Avoid These Ad Agency Interview Mistakes

Ace a creative interview by avoiding these traps

Interview
The Big Interview. Getty Images

When the time comes for you to interview for a new job in advertising, you need to be completely buttoned up. That means preparing well for the interview, and knowing what NOT to say is just as important as knowing what to tell the interviewer.

Here are five major landmines you need to sidestep. Some apply to all types of roles, a few are specifically for people in the creative department. Whatever role you're applying for, though, you need to prepare for each individual interview separately.

That means tailoring your portfolio for each agency, doing research, and maybe networking with some of the people who work at the agency. Find out everything you can, right down to the latest account win, or new hire. 

Now...make a mental note of these 7 big mistakes. You do not want to make them, especially as competition for advertising jobs is so tight. 

1: DON'T Tell Your Interviewer Which Agency You'd Rather Be At

This seems like a complete no-brainer but it happens all the time. But why?

Well, if you're interviewing at a top-notch agency like Weiden or Goodby, then you are right where you want to be. But if you're much younger, and climbing the ladder, you will most likely be interviewing at a smaller shop. Sometimes that shop may specialize in direct marketing or healthcare advertising. And most of them are proud of it, too. You may think of it as a stepping stone, but they do not.

So if you come in and answer the question "where do you see yourself in five years?" with the answer "at a big shop, somewhere that does a lot of big TV and outdoor, winning all sorts of cool awards" then you are basically sticking a huge middle finger up at the interviewer and his or her agency.

You should want to work there for a long time (or at least give that impression), and stay there; that's what they want from you. In five years, you see yourself as being "a strong member of the agency, helping to steer and shape its direction and doing killer work." That's it. Keep your eye on the prize, not the future.

You should never talk about divorce before you're even married.

2: DON'T Show an Outdated, Disorganized Portfolio

If you work in the creative department, your portfolio is everything. It's proof of what you've been doing, what you've done that's worked, what has won awards, what you actually managed to get printed or broadcast, and so much more. It's your career in one handy, portable case. Or these days, one handy website.

In the hectic world of advertising, it's very easy to overlook the portfolio, but it needs to be updated and refreshed often. That awesome campaign you did fifteen years ago may have won a few gongs, but it's probably time to let it go. Unless it's something classic like the 1984 spot, you'll want to keep changing the work out to be relevant and let your future employer know that you've been busy and have fresh, solid work.

Also, keep your portfolio organized. That means having a logical progression throughout, even on your website, split into campaigns, with examples of each part of the campaign. Spec work is fine if it's great. Start strong, finish with your best work, and put everything else in the middle. BUT, everything else should still be good work. Remember, a portfolio is only as strong as the weakest piece of work in it.

Be tough. Cut the weak pieces.

One final piece of advice on portfolios. You will come across vastly differing opinions from people. Some will love your work, others will hate it. While you should always be ready to take criticism, don't change your folio after every interview, and don't be afraid to defend your work. Sometimes, you will meet creative directors who are taking shots at you just to see how well you defend yourself. No one wants a creative who's a complete walkover. 

3: DON'T Attend an Interview Without Doing Your Homework

Walking into an agency with little-to-no knowledge of their business is a terrible idea. It doesn't matter how busy you are, or how good your portfolio is, you must have current knowledge of the agency doing the hiring. 

As sure as night follows day, the interviewer is going to ask questions directly related to the state of the agency.

From current clients to award news and the makeup of the executive staff, your answers will show the interviewer how serious you are about getting a job with his or her agency. You're not expected to know every last detail, but you should know the key players at the agency, what they've been up to over the last few months, what they've been doing that has made headlines, their major accounts, any wins they've had, and anything else that could be brought up in an interview.

Study hard, soak it all up, and be proactive in the interview. Be the one to bring up things like an account win, a new creative director or planner, big awards and so on.

4: DON'T Dress Inappropriately

Advertising, like many other creative professions, is not quite the same as a typical 9-5 office job. And with that comes much more relaxed rules on dress code.

Now, if you work in the accounts department or production, sales or finances, you'll probably be fine wearing your best formal clothes, but you should try and add a touch of flair to be remembered. A noticeable tie, a cool accessory or hairstyle, something that says you mean business but also know what it takes to stand out. Advertising is all about presentation, and you need to make a memorable impression.

When it comes to the creative department, there are no rules. Some art directors and writers turn up looking like they've been on tour with the Foo Fighters for three months. It's fine, they're creative, they get to dress that way. Other creatives turn up in matching red suits. Again, no problem. You may even decide to show up in a swimsuit, or a costume. This all depends on how quirky the agency is, and that relates directly to part 3 - do your homework. 

However, as a creative, turning up looking like an accountant with no personality will not do you any favors. Your creativity should shine through, or at the very least, it should not be disguised by Mr. Bean's wardrobe. And yes, jeans and t-shirts are usually fine. But if in doubt, talk to a few creatives who already work there and get their feedback.

5: DON'T Trash Your Current Agency

It's so tempting. "Why do you want to leave XYZ Advertising?" can open the floodgates to all kinds of negative comments. If you've been at your current agency for a while, the bloom has definitely gone off the rose. And it's all too easy to turn to the dark side and begin a tirade against the people, the work and the future of your current employer.

Big mistake.

The obvious reason not to do this is the same as for any other profession. No one wants to hear you slag off your current employer because it's indicative of how you will talk about them later on. If you see someone verbally abusing their significant other in public, would you want to take their place?

However, there are other reasons more specific to the ad industry that apply here. First and foremost, it is an incestuous industry. It's amazing how many people know each other well from agency to agency. It can quickly get back to people that you were bitching about your current agency, and that won't serve you well.

Also, things change very quickly due to account losses, wins, mergers and the ever-changing economy. Keeping a good relationship with your current employer, including the appearance of liking them, is vital. You may easily cross paths again. If anyone does ask you why you want to leave, make it positive. You want to expand your portfolio and experiences by working on different accounts; you want to expand you skill set at an agency that has different disciplines; you want a change of scenery to stay fresh. 

6: DON'T Act Cavalier, Bored, or Egotistical

Some people think that there are tricks you can use to get the ad agency to pay attention. The biggest misnomer is that big egos are welcomed, and even applauded. This is simply not true. Even if you are the best copywriter or art director in the country, you should not be walking into the interview with that kind of chip on your shoulder. You want to be confident in your abilities, sure, but also know that you have more to learn. A little humility can go a long way.

Also, looking bored, yawning, or making any other kind of gesture that suggests you want to be somewhere else is going to be a massive nail in your coffin. You want to be excited about the interview, even if you are only doing it to network and don't actually want a job at that agency. And it goes without saying that you should not make any kind of suggestion that you think you already have the job in the bag. Maybe you are the best candidate, and you know it. But you should always act like you are hopeful, and confident, without expecting anything. 

7: DON'T Answer Your Cell Phone, or Interact With It

This last section comes after several HR representatives listed it as the most infuriating aspect of a bad interview. If you're in advertising, you will rely on your phone more than many other professions. Many of your campaigns will be targetted digitally, and you will also have a long list of contacts, social media colleagues, and other avenues to explore through your phone. But, before you get to your interview, you need to disable that phone. Put it on airplane mode, or better still, turn it off completely. 

Now, you may think that by answering an urgent call, or responding to an urgent text, you are showing the potential employer just how busy you are. You're all hustle, and you can't get 30 minutes to yourself without putting out a fire. Well, that's not how the interviewer sees it. It's just rude. You are saying that this interview is not the most important part of your day, and that makes the interviewer feel like second best. That is not going to get you a job. So, get all your calls and emails out of the way before the interview. The only time it's suitable to bring out your phone is if it in some way relates to something that is being asked of you. For instance, "do you have any samples of work you'd like to show me that aren't on your website?"