Four years after I began my job search, I landed a full-time position as a copywriter at Vimarc. I’ve had several other jobs in the meantime, but it was a long walk from receiving my diploma to arriving at full-time agency life. When I graduated from college with an advertising degree, I had no idea it would take so long to find a copywriting job, and I was oblivious to the fact that I was not presenting myself as an ideal candidate. I had great ideas and strategies in my head, but my degree didn’t prove I was qualified for an entry-level position with “0-1 years of experience.” My portfolio didn’t accurately reflect my knowledge or ideas, and without being in the industry, it was tough for me to know what agencies were looking for. I assembled a portfolio and began reaching out to agencies, eventually leaving a full-time position for an apprenticeship at Riggs Partners, an agency in South Carolina. It was there that I got my proverbial foot in the door and, as a new person in the industry, heard a lot of things that I needed to hear.
I’m writing a blog post about job hunting, but I feel unqualified to speak on the topic. I don’t think I did anything out of the ordinary, but unless you happen to know the right circle of people, you might not know what you need to do. Without advice from people already in the industry, my trip to creative agency employment could have easily been a longer one. It’s not always easy, the job hunt is different for everyone, and applying for a portfolio-based position is unlike any other. Below are a few of the tips I figured out along the way.
GET AN INTERNSHIP
It’s tough to get experience when you have none, so you need to get experience any way you can. Paid or unpaid, if it’s at a good agency, it’s worth it. You’ll make connections and learn more than you ever thought possible. If you’re working hard at an agency, you might be able to move up in the event of an opening, or at the very least earn a relevant line on your resume so you can check off some experience.
YOU MIGHT NOT NECESSARILY NEED PORTFOLIO SCHOOL…
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, portfolio school is similar to grad school. When you graduate, you’ll have a great portfolio and excellent connections that can fast-track you to world-renowned agencies. Ask around and creative directors will have mixed opinions about portfolio schools. If you’ve got killer strategies, ideas, and the time and drive to make ads on your own that look sharp, you don’t have to go to portfolio school. The first job you get probably won’t be for Coca-Cola, but employers will still see your talent and work that is 100% yours.
…BUT YOU DO NEED A PORTFOLIO
Your resume is just a formality; what your employer really cares about is the portfolio. Whether it is through a finishing school or your spare time, get a website set up and some work to put in it. Don’t be afraid to make up ads for clients that haven’t hired you. Create spec ads and check out portfolios of other copywriters and creative directors. If the work isn’t professional-grade, don’t include it. You never want to give someone an excuse not to like your book.
It might seem like big agencies have lots of available positions, but many of these require portfolio school or a lot of experience. In my experience, small agencies tend to be a little more receptive to meeting with you and helping to get your foot in the door. Opportunities with medium to small agencies can give you a little more attention and allow you to work on a variety of projects, which can be very helpful to someone in the early stages of their career.
Go to events and network. Meet people. Find someone at an agency you admire and send some fan mail. One of the best things I did was contact creative directors at agencies I respect, and ask them to review and critique my book. I was surprised at how responsive they were to my requests. This entire blog post consists of tips and insight I picked up from them. Remember that almost every creative director was once in your shoes. When reaching out, be mindful of their time and don’t bother them. Most are glad to help when they can, but chances are they’re already working overtime running their agency. If you score a meeting and make a good impression, when a position opens up, they might already have you in mind, or at the very least they’ll be familiar with you and your work.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR
When you ask for someone’s advice, be prepared to follow it. If someone tells you to remove a few lines or scrap a few pieces, it doesn’t look good when you apply for a position and that person discovers the changes were never made. Be receptive of criticism, but use your own discretion. What is “good” or “bad” in a portfolio is highly subjective; the piece that one person hates is the one that will land you a job at another agency. (Good ads are polarizing, right guys?) If a creative director likes your ads, it’s a good sign of things to come.
KEEP MAKING WORK
Always revise your work. You’re never done learning, and you’ll be surprised how revisiting old campaigns can polish them into shiny gems. You’re going to end up with more work in the trash than on your portfolio. It hurts, but this is a time when other people know better than you do. Criticism is a part of the business, and it’s something that won’t be going away anytime soon. If you can justify keeping a piece, then do it. Otherwise, when people keep telling you it’s the weakest link, it’s time for that piece to go. Don’t worry, you’ll replace it with something stronger.
TAILOR YOUR APPLICATIONS
Make it personal and show them you actually want their job, not just any job. Do some homework and address people and agencies by names. There’s a big difference between clicking “Apply Via LinkedIn” and sending somebody a handwritten letter. Ten quality applications are far more valuable than a thousand generic resumes sent into the Human Resources abyss. Take your time and give them a quality application. It’s worth it.
MAKE YOUR APPLICATION STAND OUT
Don’t be afraid to send something creative and unique to an agency; it can show a level of investment and sincerity. Make sure it’s smart and makes sense, because poorly executed communication will do more harm than good. Everyone pours over the Internet reading articles and lists, looking to be amazed by something clever that they’ve never seen before. Try to come up with a way for your portfolio to grab their attention and show that you’re thinking creatively. That’s what they’re hiring you for, right? And don’t rely on some Buzzfeed-esque list you found on the Internet to tell you how to get a job or be creative. Chances are your employer has seen it all before. Come up with something on your own that reflects you; that will be what employers want to see.
It takes time, patience and applications that are high in quality and quantity to get the job you want. Somebody will always have a better portfolio, someone else will have a better interview, and another candidate will be more qualified; you just have to be the right mix of all three. If you’re out there making quality work and connecting to the right people, sooner or later you’ll be in the right place at the right time and will meet your perfect fit. Some of the best advice I can give you came a few weeks ago when I met Rich Stoddard, the CEO of Leo Burnett North America. I asked him what advice he could give someone new in the industry. His advice was, “Just keep making good work. If the work is good enough, it will all fall in place.”