How to Work for an Advertising Agency

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You've measured the pros and cons, and you've come to the conclusion that a career in advertising is right for you. Back in the fifties and sixties, it was relatively easy to get a job at a good ad agency and work your way up through the ranks quickly, if you had the talent. But these days, the competition is intense. 

There are schools devoted to producing highly-skilled art directors, copywriters, and account teams. There are graduates out there who have more polished portfolios than agency veterans. And agencies are inundated with hundreds of applications for one or two open positions. So, how do break into the industry?

To start, you will have to have a body of work that appeals to the agency you're applying to, and the fortitude to keep on trying after every rejection, of which there will be a lot. But, if you have the passion, and the staying power, you can do it. 

Here are 10 ways to get your foot in the door of an ad agency.

Intern at an Agency

For an ad agency, an intern is a win-win situation. Most of the time, interns are working for free, or minimum wage, yet they do work that can generate large sums of money for the agency. It's also an easy way to test-drive potential employees and grab the talented ones before another agency can scoop them up.

So, if you have the opportunity to intern at a good agency, jump on it. Interning will help you get an "in" to the agency, but you'll also be able to work in various areas you wouldn't otherwise. Get the most out of your internship by being willing to learn and work. The experience you gain as an intern is invaluable and could lead to a permanent position. At the very least, you'll get work for your portfolio, and the kind of hands-on experience you cannot get anywhere else. 

Take an Entry Level Position

Many people have successfully started their career in advertising by taking ANY available job in an agency, and then working their way up. Don't be afraid to work outside of your job goal. Get hired, and then learn everything you can. If you're unable to move up within that particular agency, you can still use the experience to get a job somewhere else.

Don't worry that starting at the bottom won't show off your skills. If you have the talent and work ethic, you will find a way to showcase it. Get friendly with the people who work in the departments you want to work with. Show them your ideas. If an agency can hire someone who was homeless, which actually happened, they can hire from their own ranks. 

Do Freelance Work

If you're interested in being a copywriter or graphic designer, consider freelancing as a way to break into the business. Starting a freelance career, you can set your own rates, design your own campaign to promote your services, and approach small businesses or even agencies. As you reach out, you should have an online portfolio ready to go and be available to network for business.

Freelancing also gives you the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects and campaigns to hone your skills. One day you're working on ice cream, the next on credit cards or vitamins.

Create Spec Ads

Spec ads take two forms. First, they can simply be your version, or recreation, of a published ad. You might think that you can do better than a major automaker's print ads running in your favorite magazine. Or your local barber shop's newspaper ads might need some reworking. So, you do it with your own slant, but better.

You can also do something completely off the wall for products and brands that don't even exist. The purpose of spec work is to show your creativity and how you solve problems. If your spec ad is good enough, it could go viral. When it hits thousands or even millions of views on YouTube, Tumblr, or some other format, the ad agencies will take notice. 

Contact Radio and Television Stations

Many radio and TV stations have employees who specifically write commercials. They may also produce certain types of shows for the station. This is a great opportunity for you to get started in the business. Since most radio and TV stations don't pay very much for these types of positions, there's a high turnover rate that leads to more opportunities for people with little or no experience to break into the field.

Unfortunately, a lot of the work done here is not going to be rewarding creatively or strategically. The ads are formulaic, and the clients usually like them that way. Basically, promotions that spell out the benefit of the product or service, followed by multiple reads of the phone number or website. However, you may make some great contacts here that can lead to bigger and better opportunities. 

Get an Advertising Education

Getting an education in advertising doesn't just apply to college students. If you're serious about working in an agency, you can learn a lot by taking a course. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to pack up and move to your closest advertising school.

The Internet offers many opportunities to learn about advertising and what it takes to make it in the business from the comfort of their own home. If you're currently employed in a different field of work, consider night classes or online courses that can be done on a flexible schedule

Introduce Yourself to Key People

If you're looking for a position on the creative side of advertising, send an email or write a letter to the Creative Director. Introduce yourself in a friendly, professional tone, and give a brief bio. You may even go as far as creating your own social media campaign or viral video. 

Find out the name of the Creative Director and address them specifically as opposed to using "To Whom It May Concern" in your letter. This is your first chance to make a good impression, so get their name and the spelling right. You can follow up in a few weeks with an additional letter or you can give the Creative Director a call, but don't cold call them first. Anyone in an agency is going to be busy, especially someone in a management position who is juggling many projects at once.

Network, Network, Network

This is one of those businesses that live by the rule, "It's not just what you know, it's who you know." Sometimes, all that separates two very talented people is an association with someone in the agency. Don't be the one left behind because you don't have a connection in the agency. 

Look for opportunities to meet with people in your area that are actively working in the industry. Many cities have local advertising clubs that sponsor special events, educational seminars, and professional workshops. Get out there and meet the people who could be your next potential employer.

Try Working In Sales or PR

There's a difference between advertising and sales, but being an account executive at a car dealership, for example, can help you bridge the gap between no experience and working in an agency. It's also a good way to meet people, improve your selling techniques, and find out your own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to persuasion. 

PR and advertising aren't the same, but there is some crossover, and if you find a good, creative PR agency, you can be doing some very fulfilling work. 

Be Genuinely Enthusiastic

Advertising requires passion and a work ethic that could have you working beyond the typical 9-5. So you need to evaluate if your good fit for a career in advertising. If you are, you need to convey that to a potential employer. Even in this day and age of hustle and bustle, employers are excited to see someone with genuine passion and commitment. People with experience have been beaten out of the job by someone with less experience but a lot of heart. Personality goes a long way.