Advice to the advertising class of 2020
Take a deep breath in. Hold it. Keep holding. Now let it go.
Repeat after me: I will get through this. I will figure this out. I will not be at my parents’ house forever.
Cool? Feel at least a little better? Now go grab a coffee or a cocktail or whatever beverage is appropriate for the time of day when you’re reading this, and settle in for a sec. I’m not your mom, so I won’t sugarcoat things by telling you that the world is going to snap right back to normal when all of this is over, and that the internships and jobs you’ve been tirelessly chasing will magically reappear in a few months with open arms and open doors. With so many brands and nonprofits cutting back on spending, and so many agencies going through layoffs, the market for jobs is going to be more competitive than ever, and the advertising and marketing industries are going to look a little different on the other side of all this.
But optimism is worth everything right now, and lucky for you, there IS a bright side here—you’re going to be the first class to enter this wild, wonderful, creative, consuming, rewarding, and oftentimes cutthroat field in an era where impact and purpose and collaboration are the norms, not the exception. The world has never come together like this to solve a singular problem on a global scale. It’ll be up to you, with all your energy and ambition, and yes, even your idealism, to keep this momentum going. To help refocus the very soul of our industry. And to expand the impact we can have on our culture, far beyond awards shows and engagement metrics and bottom lines. (You know, as long as the agencies you work for are on-board with this new world order. I highly suggest not saying yes to ones that aren’t, even if the offer is tempting. It’s a sign of a toxic or inflexible culture, and you do not have time for that early in your career.)
Through all of this chaos, your brain and your Chrome tabs should be filled with amazing campaigns and initiatives from around the world. Creatives are being forced to become more nimble, more innovative, and more focused than ever before, and it’s beautiful to see so much thoughtfulness and empathy and storytelling come to life.
You may not believe this right now, when everything seems like it’s falling apart, job fairs are canceled, interviews have dried up, and even cornerstone student programs like the 4A’s MAIP program are replacing their in-person internships with virtual setups. But if you look in the right places, there are more opportunities to connect, grow, and learn than you could possibly ever take advantage of. And that’s where the advice part of all this starts.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
What should you be doing now, while you’re sheltered-in-place, to set yourself up for success once the world reopens for business?
- Cull your work. Congrats on having a portfolio ready to go. That’s a big first step. But you know how you have about 18 projects on there? I’ve never met you, but I can tell you they’re not all your best work. How do I know? Because no one has 18 “bests.” Look at the portfolios of folks who have been in the industry for 10, 20, 30 years, and we still only have 10 or 12 things on our sites. That’s because objectivity is key. Now is the perfect time to start learning how to differentiate the good from great. Think about your work in categories, too. What skills are you trying to showcase? Want to let managers know you’re great at UX/UI design? You don’t need 6 different examples. Pick your strongest two and get rid of the rest.
- Refine your story. The same way learning how to narrow your work takes time, so does refining your story. One of the things I see most frequently from young creatives is a tendency to only show the final product, and nothing else. Yes, that’s all consumers will ever see. But in this specific scenario, I am not a consumer, and you are not selling me a bike. You are selling me YOU. I want to know how you think, how you create. What was the strategy and concept behind your work? What problem were you trying to solve? Who was the audience? Why did you choose this approach, this design aesthetic, this tone of voice? All of this applies just as much to spec work as it does to anything you may have completed during an internship. Think of it as…reverse engineering a creative brief for work you’ve already completed. And if you’re not familiar with briefs, now’s also a great time to make friends with them, too.
- Study the great work that’s happening right now. Pick a few campaigns you’ve seen over the past weeks or months that stand out. Watch or read them again. Unpack their strategies. Form your own opinions about their effectiveness and their creativity. Ask your peers, and industry experts, for their opinions, too. Come up with your own ideas to build on what you see and make it stronger. If just thinking about the massive amounts of inspiration out there doesn’t excite you, perhaps consider becoming a banker or podiatrist.
- Connect with other folks in the industry. Partly because we’re all working (or not) from home in yoga pants and need some human interaction to feel normal; and partly because the older, weathered ad folks like me are (perhaps selfishly) finding it super rewarding to up our mentorship game right now, there are droves of industry vets willing to give you advice or look at your book. We’re raising our hands to take part in speed mentoring programs like We Are Next’s Coffee at a Distance, or review portfolios through The One Club. Take advantage of all of these opportunities. You will never find a better time to make friends with influence.
- Keep learning new skills. I’m personally having a hard time keeping track of all the education and software platforms that have opened their classes to everyone for free. It’s like a Cheesecake Factory menu of options out there. If you have some extra time on your hands, put it to good use. Take a class on design thinking, coding, entrepreneurship, Procreate (the iPad app, not the other thing that you can also do when you have extra time on your hands). All of those shiny new skills are ripe for resume boosting, and will likely lead you to find some unexpected talents or interests to add to your arsenal.
- Take on new projects and find opportunities to help. After 15+ years in the consumer world, I’ve spent the last 2 leading creative for an agency that only works with nonprofits. My team and I are seeing firsthand how hard they’ve been hit by our economic shutdown. In many cases, NPOs are seeing their funding drop by as much as 75%, meaning they don’t have the budget to continue their typical marketing and fundraising campaigns…which, paradoxically, is exactly what they need to be doing right now to connect with supporters who can help keep their doors open. Where do you come in? I am not usually a fan of giving your thinking, your time, or your creativity away for free, but this is an exception. If there’s a local org in your community that could use some creative brainpower to stay afloat, step up and see how you can help. Don’t assume you know what they need— ask them. Be humble, be gracious, and be flexible. If they need mailers designed, make them the best f-ing mailers you’ve ever done. You may not win a Young Lion at Cannes for it, but you will gain invaluable real-world experience, a wonderful story of character and impact, and actually be making a difference.
What will hiring managers and creative directors be looking for in young talent/new hires the coming months?
I can’t speak for an entire industry, but — surprise! — my hunch is that we’ll all still be looking for the same things we were looking for a few months ago. The circumstances around us will be different, but the qualities we look for in good humans should remain largely unchanged.
- Talent: a solid book that showcases both your work and your thinking, and that follows my advice from #1 and #2 above
- Experience: It doesn’t matter whether it’s from internships or from class, but having a bit of an understanding of how the industry works is helpful. I’m relying on your unsullied perspective to bring new ideas and approaches to the table, but still appreciate a healthy balance of realism mixed in.
- Ambition: Anything that demonstrates you’re a self-starter is a plus. Teaching yourself to code (or see above for those free online courses, ahem). Starting a side hustle. Getting three internships. Putting yourself through school. Advertising is fast paced, and like most things in life, you get out of it what you put in. You should never have to sacrifice your personal time or your mental health for your work, but you do have to show you’re willing to take that extra initiative to not just be good, but be great.
- Character + Self Awareness: No hiring manager should ever expect a recent grad to know ALL the things. That would be naive and unfair. But I do expect you to recognize that you don’t know all the things, and be open and eager to learn them. There may be some bigger agencies who are cool hiring hot-shots with massive egos, but those are also the agencies that lay off those same hot-shots the second something bad happens, because ego is a dime a dozen. Character, levity, and talent are not.
- Uniqueness: Homogeny builds boring teams. When I’m interviewing for any position, at any level, I want to find someone who has a different background, perspective, or story to add to the team. Part of it is making sure there’s diversity of thought and experience, from a cultural standpoint, but part of it is also recognizing that what’s different is what makes us stronger. I’m not saying you should spend your entire next Zoom interview talking about why you’re a unicorn, but if you love doing stop motion animation, or you also happen to do improv comedy, or you spent part of your senior year building an elephant sanctuary in Africa, those are the intangibles that can make you hard to forget, and hard to pass up.
This piece was long, I know. But there’s so much to say right now, and unfortunately, more urgency than usual to say it. You, the distance-graduating class of 2020, have so much potential, and so much to be hopeful for. The current state of our world sucks, for a variety of different reasons, and there’s no denying that. But you’re just at the beginning of a remarkably awesome career ride. It can go absolutely anywhere from here. And I can’t wait to see where you take it next.