A beginner’s guide to breaking and entering
Whenever I encounter an aspiring creative, one of the first things out of his or her mouth is typically, “How do you break into the business as a newbie?” After all, there simply aren’t that many seats in most agencies’ creative departments to begin with, and finding one without a person already ensconced can be tough.
Informational interviews are a thing
Psst. This is your best way to get your foot in the door, and, who knows, maybe, eventually, your tush a seat at the table. Informational interviews are great for all involved. They take the pressure off both you and the interviewer, because there’s no job at stake. But they also give you an opportunity to learn from the pros and get your name into the agency. Believe it or not, someone who takes the time to meet with you will also take an interest in learning how your career develops. Keep in mind, though, that creative directors are extremely busy professionals, so be flexible and brief. Also, don’t be afraid to seek some face time with the creative team. For many, it’d be their first interview, and they’d be flattered by the interest.
Make sure you have a strong portfolio
Show only your absolute best work. A brilliant spec ad trumps a poorly executed or uninspired produced piece every time. Creative directors want to see that you can think, not that you’ve produced stuff, especially uninspired stuff.
Absorb the award books like a sponge
You’d be surprised at just how many juniors enter the field having never seen what a good ad is. I still vividly recall the moment a creative director, after leafing through my college portfolio (yes, back then portfolios were “things” that actually could be leafed through), pulled a Communication Arts Advertising Annual (CA) off her shelf and changed my life forever. She explained, “This … this is the kind of work we try to produce here. If you don’t think it could be in here, it shouldn’t be in your portfolio.” I learned more in that one moment than I had in four years of college. Not only had she substantially raised the bar for me but, in doing so, had put it within my reach. For the first time, I knew what a good ad was.
The annuals showcase only the very best of the best. They are nearly impossible to get into; however, they are something that every creative should aspire to.
Don’t just flip through the annuals—digest them
Reverse engineer every aspect of every ad, from copy to design. What strategy was it trying to solve? Who was the target audience? How did they campaign it? How did they sell it to the client? How on earth will I ever come up with something as good and daring?
Prove your mettle
It’s not enough to simply show that you’re creative. You’ve got to prove you’re hungry, too. That means volunteering for every project you can get your hands on until someone decides to pay you for the privilege. I won my first Gold ADDY for a pro-bono project for the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra.
Pushing that concept even further, I formed a pro-bono agency of like-minded juniors, each a friend also trying to break into the field. We assigned a person or persons to each of an agency’s key positions: account executive, art director, writer (me), and media, and offered to work for free.
Typically, I’d recommend offering your services to a charity; however, the “pro-bono” account we set our sights on was the Seattle Thunderbird Hockey Team. I wrote a direct mail piece with the headline, “Wouldn’t hockey be a better sport if you didn’t have to make all those painful checks?” Upon opening the mailer, the Thunderbird’s marketing director was treated to one of the team’s checks made out for $180,000, along with the payoff, “This is one painful check you won’t have to make.”
The rest is history. The campaign we engineered ended up breaking league attendance records and led to the largest audience ever to attend a Western Hockey League game—even turning away more than 1,500 newly minted hockey fans after the 15,777-seat Seattle Center Coliseum sold out during the T-birds home opener. You can read the entire story here. (I, unfortunately, missed the photo op). Our campaign was named one of the “decade’s 5 most effective ad campaigns” by Media Inc., and its slogan, “Slogan of The Decade” by the Puget Sound Business Journal.
Do the impossible
There are some products, services, and sectors that, at first blush, look impossible to do breakthrough work for. As a junior, these are precisely the ones you want. Because, ironically, it’s the ones everyone else is so damn afraid to try that are the easiest to do “breakthrough” work for, and are why—after all—the word was coined in the first place. Once you prove the naysayers wrong, you’ll be hailed as a pioneer in a field suddenly and unexpectedly unlocked by your slaying of the fear dragon (the Seattle T-birds, although a minor-league team, are now one of the hottest tickets in Seattle, with the city’s biggest and best shops clawing tooth and nail for the opportunity to represent them).
Sweat the small stuff
Once you’re in, as a junior, you’re not going to get many opportunities early on to do the glamorous stuff—you’ll get things such as postcards and email blasts. Professional tip: email blast them out of the ballpark. Show your CD that no word is wasted, no detail skipped, and no opportunity for greatness missed. And on those times you are brought in on an all-hands-on-deck concepting session: hit for the upper deck and keep swinging until you get there.