So You Want to Work in An Ad Agency?

By Egotist / /

This piece was generously donated to us by The Denver Egotist.

I sometimes get notes and phone calls from random college students and recently graduated job seekers that heard from someone that I work at an agency they admire. I was on a roll and just wrote this latest kid a novella, since I can’t sleep tonight anyway. Thought it might make for a blog post if you’re having trouble sleeping too.

WARNING: If this doesn’t make you go to sleep then you may need to go into advertising.

On 06/01/11 3:31 PM, XXXXX XXXXXX wrote:
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Eric,

Thank you for getting back to me so soon. A lot of my questions revolve around two main points. I am new to the whole idea of working at an agency. Until recently it hadn’t even hit me as an option. But now that I have been more involved in my advertising and design classes I realized that is where my strengths lie. So I guess my main questions for you are what are the different opportunities/positions available at an agency, and what can I do to prepare for an internship at an agency?

I would also love to hear your story and experience. Xxxx Xxxxxxx told a bit of your background with working for Volkswagen, but it would be great to know more. I’d also love to hear from you what agency life is like. Pros? Cons? Favorite aspects? I am just an ad agency sponge that wants to soak it all in.

Thanks so much for taking your time to help me out with this. I appreciate it.
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MY REPLY, POOR KID:

Oh dear. So much to learn. It’s good you want to learn. But you’ll have to become your own student and not rely just on school and formal programs. Be a geek if you enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, what do you enjoy? Do that. Here’s a giant checklist to start so you’re never bored.

1. Subscribe to the daily AdAge and AdWeek Emails. Read the articles. Other options are BrandWeek, and a quick updating, kinda gossipy ad trade blog agencyspy.com. Be in the know. Know way more about agencies all over the country (and world) than your young gun peers. If you are the most ad industry savvy of your peers at BYU-I, that doesn’t mean much, but it’s where you should be anyway. It’s a good start.

2. Pick up books by ad veterans, like Paul Arden (i.e. “Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite,” and “It’s Not how Good you Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be.” They are super cheap and worth owning and reading about once a year.) Watch movies like “Art & Copy.” Read books about culture that interest you. Know what’s going on, even if you don’t have time to know everything deeply, just know it’s there.

3. Get digital. Follow websites like thefwa.com, be a geek on gizmodo.com and understand what flash is, HTML 5 is, different types of web banners, email marketing, CRM schemes, social media trends of the hour, social media marketing campaigns of the hour. How does an agency go about building an entire website to serve a client’s goals? Why do the sites do what they do and how do people end up there? Where do they go from there? What’s a KPI when it comes to online marketing? This will evolve about as quickly as you learn it, so it’s a fun hobby to stay on top of.

4. Become a fan and student of advertising that’s not advertising at all. Powerful messaging comes from a powerful product truth. How can the company bring that product truth to life in the consumer’s life in a way that changes culture, not just takes advantage of current, already existing trends?

5. Get an internship at a big agency for the exposure. Doesn’t have to be giant with offices all over the country/world, but should have national accounts and do really smart, strategic, creative work. If you start there (EVEN FOR FREE), you’ll have many more options in your future. You can always settle down for a boring job that isn’t as chaotic and demanding later. But you may not always be able to jump into the creative bandwagon. Be willing to move and live in Miami, Minneapolis, LA, NYC, Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Boulder, Richmond and other cities I’m surely leaving out. If you’re hesitant to drop your life in one location and go for the gold at a crazy low paying job at a worldly agency in a place you’ve never been, then you’ll be limited to what your options are in the future. If you’re flexible and adventurous in college and the first 5-8 years after (and work like a mad man and never stop learning), it’ll open up more doors and put you near the top of recruiters lists later. Be willing to work your butt off – nights, weekends, be the guy that will go pick up food at midnight and build binders or proofread copy when what you’d rather be doing is hanging out with your family and friends. It’ll get better, promise. Kinda.

6. Be humble and smart. Although you may be intimidated by all the progressive hipsters that seem to fit in so well in this industry, you can be yourself. Be natural and real. But make sure that “yourself” is super smart and nice to have around. Of course, if you’re a creative urban type, that’s an advantage and will help you fit in on top of your smart humility. But first and foremost surround yourself with people smarter than you and soak in everything you can.

7. The resume and interviews: What makes you stand out? (Not just ‘what makes you qualified,’ although that’s obviously important.) Find it early and make it something worth having, hiring and paying for. Make sure it’s clear on your resume and the cliche’ stuff isn’t getting in the way of seeing why you would be the kind of person that a CEO would want representing him and his company / agency. If you think that person wears pleats and looks like he just got his hair cut with the #3 clippers on the sides and back, then you may be right. But you’re probably not interviewing at my agency.

(Exhale)

Good thing I’m a bit of a loner insomniac this week, working out of town. I’m pretty sure I just wrote the skeleton of a presentation I could give at the next BYU-I Communications Day. Know who puts the guest speakers together? Ha.

As far what job you want in the agency, that’s something only you’ll know. If you don’t know what departments are in a typical larger agency and how they tick and roll along, learn that. Here’s a really basic agency structure 1.0 resources i just found with one Google search:
http://drypen.in/advertising/agency-structure-of-advertising-agency.html

Scour agency websites about the jobs they have open to see what on earth they are even called at various agencies. i.e. Some places call Account Management “Content Management.” Account Planners (or just “planners”) can be “Cognitive Anthropologists.” Not kidding. But most agencies share the same or similar names for positions.

AGENCY JOBS:

Planners find the cultural and business insights that shape a creative brief and the strategy we sell to clients and build work from. In a good agency, they are the unsung heroes of the best work.

Creatives take that strategy and come up with how to apply it to the media. They are copywriters and art directors, creative directors. There are also studio workers and designers, creative technologists and other specialties, but mostly writers and artists that are supremely creative and hard working.

Traffic Managers (or Project Managers) help guide creative and account Managers toward a deadline. They keep all projects on track, organized and on schedule internally.

Account Management (or Account Services or Content Management) are the liaison between the clients and the agency. They are the central hub of organized, client friendly ad experts that work with every department inside the agency as well as vendors and partners outside the agency, not to mention clients, of course, to guide a campaign or project from before its inception (when the client comes to the agency with a task, i.e. a new product launch, or rebranding) all the way through the brief and concepting and back and forth with clients, and media planning and into production to create the TV or Radio or print or OOH (out-of-home) or online work or all of the above, to the details of pushing that work out into the world through whatever means or partner companies you work with to get it into the real (or digital) world, to the post-launch analytics and post-mordems and continual beta tweaking and optimizing (for digital work, it’s rarely “finished,” even after launch)….then it all starts over and projects overlap so you’re always juggling and managing something. This is what I do. Account people need to be experts of their clients’ industry within weeks, whether that’s cars or phones or pizzas or credit cards or online services, and they need to be friends and champions of everyone within the agency as well. A good account person remembers that he works for his agency, not his client. That is sometimes easy to forget.

Production: producers are the cool cats that actually create the TV spot or digital marvel the creatives thought up but have no idea how to actually create. They have the resources and knowledge to guide the approved ideas into actual work that consumers end up seeing and interacting with. There are broadcast producers, interactive producers, print producers, etc. Each is pretty specialized.

There are more, i.e. media planners, media buyers, business affairs, art buyers, analytics, interaction designers, and all the overhead positions that keep the employees paychecks coming and building functioning, of course. At least in a big agency. The smaller the agency, the more that stuff may be done by anyone from the owner to the “new kid.”
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That’s all I’ve got in my system tonight. I’d recomend you get out there and get inside some agencies so you can see what they look like on the inside. Talk to more people and see if I’m just full or crap, so you can get a wider perspective.

But above all, do #5 above. The rest will come naturally if you’re actually excited and interested in it.

Best,
eric

This piece is cross-posted from Eric Forsyth’s blog.

  1. Amy June 6, 2011

    Lucky kid to get such a thorough response, usually reaching out to agency professionals can be spotty! Hopefully he responded lightning fast to thank you. Completely true that you have to be your own student when it comes to advertising. Thanks for sharing the honest advice!

  2. Alex June 9, 2011

    This is 100% what I'm going through right now. Trying to change careers is not easy. Trying to change careers into this industry, even harder.

  3. Ryan June 23, 2011

    I was in the process of responding to a similar inquiry. Thanks for writing the email for me.

  4. Anonymous January 5, 2012

    I think about the fifth one all the time. I firmly believe that where you work is more important to many top agencies than the work you have in your portfolio. I see portfolios from people with just-okay work but they've been at every coveted shop because they went to a good ad school and had an internship at Chiat or Crispin early on. Raise that arrow early on and it'll fly further and higher later.

  5. Jenn February 16, 2012

    I just wrote a blog post on this exact topic for a job-board. My perspective, based on my 14 years in advertising. Perhaps it could be of some help to someone: http://www.freshgigs.ca/blog/five-things-advertising-newbies-need-to-know/