"If you were a mobile app, which would you be and why?"
So reads the essay question in this year's application for Digitas' summer internship program. There is also the standard application that includes résumé questions, but the agency is really looking for candidates able to creatively solve problems. A student could be a business major at one of the best undergrad schools with a 4.0 GPA, but if his or her essay is a snoozer, that student could very well be passed over. It's one way for Digitas to ensure it's finding what it considers the best fit for the agency's culture.
"The major doesn't really matter," said Nicole Stanley, senior VP-talent for the Chicago and San Francisco offices at Digitas. "We recruit based on the agency's values -- risk-taking, curiosity -- and whether the candidates have those same values. We can often tell from their essay response, and then when they come in for an interview, we can tell whether they really do have that curiosity factor."
Generally, large agencies have big summer-internship programs. Digitas typically recruits about 100 summer interns throughout its six U.S. offices, nearly all of them students or fresh out of school. Leo Burnett enlists about 70 students in its Chicago office each summer.
Most agencies seek out interns from universities (or ad schools for creative talent) and have longstanding relationships with colleges, including advisers, professors and department directors, that they can tap for a steady stream of budding talent. Ms. Stanley said Digitas has close relationships with about 10 universities, including University of California in Berkeley, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Howard University and Brown University, among others.
Renetta McCann, chief talent officer at Leo Burnett, said that for her agency, interns are chosen with long-term employment in mind. They may not all get jobs there, but the intern pool is where the shop turns first when looking for its entry-level staffers.
"It is a very comprehensive way for us to see students in action and see how they're going to work in the agency," said Ms. McCann, adding that it benefits students as well, because they get to see what an agency is really like and if it's the right fit for them. "There are still a lot of people who come to us with the 'Mad Men' view of agency life," she said. The internship program gives them a truer picture of advertising, such as the hours, working with teams and the various disciplines within the agency. "All the things that make it real for you, so that if you're made an offer, you know what you're getting into."
Some agencies bypass the standard university recruitment process. Campbell-Mithun takes a bit of a different approach for its Lucky 13 summer internship program. Since 2006, the Minneapolis shop has chosen its interns based on a series of 13 tweets that respond to a specific assignment. Last year, the agency hired its interns based on who, in a series of tweets, came up with the best brand-engagement ideas for Twinkies.
And though most agencies rely heavily on relationships with schools, Marty Kohr, senior associate director of Career Services for Employer Engagement at Northwestern, said the students that take risks to stand out have the better chances.
"The best successes are from aggressive students searching out specific agencies, and they're doing it well in advance [of internship deadlines]," said Mr. Kohr, who teaches persuasive messaging and engagement marketing at Northwestern. He cited Leah Bowman, the Northwestern student who got media attention because she created a résumé akin to a Lego kit that ultimately landed her an internship at Energy BBDO.
In essence, interns make their own luck. "We try and get our students connected with the employers and the experience that's right for them," he said. "In some cases we do a lot of counseling and get them internships, but in most cases it's just aggressive students going after what they want."