9 Tips for Breaking Into Advertising

Published: May 13, 2015

 Interviewing       Job Search       Networking       
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The final episode of the final season of AMC’s Mad Men airs this Sunday night. And if you’ve been watching Matthew Weiner’s masterful series during its seven-season run, you’ve seen, among other things, all of the following: the show’s central ad man Don Draper nailing numerous ad pitches; up and coming ad woman Peggy Olson coming up with numerous ad slogans; slick salesman Pete Campbell expertly schmoozing numerous top clients; and carefree and full bearded art director Stan Rizzo sketching and illustrating (and drinking and smoking) numerous pieces of ad art in the wee hours of the morning. In other words, you’ve seen what it’s like to work in the high pressured, highly competitive field of advertising (albeit during the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s). And if you’ve been inspired by the show, or have just decided on your own, to work in the field, the following tips from some of the industry’s top players should help.

Note: the below was adapted from the Vault Career Guide to Advertising.

1. Never stop learning.
You have to stay on top of technology and trends in the art industry. You can’t just know one aspect and think you’re going to be safe. Always keep learning. Always keep growing. Keep taking classes. Just because you’re done with school doesn’t mean you’re done learning, and that’s at every level, even the senior level. Go to panel discussions. Get involved wherever you can. The more you know, the better an asset you’re going to be. Things are constantly changing in the advertising industry, and you want to stay on top of every trend. Whatever role you’re in, whether creative, talent, or producer, be as well versed as possible. You want to be able to work on a 360 campaign. Learn whatever you can, whether it’s broadcast, print, out-of-home—you need to be able to understand all of that.
-Sue Norelle, Former Art Director, Ogilvy & Mather; Senior Account Manager, New Business Development, Creative Circle

2. Keep your portfolio lean.
One of the biggest mistakes junior people often make is putting every creative piece in their book. Keep your book lean. Your worst piece is going to represent your book; if you’re getting negative feedback about something that’s in your book, take it out. You’re better off with less work.
-Sue Norelle

3. Find a mentor with talent.
Find people that are talented, and that you admire. If you’re a junior and people see that you’re passionate and you’re eager to learn, they will help you, because everybody’s been there. Everybody’s been that junior kid in their first job. So you have to approach it as “I want to learn. I’m excited to learn. What can you teach me?” If you walk in with an ego and you’re right out of school and think you know everything, no one’s going to want to hire you. Take advantage of the people around you, absorb their knowledge.
-Sue Norelle

4. Just get your foot in the door—don’t wait for the golden job.
Unless you have a specific skill set, take the first job you can get in advertising to get your foot in the door. Get an assistant job. My first job was as a router, routing mechanicals and scripts. I got to meet a lot of different people—copywriters, art directors—and I asked a lot of questions. Don’t expect to land the $100K job right out of school, unless you’re a doctor or lawyer. You have to ratchet down your expectations. I’ve seen so many people who started at the entry level and have done really well for themselves over the years because they made themselves valuable to the agency. An internship is the best opportunity to get firsthand experience while you’re in school, and it shows prospective employers that you’re invested in your career and take it seriously.
-Victor Basile, Senior Vice President, Director of Print Graphic Services, Publicis-USA

5. Never stop networking.
Build a network in your industry and cultivate it. Never stop networking! Someone once told me that you should always act as though you’re looking for a new job. Keep your resume up-to-date, and never shy away from the chance to build relationships with others in your industry. Good or bad changes can happen at any time, so it never hurts to be prepared.
-Megan McKenna, Social Media Coordinator, Blue Iceberg

6. Try new things; get outside your comfort zone.
Don’t be afraid to try new things, or to do something that might lie outside of your comfort zone. When I started working for the BOS Group, I tried to do as much as possible so I could learn as many different skills as people would let me. Just think, if I had stuck to what I know, I wouldn’t have learned what I really wanted to do, and would never have taken the leap into design. But I’m so happy I did.
-Stephanie Olsen, Designer, Publicis BOS Group

7. Focus on your communication skills.
Focus on your communication skills like writing and public speaking. The designers and account people who do well in this industry know how to sell an idea both to their colleagues and the client. You are also better off if you understand how businesses work and different strategies a company can use. Branding works when it’s fully aligned with business strategy.
-George Sanchez, Director of Business Development, Carbone Smolan Agency

8. Collect your favorite ads—and try to beat them.
Start a collection of ads that blow you away. Aim to create work of the same caliber. Take a class at a portfolio school. Building a solid portfolio is the best way to break in to the ad biz. The best way to make money in the business is to create something awesome, get noticed and switch agencies.
-Shawn Gauthier, Vice President, Creative Director, Publicis USA

9. Build experience and knowledge any way you can.
Keep an open mind about what you want to do, because there’s more to do at an ad agency than you think. Also, build your database of knowledge, whether it’s listening and being a sponge in your environment or interning, working in different departments. Develop work experience in whatever ways you can. Stay positive, because advertising can be a brutal industry with ups and downs. Take what you can from every place and person you work with, get that experience and knowledge, and build relationships and contacts. You never know where this industry will take you.
-Pasquale Bortone, Studio Director, E-Graphics, TBWA\Chiat\Day NY

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