How C Students Can Land That Big Job in the Ad Biz

Watching TV and Socializing Killed Your Grades but those Skills Could Come in Handy on Madison Ave.

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Advertising professionals are some of the smartest people I've met, but you wouldn't know it by looking at their academic transcripts. Some of the most successful people in our business didn't go to top colleges or obtain advanced degrees. Some of them spent more time partying than studying.

Advertising is an industry that thrives on people who produce results and tends to favor performance over pedigree. Agencies have their share of people who did well academically, but I doubt very much if an agency could thrive on book-smart people alone. Class valedictorians often lack the relationship-building skills needed for client work. The brilliantly analytical are not always brilliantly creative; they overthink problems rather than come up with innovative solutions.

Yes, these are generalizations, and I've known CEOs, creative directors and media VPs who attended the best schools and are great advertising people. My point, though, is that advertising depends on a diversity of intellects.

Why do average students excel in this business? Consider five ways they spent their time besides studying: socializing; playing sports; asking professors for extensions, exceptions or forgiveness; watching TV and being on the internet; being curious. All activities that translate into great skills to apply to an advertising job.

So let's say you attended a state school, didn't receive the best grades and lack connections to help your advertising career. Can you secure a job at a major ad agency? Can you become one of the top people at that agency? Of course -- if you follow these six tips:

1. Find out where the agency's senior VPs went to school.

If the majority of them went to prestigious universities, the agency may be an exception to the C-student rule and one to avoid.

2. Establish a connection in the interview.

Don't just talk about yourself. Find a piece of common ground with the interviewer by asking questions. It's quite possible that the interviewer played the same sport as you, was in the same fraternity or sorority, knows someone at the school you attended. Your ability to sell yourself might get you the job.

3. Don't be picky.

You may have your heart set on being a copywriter. That's great, but you may have to start out in media, the biggest department in most agencies. C students don't always know where their true strengths lie, which is why they should be open to everything.

4. Take the jobs no one else wants.

This is how you discover what you're good at and prove yourself. The odds are that you'll do a decent job with one of these thankless tasks, you'll recognize your talent and so might someone else.

5. Admit that you don't know.

A big mistake some C students make is pretending to know things they don't. Your C-student status gives you permission to admit ignorance. More important, ask a lot of questions to compensate for what you don't understand. Advertising managers generally love direct reports who are honest about what they don't know and are eager to learn.

6. Take smart risks.

Taking a risk requires street smarts more than book smarts. In advertising, there are always risks to take. Speak up in a meeting or offer an idea that goes against the conventional wisdom. Your risks may not always pay off, but you'll develop a reputation as someone who isn't afraid to speak honestly, which will mean a lot to ad executives who value courage and truth telling.
Ron Bliwas is president-CEO of A. Eicoff & Co., a Chicago-based ad agency. He is also the author of 'The C Student's Guide to Success.'
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