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How to Get a Job in Advertising

"It's all in the pitch—and your first client is yourself"

The truth in advertising is that the field is so competitive, and open positions so few, that getting a gig in the modern ad business is as difficult as landing a major account. Even internships are hard to get, and that route is hardly a secret.

So, if you’re a journalist or other media professional looking to transition, what can you do to get a leg up on your competition? Well, as they say in the ad game, it’s all in the pitch—and your first client is yourself. We spoke with industry experts to get their inside tips on getting your best foot in the door.

“Portfolios are the #1 must have for ad peeps,” says Allie Freeland, PR director at iAcquire, a digital marketing agency based in Phoenix and New York. “You can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk with specific examples of your writing, design and media placements.”

John Farquhar, chief creative officer for brand marketing agency Rain43, advises tailoring your portfolio to the kind of work the agency does. “If they’re already doing your kind of work and there’s a job available, why wouldn’t they hire you?” he says.

To Tony Wright, CEO of WrightIMC, a Dallas-based digital advertising agency, work examples count more than training or credentials. “As someone who hires creatives, I want to know what you’ve done,” he says.

Target Your Favorite Agencies

At the start of your quest, Farquhar recommends picking the top five agencies you’d like to work for. “Find out the one person at each of those agencies, usually the creative director, who can hire you,” then “use every contact possible to get in front of that person.”

Freeland says it helps early in your career to work at an agency, versus in-house at one company, to develop a wide range of skills. “Employers also look very highly upon agency experience; it breeds a hard-working, creative, competitive, agile worker,” she says.

Once inside, take any job you can and make the most of every opportunity you get. “If you can’t break in on the creative side, try to land a job in another department,” says Nathan Crow, VP and creative director at advertising agency RPA. “Strategic planning, design, digital and social departments are some great options.”

Talk About Results

Remember that advertising is still a business where creative work is designed to meet professional, not artistic, goals. Your self-pitch should reflect that. “When trying to get a job as a creative, don’t just show off your creativity; show off how your creativity can affect bottom-line outcomes,” says Wright, who appreciates candidates with “an understanding for business.”

“I don’t care if you had an exhibit at the local gallery; I do care if you created a meme or online campaign for the local non-profit that showed an increase in donations,” he says. “Creatives don’t just make pretty pictures and witty copy. Good creatives create results.”

Duran Inci, co-founder and chief operating officer of Internet marketer Optimum7, agrees that job seekers should have a solid understanding of the business they’re getting into. “Advertising doesn’t just consist of coming up with slogans, graphic billboards, creatives or placing ads on TV and newspapers anymore,” he said.

“It’s pure branding: being able to represent that brand as transparently as possible, building a following through social media, managing the messages in online conversations and more.”

Know Digital

One of your biggest must-knows is that the Internet and social networks have changed the rules of the advertising game, so be aware of the new landscape and how to navigate it. “If you come to an interview and tell me, ‘I’m not sure I know how to use social media,’ I don’t care how much experience you have. You won’t get the job,” says Wright.

“When hiring entry level online marketing specialists, I’m attracted to those who’ve built a website on their own,” says Kurt Krejny, director of online marketing for digital marketing agency Fathom. “This could be a website or blog, side business or a personal domain name resume. I feel that people who have a better understanding of website operations have a leg up on those who don’t.”

And make sure your own online profiles speak well of you. “Be mindful of your social presence online,” says Krejny. “If you don’t want a social post to be on the front of The New York Times, you might want to refrain from posting it altogether.”

Meet People in the Field

You’ve heard it before: “It’s all about who you know.” And that’s also true for advertising.

“Reach out to people you know—and even those you don’t,” says Crow. “Informational interviews are a great way to get to know people working in advertising, as well as to learn about the culture of an agency.”

A great way to insert yourself into advertising industry conversations is through Just search for “advertising” or “marketing” in your area, and in no time you’ll be connected to a wide range of people in the field.

Remember, you never know when a conversation will turn into a career lead. So be alert, especially at events. “Attendees may have an opening on their team or point you in the direction of another company that does,” said Krejny.

Know Your Stuff

Anyone interested in joining the advertising business needs to know about the business of advertising. Sites Krejny recommends for industry updates, best practices and new technology include SEOmoz, SearchEngineLand, SearchEngineJournal, TechCrunch and Mashable. For the 411 on the latest hiring, firings and big account wins, follow AgencySpy.

To understand success on the modern creative front, Crow recommends studying advertising award publications including Communication Arts, One Show and Creativity. “Just make sure it’s for inspiration, rather than recreation,” he says.

Be Persistent

Pre-requisites for any advertising job hunter: thick skin and strong determination. “You’re going to get a lot of unanswered emails and phone calls, but don’t let that dissuade you. Keep on keeping on, and stay on top of it,” says Crow.

Farquhar agrees, especially if you’re in communication with a potential agency. “Be relentless. There may not be a job for you there at that moment, but stay in contact,” he says. “If you’re new to the industry, you don’t cost much, so if they really like you they’ll take a chance. But if they forget you and there’s a slot to fill, you’re out.”

Learn All You Can

Having more interests makes you more interesting, says Crow. So he encourages you to “saturate yourself with information to constantly feed the creative beast.” This includes watching movies, TV shows and plays, downloading mobile apps, reading books and taking classes in painting, sculpture, drawing, typography, screenwriting, poetry, children’s books, coding, after-effects, flash, design and improvisation.

“Show an advertising hiring professional that you have a passion for learning, not that you already know it all. You don’t,” says Wright. “Check your ego at the door and use your experience to help you continue learning.”

“If you don’t change, you’ll never be a constant in our industry,” he adds.

Put that on a bumper sticker.

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