How To Get Your First Creative Job in Advertising

A Veteran’s Guide to Beginners Looking For Advertising Work

Hands of creative business people brainstorming in meeting
Tom Merton / Getty Images

There is no doubt about it. Breaking into advertising can range from tough, to almost impossible. You’ll need luck, skill, people on the inside, and the kind of determination that would make a Ghengis Kahn look like a couch potato. But if you apply yourself, and sink your teeth into the task, you can do it. You may have to take less money than you’d like, and you will definitely have to make sacrifices, but it’s worth it.

Get Busy on Spec Work

First and foremost, you need a great portfolio. Don’t believe the movies and TV shows; you cannot worm your way into an ad agency on charm, and a few after hours drinks at a local bar with the creative director. You need solid, original ideas. Now, some will have differing opinions on what is good and bad, and what level of finish your ideas should have. Most experienced creative people want to see great ideas, regardless of finish. If it’s truly innovative but you don’t have the skills to get it polished, they’ll see that. It’s far better to have a book filled with great ideas than poor ideas finished beautifully. For more on spec work, read this article. Oh, and you MUST have an online portfolio; the days of leather cases are over.

Stand Out

Advertising agencies (the good ones) are constantly bombarded with applications from eager creative people looking for jobs. They will flood HR with portfolio sites, resumes, YouTube videos, Facebook posts and everything else now available to job seekers.

Put yourself in the place of the creative director of a great agency. What would make you think twice about someone? Would you consider spray-painting a personal message to the creative director on a billboard facing his or her office? Yes, it may get you in trouble (people have tried this with varying success)…but it may also get your foot in the door.

Perhaps find out their mailing address and send something special. Do they go to a specific gym? Can you bribe someone to stick a message on the door of a locker, or write a message in every shower cubicle? Be original, have guts, and you will get noticed.

Avoid Gimmicks

On the other hand, gimmicks are shallow and will be seen through very easily. In days gone by, some people would cover their portfolios in leopard skin or wallpaper. The idea was to make them stand out. Sadly, it often felt like such a blatant attempt that it was considered over the top, and was usually not even opened. Don’t make that mistake. Gimmicks should also be avoided in your advertising ideas. A great idea is not gimmicky. It may involve something that could be seen as a gimmick (for instance, the Subservient Chicken for Burger King) but if it’s thought through, it will shine.

Do Some Freelance

So, you’ve applied to job after job and you’re not getting anywhere. Now it’s time to consider temporary employment. Agencies have different budgets, and will always have money for freelancers even if they have a full head count of permanent staff. How they spend that money depends on the accounts that need help, so ask.

Are there big pitches coming up that you could help on? Are some teams overloaded, and could use assistance. It never hurts to ask. Just remember, charge the rate you deserve at first. If they’re not biting, and this is a genuine attempt to get into that agency, start looking at reductions. But don’t make this a habit.

Work for Free

If the agency won’t pay you, and you really are as good as you say you are, do the work for free. Of course, not for months; not even weeks. But ask for a brief, live or from the archive, and show them how you would attack it. Agencies rarely turn down an offer of free help, and you may just wow them enough to get some paid work. It may even lead to a job. Consider your time a valuable investment in your future.

Go To Industry Events

Finally, get into the habit of mingling.

It’s also called schmoozing, but whatever it’s called, you need to get yourself out there. Look on your local Egotist and you’ll soon see a list of weekly events taking place in your area. Join the local Art Director’s Club, or do a search for advertising lectures near you. Get out to as many of these as you can while you’re looking, and make sure you have something memorable to give people when you do connect. A simple business card won’t cut it. Perhaps the material is different in some way. Perhaps it’s not a business card at all. Maybe you’re wearing your contact info on your arm, written in sharpie. Ask them to take a picture of it and call you back. Always be original.