Winning a Creative Job At an Advertising Agency

by | March 10, 2009

Landing a copywriter, art-director or graphic-designer job in the creative department of an ad agency requires a portfolio, perspective and persistence -- what I call the three P's. Here's how I got my foot in the door and my advice to new college grads just starting out.

When I first looked for work as a copywriter, degrees in communications and advertising were few and far between. I took my first job in the traffic department of Grey Advertising (now Grey Global Group). I was low on the ladder and wasn't directly involved in creating the firm's products, but I interacted with every department. Befriending the creative folk, I learned what was required to break into their field.

I worked on my portfolio in the evenings and solicited feedback from my colleagues. While this was a good start, I took a portfolio class taught by Steve Garey, former copy chief at advertising leader Chiat/Day (now part of the Omnicom Group). On completion, I had a portfolio strong enough to shop around. You'll usually get only one shot at impressing a potential employer, so you want to lead with your best.

My job search was slow, frustrating and, at times, disheartening. I could have circulated multiple copies of my portfolio, but my writer and art director friends urged me to seek out face-to-face meetings to make connections and receive direct feedback.

I did. And I listened to the responses. If a piece consistently received negative reactions, I made changes. I asked each manager with whom I met for an introduction to at least one other.

It took a few months but my efforts paid off. My first job was at a small agency writing copy for ads in the Sunday newspaper supplements. I eventually worked for some of the most respected agencies in the world and became creative director at a company's in-house agency that produced award-winning work.

Advertising agencies have seen many changes since I started out. But what's required to break into the field hasn't changed. My take on the three P's follows.

Portfolio. Your portfolio is your calling card and the price of entry to the field. It should contain no more than 12 to 15 pieces. Any more and you may be wasting a manager's time. If you can't demonstrate your talent with these, reconsider your choices.

Include at least two campaigns. Creative directors want to see that you can take an idea and expand on it. "A good concept is everything," says Brent Thomas, senior art director with the advertising firm Foote Cone & Belding. "The headline and the visual need to work together to create something that's different than if they were taken individually. It's the 'Aha' moment you're looking for. A great concept sheds new meaning on each, and the result should be more than the sum of the parts."

Puns, wordplays and clichis should be avoided. The trend is to fewer words in ads, even for writers. If you're a writer, make sure that every word counts. And don't forget a call to action -- ask the reader to buy the product now, call today, etc.

If possible, show your portfolio in person, even if it means waiting for your contact to have the time to meet with you. He or she will be able to put a face with the work, ask questions that come to mind and provide feedback.

Gone are the days of lugging around giant black presentation portfolios. Color laser prints offer good quality at a reasonable price, so print your pieces on 8-1/2-by-11-inch paper -- make sure the copy is readable -- and slip them into a display book. (These books can be found at art-supply stores.)

If you can't secure a meeting, mail or drop off a CD that showcases your work along with an introduction.

Perspective. You'll need to become an avid consumer of popular culture. Soak it in wherever you can, and not just the parts that interest you. You never know what your next assignment might be, and a good portfolio should show a range of work for a variety of products and services. Read Wired and Good Housekeeping magazines. See Disney movies along with slasher flicks. Watch MTV for a while, then switch over to VH1. You need to develop your own style, but you should be able to tackle any assignment from multiple points of view. You also need to be able to speak knowledgably about a wide variety of subjects and trends.

Most importantly, keep up on the business of advertising and graphic design. Read Adweek to keep the pulse of the business -- it's still the magazine you see in every agency's lobby.

Get your own copies of Communication Arts' advertising and design annual publications, which showcase the best work of the year. Send away for copies of the awards books from shows like the Beldings in Los Angeles, the ANDYs in New York, and the Windy Awards from the Chicago Advertising Federation. Find the creative shows in your area and review their awards books.

Local shows can be critical when starting your career. Not only will you see the latest award-winning work, you'll learn about nearby agencies you may not have known about.

Persistence. Getting a job as a creative professional has never been easy, but can be done if you stick with it. Make as many contacts as you can before you're ready to job hunt. Don't pass up shops that aren't hiring. In this business, you can never meet too many people or receive too much feedback.

Be persistent but not a pest. Leave polite messages. If this fails, send a sample of your portfolio with a self-addressed, stamped postcard. When I was looking for my first copywriting job, I'd include a card with a space for brief written feedback and a few items to check:

  • Please contact our office to schedule an interview.
  • Thank you, but your ideas need to be developed more.
  • I believe your strongest idea is_______, and your weakest idea is_____.
  • Nice work. Please contact me again in __months.
  • Consider making a memorable leave-behind piece for people to remember you by. If you can't get an in-person meeting, you can mail it along with your portfolio CD.

    Now hit the streets. And don't give up.

    Filed Under: Job Search


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