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Big Orange Slide

Monday, September 22nd, 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 If the work is amateurish, boring, tame, or outdated, it makes an interview uncomfortable.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.

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