So You Want to Work as a Creative at a Traditional Advertising Agency

Here's How You Start

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Put together a portfolio (better known in ad-industry parlance as a "book") to showcase campaigns you've done in school or have worked up on your own (a mock campaign for a known, national consumer brand like Tide detergent, for example, or more likely a "spec" ad, which is your own reworking of an existing campaign), consisting of five to seven examples of your best work. The emphasis, ad professionals agree, should be on print work (including magazine, out-of-home), not TV or radio campaigns. There are schools (such as Creative Circus) that specialize in helping you put together a professional-looking, attention-getting book, although that route is not essential. A well-regarded book called (straightforwardly enough) "How to Put Your Book Together and Get a Job in Advertising," by Maxine Paetro, has just recently been updated (August 2010). Another recently published book (August 2005) in this vein that got good notices include "Pick Me: Breaking Into Advertising and Staying There," by Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin. These can be excellent resources for helping you put together the perfect book, enabling you to land that first job.

Land an internship. Most all ad agencies, large or small, have intern programs, and this is how many of the top creative and account people in the industry today have gotten a foot in the door. Going directly through an agency's site, your school's department advisors, job fairs and/or company recruitment on campus, industry job sites like MediaBistro and Talent Zoo, and professional associations such as the American Advertising Federation (which keeps a databank of more than 1,500 advertising internships) are all excellent resources for finding out who's hiring and getting your name in the mix. The assumption is that the large majority of internships are unpaid, but that's not necessarily the case. (In recent years, more than 80% of intern positions at one well-known ad agency have been paying ones, for example. Better yet: at that same agency, 18% of interns in a recent year went on to receive full-time job offers following their internships.)

Consider the freelance option. Nowadays, in creatively oriented business such as advertising -- and especially in a down economy -- more employers are relying on freelance, or contract, employees. Yes, the benefits, pay rate and job security can be riskier for a freelancer. But it is a good way to get your foot in the door in the absence of a more permanent staff job.

Network, early and often. In the age of Facebook and LinkedIn, everyone by now appreciates the value of networking. Like most industries, advertising holds many, many events at which to make connections and make some noise for yourself. Every major city has an association of ad professionals, and all these associations hold social events. Get yourself in there, and get seen and heard. One good resource for finding events is the Advertising Club, which hosts "Cocktails & Connections" events at hot nightspots across New York. The site MediaBistro also lists ad and media industry cocktail parties across various cities -- from London to Portland -- where professionals and aspiring professionals mingle. As someone who works at a major ad agency put it, jobs for junior creatives have been scarcer lately -- and when agencies do seek out newbies, they rarely take out an ad in Craigslist. Rather, it is by "word of mouth" that many of the best candidates are located, and landed.

Cold calling. Yes, it may sound farfetched -- the idea that you will land a job at a major ad agency by simply finding and e-mailing an agency insider via an agency's site, or some news story in the trade press, or through a contact you met at a networking event. But it can work. As one agency person put it: "Everybody here gets e-mails every once in awhile: 'Hi. I looked your name up online because I really liked the spot that you did and I'd love for you to see my portfolio.' And you know what? More often than not, people do it because they remember somebody did that for them. So often, I'll get e-mails from creatives here, saying: 'Hey, this kid contacted me. Can you take a look at his book? It's not bad.'"

Devour all the intel you can about ad campaigns, which agencies have which accounts, the hottest trends in creative, the buzziest spots -- and more broadly, everything you can about politics, world events, the arts, pop culture. And then, don't hold back when it comes to letting the world know how plugged in to the Zeitgeist you are, at any and every opportunity: at those networking events, in those e-mails to prospective bosses and mentors, in interviews, in internships. Here's what one agency insider had to say: "There's this great mystery behind the doors of advertising. The truth of the matter is, if you are a purveyor of pop culture and you love what's out there and you read books, and go to movies and cruise the internet and all that stuff, you're an excellent candidate for advertising. I always tell people that all of my friends in all of these other fields, I feel like they put on a slightly different hat when they go to work [versus their everyday, non-work lives]. But when you're in advertising, you just go to work as your best self. It's awesome, because you don't have to change who you are. It's because of who are that you're in advertising."

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