the talent is universally incredible.

What I appreciate about my job, my role, my department, and my company is — I have a tremendous amount of influence to drive cohesive product and marketing design. I have unprecedented context and access to all the moving parts of the business. I now realize just how shallow a slice of the business my agencies were allowed to see and therefore were able to truly influence. And just how shallow my contribution to a business was at every agency I ever worked for — even those that described the agency relationship as partnership.

I’m proud of my team, our work, and our ability to make a difference for our customers and their clients every day. I’m more connected to the people we design for and we’re focused on serving their needs, not inventing new ones. As it turns out, professional tax carries with it the opportunity to be incredibly creative. We’re designing to strengthen relationships between our customers and their clients. It’s a big, interesting problem with lots of facets and opportunities to work across the Quickbooks, Turbo Tax and Mint businesses. Across the country and across the globe.

The only real thing I miss about advertising (sometimes) is, I do a lot less production work — the days of working with talented photographers, directors and editors, or sitting around in edit suites, drinking free Snapple, eating blue M&Ms and attending tons of free sporting events are behind me. But that’s a small price to pay for job satisfaction, fair pay, work life balance, executive mentorship, coaching and working for a company with values grounded in “integrity without compromise.”

So, are you considering making the move?

As you reposition yourself as a creative asset for a company like Intuit, it’s important to illustrate the value you add to your current job in three ways: Your role both in executing great creative work and also influencing craft in your department/team; Your role in leading/influencing strategy and tying your work to business objectives; and your role in driving design across your company. Your clever headlines and beautiful layouts are only as good as the results they drive. If you aren’t there yet, wait until you are.

Beyond the creative work, describe your contributions to the team––Take time to describe your accomplishments around mentoring juniors, overseeing the work of others, hiring, all that stuff. Companies are looking for broad contributors, not just creative hot-shots. Demonstrate your depth, your range and your passion that goes beyond agonizing over kerning and color correction.

Leading/influencing business strategy — get credit for your role in crafting briefs that align creative with business objectives. And successful new business efforts.

Driving creative across the company — talk about events, outreach, internal campaigns, and cross-functional partnership. Your role was broader than a contributor. Distinguish where you drove projects, built influence and developed internal and 3rd party partnerships that resulted in better work and higher visibility of creative’s role in strategy. And call out great working relationships with clients where you built trust through expertise.

Patiently break down your rationale––You’re just as likely presenting to a business or marketing leader as a creative director. They expect that you have a mixture of creative talent and really great business and communication skills. Ground your work with objective, audience/target/user, and the hardest results data you can provide.

In all honesty, “client side” isn’t for everyone. While many companies, like Intuit, value design across their organizations with varying levels of maturity and success, it’s the responsibility of every designer within those companies to continue to push for better work, greater visibility, understanding and influence. In companies, unlike creative agencies where the role of creative seems implicit, design must continually reassert its value and demonstrate its ROI. But I think that’s healthy. It keeps me sharp and thinking ahead.

The business context alone is an argument that every agency person should take a turn on the client side. There’s no question, if I ever decided to go back to an agency, I’d bring ton of perspective with me. Empathy for what businesses expect from their agencies. A hunger for real data, both qualitative and quantitative. A respect for the role every function plays in supporting the customer relationship and the business’ success. Better criteria of what makes “a good client.” New criteria to identify and new methods to coach talent. A better sense of how to drive organizational change. New understanding around product and fiscal lifecycle.

Good stuff. Specifically attributable to Intuit, which is a first-class company that has invested heavily in my success. Maybe more so than any agency I’ve worked for––aside from the one that gave me my first break 20 years ago. I still have a special place in my heart for that first job, which taught me so much and introduced me to so many awesome, talented people who continue to inspire me every day.



james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.