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Big Orange Slide

Friday, October 31st, 2014

How to get a job in advertising: Part 1

May 14, 2010 by Ian Mackenzie

Illustration by Colin Craig

A job in advertising. For people trying to land their first (or second), getting there can be much less than half the fun. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be asking ad folks who hire their thoughts on getting in.

Today’s guest is Evan Long. He’s Creative Director of Devlin in Toronto.


1) How can one person rise to the top in a sea of similarly qualified applicants?
I know some CDs that will vehemently disagree with me here – they claim they’ll hire an applicant based on the quality of the work in their portfolio, period. That plus whoever is cheapest. However, any CD who isn’t lazy will look for hidden potential that might require some nurturing in an applicant.

The best way to get noticed and to really show off that potential is to make your portfolio a creative execution in and of itself, complete with a theme, a concept, or an idea. Your submission should represent how you’ll “sell yourself” – advertising YOU – it is in its entirety perhaps more important than any single example of your ability.

Really do it up – make your portfolio / pitch clever, unique, and memorable. You’ll beat any other similarly qualified applicant hands down if you do it right. Hell, you’ll beat people MORE qualified.

2) What’s the biggest mistake you’ve seen a person make while trying to get a job in advertising?
I have seen some woefully under-qualified people shop their books around, and it makes for embarrassing situations. If the work is amateurish, boring, tame, or outdated, it makes an interview uncomfortable.

It’s better to put together a collection of awesome spec work that never saw the light of day or was killed by a client if it’s brave and inventive than to show off dull, unchallenging material that DID see the light of day.

Also – and heaven knows I’ve been guilty of this – confidence and personality is a must (especially when a CD is looking to hire a creative person that can potentially talk in front of a group of people), but don’t overdo it or come off as too awesome for your own good. I know everyone wants to be a rock star, but try not to overdo it, oversell it, or be a total dick. It happens a LOT. I want to hire people better or more talented than me, but I don’t want to hire a douche.

3) What do you look for in a resume?
If I’m hiring a writer, I want to see signs of literacy. This sounds bizarre, but so many traditional (read: non-interactive) copywriters focus so much on conceptualization that they forget how to spel or use punctuation

Likewise, non-traditional (read: interactive) copywriters can churn out an encyclopedia’s worth of material on virtually any subject under the sun, but can’t inject any style or personality into it, or can’t collaborate or come up with truly original ideas in a brainstorming session.

If I’m hiring a designer or photographer, I like to see a strong, identifiable (yet versatile) signature style that I can easily remember. This is NOT what I look for in an art director. An art director shouldn’t be locked into a particular look or style… they should be able to work with any style, any theme, or any executional requirement.

Therefore, I tend to gravitate towards portfolios full of TOO MANY examples rather than not enough, and I love it if the examples are really ‘across the board’ in look and feel.

4) What do you look for in a student portfolio?
Obviously, a strong and attention-getting collection of samples is key (duh). However the ability to execute really good work is only, like, HALF of what someone in advertising has to deal with. The other half consists of constant pressure, time management, the ability to take criticism, teamwork, presentation skills, and just general workplace personality.

If a student put the best book ever in front of me but was immature, unable to communicate, take criticism, or connect on a fundamentally human level or just came off as rude, I would never give that person a job.

Like I said, student portfolios are often a better test of a CD then they are of the applicant themselves. Any CD worth their salt will look for potential in a book or in the applicants themselves and then weigh what it’ll take to nurture that potential. Once again, that is often best conveyed through personality, and not through the work itself (oddly enough).

5) Once you have a job, what’s the best way to make sure you keep moving forward in your career?
Conan O’Brien said it best – work hard and be kind. The unconscious temptation within the advertising world to succumb to its basest levels – office politics, megalomania, general ass-kissery and jealousy – will turn you into just another ad guy. I don’t care if you’re a writer, an art director, a strategist, an HR person or the mailroom guy – people can get so caught up in the competitiveness of the ad world that they can’t recognize themselves in the mirror.

A bad reputation WILL follow you around from company to company. Everybody knows everybody. Eventually, you’ll have to start looking for work in countries with names you can’t pronounce because nobody will hire you here.

You’re going to have to deal with incompetent managers, bad account people, gossip, unfair compromises, lawyers, the blame game, and a lot of late nights. Like it or not, it’ll happen. If you can just keep your eye on the prize and do the best work you can and be as nice to everyone around you, you’ll do just fine. Don’t feel like you have to grab the first opportunity for more money or claw your way up the corporate ladder… if you’re patient and legitimately good, elevator doors will eventually open in front of you. You just have to know when to walk through, and when to wait for the next one. It takes learning and failure, but if you stick with it and put up with all the shit, it’ll pan out. I promise. Your time will come; even if it means watching less-qualified people ascend first.

I hear that sleeping your way to the top is also very effective. Or at least it was in the 80s.

6) Any other thoughts on getting a job in advertising?
Remember people – we live in a world of totally integrated media. If you’re great at writing 30-second commercials but are ‘above’ writing copy for an online banner, congrats – you’re a dinosaur. And an asshole.

People just starting out have a HUGE advantage over the tenured pros in that they don’t really carry such baggage.

If you can’t handle branded content, if you’re not willing to learn or adapt, or if you can’t take criticism, can’t listen, or can’t yield to better ideas – even if they come from younger or less experienced creatives or (gasp) non-creatives, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Get the ‘personality’ part of the gig down first, because you’re going to need it.

We can’t predict what advertising is going to look like in five years… if you can believe and demonstrate that you won’t gather moss and will carry your youthful exuberance and good intentions with you, you’re hired.


You can read more from Evan Long at Devlin’s blog, here.

UPDATE: Click through read Parts 2, 3, and 4 of this series.

18 Comments on "How to get a job in advertising: Part 1"

  • Jacoub Bondre
    May 14, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    Great advice!

  • Nicholas
    May 14, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    That has to be the single best and most accurate advice I have ever read after ten years in the business.

  • Corey Dilley
    May 14, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    Great article Ian. I think this comment is worth a tweak though:

    “Don’t feel like you have to grab the first opportunity for more money or claw your way up the corporate ladder… if you’re patient and legitimately good, elevator doors will eventually open in front of you.”

    You’re spot on about not taking the first opportunity for more money, but I wouldn’t wait for the elevator doors to open either. I would say it’s best to go with the flow and learn as much as possible until you’ve got a hand to play. When you’re an asset to your company and the industry, that’s when you can make a move. If you just wait for the elevator doors to open for you, someone else will jump in first.

    I’m writing a similar post on my blog, but it’s more of a structured how-to for job hunting and interviewing strategy. I hope you don’t mind if I link to your post as a reference within mine: The Pivot Table: Getting A New Job In Marketing.

  • Ian Mackenzie
    May 14, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    Hey Corey – thanks for the comment. Just a quick clarification: This is an interview with Evan Long. The words you’re referring too are all his.

    By all means, reference away. I’m heading over to your link right now to get more of your thoughts on this.

  • Courtney Lunn
    May 14, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    All of this is so true, I’ve had students in my classes who are really good at what they do, but because their egos are too large that they come off as arrogant.

    Thanks for the post, a nice read to relax me a bit for interviews

  • Geoff
    May 16, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

    That’s not just good Advice for someone starting in avertising… That’s great advice for anyone IN advertising.

    Nobody is actually like that, though. Not to sound negative, but ‘ad guys’ are the reason I quit the biz to go client-side. People starting out need to know that the creative side of the industry is full of miserable hotshots who will sell their Mom to get an award or a pat on the head.

  • Ruby Zagorskis
    May 17, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    Great advice Evan, though some may prefer Alec Brownstein’s more shotgun approach. http://bit.ly/9A6YZy. I think I do.

  • ameet
    May 17, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    Perhaps you may have already touched on this in your blog but I did not see it in this posting.

    One of the most important aspects of getting a job regardless of industry is through networking. You can be the best at your craft and you still need to know people to give you that extra bit of leverage.
    So network as much as you can and early on in your career. I am sure you have found yourself stating that you are shocked how person X got a job. Person Y always responds, he or she probably knew someone to get the job. Well.. be that person and get yourself out there.

    Secondly, you touched on ego. Yes competitive ego is great and should be highly regarded. If you are good at what you do, be proud of it. However Ego when not used in the best way can get you in trouble. Remembering that it’s a team effort that wins the race will make you the best co-worker. There are those whose ego is so large that no one wants to be around them. So please don’t be a dick.

  • Anhtony Kalamut
    May 31, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    Ian…

    As an educator simply put: A+

    Thank you for the affirmation to my message.

    Any student who doesn’t read this and reflect upon it is as noted in the piece… “…an asshole”.

    Anthony Kalamut
    Professor/Program Coordinator
    Seneca College Toronto

  • Ian Mackenzie
    June 1, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    Agreed. A+ for Evan.

    Love your “A view from an AdGuy” blog, btw. Just added it to our blogroll.

    Cheers.

  • Ask The Agency: Grip Ltd. – Breaking In - Marketing Man
    June 24, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    [...] and don’t forget to visit their awesome blog – and in particular, their series on getting a job, which inspired this post! Share this Post: Tagged with: advice, ask the agency, [...]

  • Brian Lemond
    July 29, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    Definitely a good read; as a CD myself, it always refreshing to see other CD’s both doling out accurate advice and being critical of their own role in the process.

    The one thing i’d add to the bit about being patient, working hard, and seeing opportunities open before you is that open, frank communication is a real tool all of us have within our grasp. That may mean talking openly with the firm you’re with so they understand your goals and expectations, and it may mean being honest with prospective future employers. Regardless, one thing I think it’s pretty safe to say is that most of us CDs would rather have an efficient path to knowing a given context than a murky situation where we need to speculate on an employee’s (or potential hire’s) thoughts, ambitions, and satisfaction-level. Just lay it out there; it will help you find the best fit for you and will help that situation stay a good fit longer.

  • Liam Mooney
    August 5, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    Handsome article Ian.

    I have been applying to ad agencies like a fiend, check out my blog at http://www.liammooney.wordpress.com

    I have applied to over 1,100 agencies in North America to get in as an intern or a jr copywriter.

    People love me work, my approach, my ingenuity, creativity and still I get told that there isn’t budget or room for new staff or even interns.

    My blog has been chronicling my journey.

    I should note that I have scored a freelancing gig with Saatchi in the States. It’s ad hoc copywriting but I will take it.

    Seriously check out my blog, I am posting some of my spec ads on there tonight too ;)

    Liam

  • Ian Mackenzie
    August 5, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    Hey Liam,

    Thanks for the comment. And again, any handsomeness this interview may contain belongs solely to its subject, Evan Long.

    But here’s my take on those 1,100 applications of yours:

    My first instinct is to wonder if you’re privileging quantity over quality.

    I don’t believe that any one man is capable of putting out 1,100 high-quality job applications. That’s because most effective job applications have something going for them beyond a snappy cover letter, impressive credentials and solid work samples: They have a recipient that’s been pre-primed to be interested in them – ideally from the inside.

    Most CDs and HR folks get tons of cold-call job applications – many more than they’ll ever be able to respond to, let alone hire. They aren’t brushing it off because it’s yours, they’re brushing it off because it’s a cold-call application.

    What you need is someone on the inside with a shred of pull who can put in a good word the moment just before the CD stands up and says, “We need an Intern.”

    Friends in the industry? Friends of parents? Information interviews? I don’t know. Sounds like you’ve got the application side of the equation sorted out. You’ve got a great and funny blog. I’d work on the “who you know” side for a bit.

    Congrats on the Saatchi gig, btw. How is that not awesome?

  • Alice P
    August 17, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    “Remember people – we live in a world of totally integrated media. If you’re great at writing 30-second commercials but are ‘above’ writing copy for an online banner, congrats – you’re a dinosaur. And an asshole.”

    Why isn’t this guy running Ogilvy Worldwide? Seriously the best advice ever.

  • nick
    December 16, 2010 @ 3:33 am

    If you are of white race you’ll mostly likely get the job no matter what you are. If you are not of white race then kiss this kind of job good bye, or any better paying job.

  • Jacoub Bondre
    December 16, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    I don’t think that true @nick. I am mostly of arab decent ( my wife calls me ethnic chutney :D ) and hold a very senior position here at Grip. Not to mention I haven’t heard of a country called “white land”. (I assume you mean european and north west asian decent, but there are a lot of flavors of people in those region )

    Has there been situations where you feel you have been discriminated against in this industry? Or is this a general perception of yours with white collar jobs?

    It would be ignorant to say that racism doesn’t exist in the world, or even in Toronto. After 9/11 I felt a little under the microscope. But the reality is that the world is improving, and here in the T.O. My dentist is Korean, my doctor is Greek, and my co-workers are a tapestry of cultures.

    Don’t let a few primeval fossils with closed minds, paint an entire industry for you.

  • Mary Sohn
    November 3, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

    Great tips, Ian. I’ll keep these in mind when putting my résumé together for the Account Coordinator position. Love the irony of spelling “spell” as “spel” in point 3. Fabulous.

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