How to get your first job as an advertising creative: three recruiters share their tips

A stand-out portfolio is still a must for wannabe creative directors / D&AD

Graduation season is upon us and soon a new flock of creatives will hit ad agencies armed with their books and dreams. However, in an era of hyperlinked portfolios, geotargeted CVs and dressing up as campaign mascots, does old-school advice still hold out when getting that first foot in the door?

We asked three creative recruiters what they look for in junior talent now.

Sallie Mars, senior vice-president, global director of creative talent at McCann New York

Firstly, you need to put together a professional portfolio because – by and large – you can’t get a job without one. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here – there are several user-friendly options that recruiters are familiar with, such as Wix Cargo Collective and Squarespace. Using one of those may not showcase your coding skills but it will make you seem more professional and knowledgeable about the industry standard.

If you didn’t take an advertising course, there are a number of schools in New York, Chicago and LA that offer portfolio classes specifically designed to help novices put their books together. Options include Ad House, The Book Shop and the Chicago Portfolio School to name a few.

But getting people to notice your book is almost as hard as putting it together. I have seen several very clever attempts to stand out: Chase Zreet got a job at Wieden+Kennedy by creating a rap video about his love for Sprite, for instance, and Oscar Gierup and Kristina Samsonova, used a geotargeted ad campaign to target creative directors attending the Cannes Lions festival.

But be careful about doing something that might fall flat. Creative directors are a choosy bunch, so if it’s not a fresh, remarkable idea, the attempt could work against you.

Your side hustle could be the key to breaking through. Agencies want to hire interesting people, so if you hand craft bikes or write music in your spare time, we want to know about that too. Anything that allows you to stand out in a crowd will make you more memorable to a potential employer (even if it means you will be known as “the bike guy” for the first six months in your new job).

When applying, plumb the depths of why you are creative and want to work in a creative industry and the story will write itself. This should be on its own page in your book. And when you interview, you should stay on message to reinforce the story you have written.

Short of getting an actual job, getting an internship or an administrative job in the creative department of an ad agency is the next best thing. If you are a great intern your agency will move heaven and earth to keep you at the end of your internship. As a creative assistant, your duties might be 100% administrative, but the access to mentors and real briefs is priceless. Grab every opportunity you can to show what you’re made of.

Finally, remember confidence is contagious but don’t get confidence confused with arrogance. Confidence will help you sell your idea internally and, eventually, to clients. It will land you a job in the best group and give you opportunities to be on the best teams. Of course, once you are in you have to have great ideas and work very, very hard. But believing in yourself is just an irresistible quality.

Gregg Louis, creative recruiter at Giant Spoon

Giant Spoon proactively goes to the schools and meets the students. We like to start conversations early and learn more about what candidates are out there. I look for a few key things when meeting junior talent, such as eagerness, inventiveness, authenticity, and ambition. To me, these are the intangibles that really set someone apart from the pack.”

If you have a dream agency (or two), follow that agency in the press and always know what they’re doing. That way, when you reach out proactively, you have a solid jumping off point. There could be roles in the agency's pipeline that you aren’t aware of and if the advertising gods are on your side, you’ll be first in line when the opportunity pops up.

You want your portfolio to stand out in the right way. The work should always be the leading actor in the story. At the same time, you’ll want to edit your work down; choose projects that show off your interests and projects you’re excited to talk about.

If you weren’t happy with the outcome of a project, don’t put it in your book. Only show the work you are most proud of. Recruiters can feel that passion and often search for it.

We’re always reviewing books and you never want to give us a reason to move on to the next one. So constantly check your work – dot your ‘I’s and cross your ‘T’s, so to speak. Triple check your portfolio to ensure there are no dead links and make sure your site is up and ready to show off your work.

It’s a good idea to ask a friend who knows nothing about the industry to take a look at your book – and then listen to their feedback. They might catch something that's hiding in plain sight.

It can be a tough process landing your first job, so perseverance is key. Find an authentic way to keep in touch with your favorite recruiters: update them when you’ve added new projects to your book and congratulate them when you see their agency in the press. And always reiterate your interest in being part of the team – let them know you’ve been following the agency.

Finding a job is a bit like surfing: opportunities come in waves, but you need to be in the water and ready to hop on the board when your wave comes.

Nancy Mendelsohn, talent manager at Johannes Leonardo

Don’t tell me why I shouldn’t hire you. You might be surprised by this advice, but I encounter this scenario quite a bit. Doubt is a tricky thing, and sometimes ends up seeping into interviews where candidates share why they shouldn’t get the job - rather than why they should.

If your ideas don’t feel like the most brilliant, that’s one person’s opinion. Don't focus on that in the interview. Rather, articulate what would you have done differently for a certain campaign or project to make it even better.

Why do you want it to be better, or what do you think could or would be better? At its core, advertising is a series of a million little choices. The most important thing that you can show to your potential employer during an interview is that you trust your gut and can decisions, right or wrong.

In the end, be an optimist. You will do far greater things in your career if you approach your work that way.

Read more about the innovative schemes helping creatives land first jobs in the UK here and here, and in Singapore here.

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