Getting Ready to Graduate? Five Tips for Weathering the Ad-Industry Storm

Digital Knowledge, Internships and a Positive Attitude Can Help You Find a Job

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NEW YORK ( -- There are thousands of college students with advertising or marketing degrees set to graduate in 2009 -- entering directly into the headwinds of a recession that has claimed 41,500 advertising, marketing services and media jobs since November 2007, according to Ad Age estimates.

Finding an entry-level job in advertising will be difficult, but it will not be impossible.
Finding an entry-level job in advertising will be difficult, but it will not be impossible. Credit: AP
And there's no end in sight: Last week Zenith Optimedia projected North American ad spending to decline 5.7% next year, with a 6.2% drop in the U.S. alone.

So what's an advertising/marketing grad to do? Well first, don't lose faith: Finding an entry-level job in advertising will be difficult, but it will not be impossible.

"I still think there will be enough entry-level positions for the very smart [and] very committed to advertising," said Val DiFebo, president of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch New York. "At R/GA we have a great talent base here, but there is still an opportunity to improve it," said Shannon Moorman, director-creative resources, adding that the interactive agency plans to hire junior-level staff despite the down economy.

The trick to winning those few jobs: "They're going to have to go above and beyond to stand out," Ms. Moorman said. Here are TalentWorks' five tips for doing just that:

Do your homework
David Porter, an executive search consultant at Eileen Haubenstock & Associates, said that agencies favor job candidates who know the industry and can "think critically" about advertising. In an interview, for example, candidates need to go beyond praising a company for an advertising campaign; they must be able to speak to the strategy behind it and explain why it was (or was not) successful. "Try and stay ahead of the curve," advised Nancy Hill, president-CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Brian Marr, managing director of Seattle hot-shop Wexley School for Girls, emphasized the importance of researching the unique attributes of each agency. "The one thing is to do your homework, and know who you're sending your resume [to]," he said. "[Don't write a] blanket cover letter that's the same as everyone's, especially at a smaller place." He suggested tailoring job applications, too. For example, creative resumes and cover letters -- even those that include brownies -- bode well at Wexley. But that might not hold true at other agencies.

At R/GA, the most impressive job candidates have investigated R/GA's clients and developed and executed mock-campaigns for them. Since R/GA has an interactive vantage point, demonstrated digital savvy and interest is essential -- whether that comes from an internship experience, class work, or personal online activity. Also a must at R/GA: a resume that is digitally showcased on a student's individual webpage. "The old paper resume isn't really relative to us at this stage," Ms. Moorman said.

Deutsch's Ms. DiFebo serves as a career counselor to her alma mater, Williams College, so she's particularly aware that some students aren't thrilled about landing unpaid or low-paying internships in lieu of full-time jobs upon graduation. But advertising internships can be extraordinarily valuable. Not only do interns have the opportunity to learn about an agency from the inside out, but they are also on the front line when it comes to new hires. "An entry-level job can open up any time, and if you're in the pipeline, you have a better chance of being in."

Ms. Moorman estimates that R/GA hires half of its interns. "That's one program that's not going to stop, even in a down economy," she said. "It's a great opportunity for us to continue to train talent."

Think digital, digital, digital
Rick Boyko, director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, said one of the most attractive skills graduating students can have is an in-depth knowledge of new media. He said that the industry-wide shift to new media makes candidates pursuing related degrees that much more desirable to potential employers.

At R/GA, candidates experienced in coding and building microsites, for example, stand above the crowd. Ms. Moorman said students might have a better chance at getting a job if they know disciplines such as interactive design, a hybrid field that involves usability and layout, or data and analytics, a group that tracks web metrics to quantify campaign performance.

Have an open mind
"You have a hand in your own career," Ms. DiFebo said. "You've got to bring some creativity to that." A number of non-advertising jobs can be great entry points to the ad world down the line. For example, Ms. DiFebo said stocking shelves at Walmart can teach aspiring ad workers about what goes on in a retail store, how products move off the shelves, and so on. This experience can directly relate to an advertising career later on. "For the people who want to, there are things to be learned from everything."

Kelly O'Keefe, director of executive education and a professor at Brandcenter, agreed but said sometimes advertising isn't the end-all, be-all. "What we're seeing in recent years is that the agency is not the only destination," he said. "The employment picture is much more diverse." Mr. O'Keefe said recent grads have found exciting opportunities at industrial design outfits and brand strategy firms. His advice to students is to broaden their horizons. "There's much more demand in places like web production companies, on the client side, or even Hollywood," he said. "Even when the ad world tightens up or stagnates, the creative field is always expanding."

Chin up
"Knowing that the market can't afford to welcome us newbies with open arms is scary," said Kris Kennedy, a student at VCU. "There is a growing fear that many of us will be living in our parents' basements after graduation."

But Mr. Kennedy, a self-described "soulful creative" finishing up his master's in copywriting, is still optimistic about entering the ad world. "I'd love to go to a large or mid-sized firm that does great work ... but there's a good chance that landing a job at that dream shop will just be that, a dream," he said. "Sure, many of us see it as a frightening road we will be forced onto in the coming months, but it might just be our biggest opportunity."

And that's the way it should be looked at, said Mr. Porter at Eileeen Haubenstock & Associates: "It's hard to make a wrong choice with the first job."

Contributing: Max Lakin

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