How to Get Your First Creative Job in Advertising

A Veteran's Guide to Looking for Advertising Work

Work colleagues brainstorming in creative office
••• Kelvin Murray/Getty Images 

The task of breaking into advertising can range from tough to seemingly impossible. You’ll need luck, skill, people on the inside, and the kind of determination that would make Genghis 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 would like initially, and you definitely will 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. Opinions will vary on what is good and bad and what level of finish your ideas should have, but 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 still value the ideas because they are the driving force behind good ads. To show off your work, you must have an online portfolio; the days of leather cases are over.

Stand Out

Good advertising agencies 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.

To stand out, you need to do what all good advertising does: Get the attention of the intended audience. In this case, your intended audience is the creative director. Have the courage to be original, and you will have the best opportunity to get noticed.

In your attempt to stand out, be sure there is substance behind your ideas and your approach.

Gimmicks are shallow and quickly will be seen for what they are, so avoid them.

Freelance

So, you’ve applied for job after job and you’re not getting anywhere. Now it’s time to consider temporary employment. Agencies have different budgets, and typically have money for freelancers even if they have a full permanent staff. How they spend that money depends on the accounts that need help, so ask. Do they have big pitches coming up where you could help? Are some teams overloaded and in need of 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. Not for months, not even weeks, but ask for an opportunity 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 sometimes 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 Directors' 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.