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How to get ahead in advertising – a 10 point guide for students

So you want a career in advertising? Well, there are over 130 undergraduate degrees with advertising in their titles from 40 or so universities in the UK alone. If you know someone in industry, or someone who does, then that’s a better way of finding out which one might improve your employability than any student satisfaction survey.

Whatever course you do end up on, you will need to bear in mind that you’ll be one among many others looking for a job when you graduate. And it will only be your nan, parents and yourself who really care about the grade you get. That’s why we’ve put together this 10 point guide to help improve your chances of finding that dream job:

1. Start now

Legendary adman Dave Trott once said it takes two years to get a job in advertising, so don’t wait until you complete your education – get cracking now. That includes keeping up-to-date with what’s going on in ad land, figuring out what you want to be doing in it (eg creative, strategy, account management, production, etc) and who with, but also forming a plan to make it so. So if you are reading this then you’ve already taken a step in the right direction.

2. Team-up

You only have to look at the ad festivals and award shows to see how the industry now offers a much wider palette for your creativity than ever before. But there’s still a lot of traditional advertising being made, so reports of the death of the two-atom creative team (art and copy) might be a tad exaggerated. While that’s the case, finding a creative partner can still be essential for younger creatives because many agencies still see two heads as being better than one. If you don’t team up at uni, then don’t panic because there’s singlecreatives.com and Single Mingle events for those mischiefs and misfits among you looking to find your creative partner in crime.

3. Develop your book

If it’s a creative career you want then your portfolio or ‘book’ of your work is a better way of impressing potential employers than a CV of non-related Saturday jobs and what you’ve achieved academically. Make sure it includes a handful of big campaign ideas, and also ones that aren’t ads. But don’t include award briefs you’ve worked on because unless you’ve won one, it’ll only highlight that you haven’t. Fill your book full of you, including ideas about products that you use and actually care about. And it’s a good idea to choose ones that those offering feedback might know about too.

4. Get feedback

There’s always a demand for new talent and so getting input from industry experts not only helps you improve the way you approach and think about your work but also provides opportunities to network and promote yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and keep trying until someone says yes. And don’t just ask for feedback on your finished ideas, make sure you also ask for help on problems you are trying to solve as the advice you get will be more valuable and the experience will be more rewarding for those offering it.

If your tutor isn’t opening up their address book then there’s a host of industry bodies offering networking opportunities for those starting out including workshops and talks. There’s also the Young Creative Council site where you can find hundreds of industry contacts on their ‘Crit Me’ page or meet them in person at one of their meetups. Alternatively, find a Momma mentor with SheSays or pop along to a #copywritersunite gathering.

5. Get noticed

Winning a D&AD New Blood award or One Club Young Ones are great ways to fast-track your way to a job at a top agency. But you’ll be up against a heap load of others, including those at top ad schools who may have had a lot more coaching and support than you. Both award bodies offer more intimate and less competitive opportunities to get in front of industry like D&AD’s Shift and Rare, along with other bootcamps, pitch-offs, etc.

There’s also other awards and live brand briefs from the likes of Young Creative Network and Young Shits that will help you get noticed. But why not try your chances by entering The Drum’s very own Chip Shop Awards where anything and everything is allowed – making them both a lot of fun and a great opportunity to show off your creative chops.

6. Build your brand

Brand reputation is a thing and one you need to take seriously because it starts with your digital footprint... and that says as much, if not more, about you than your CV. So think very carefully about how what you put out there builds a brand called you and in a way that sets you apart from all the selfies or more intimate sharing of your mates.

When it comes to standing out from all other Tom, Dick and Harriets, we salute Matt and Dave who used the ordinariness of their names to track down ‘personal’ endorsements from celebrities. There’s also Vikki Ross who engagingly showcased her knowledge and skillset via #copysafari and #copywritersunite on Twitter. But our favourite is the way Marc and Callum got noticed and internships having created their book on a 7-hour Megabus trip to London using ads and headlines from the Metro freesheet as inspiration. That’s class!

7. Get (up)skilled

Like any other profession, advertising has tools of the trade and being able to execute your ideas using them will make you more job-ready than those who can’t. That’s not just about becoming more adept at using the vast array of software available for video, design and photography on Adobe’s Creative Cloud. It’s also about understanding the kind of challenges that brands are now facing, but also how you go about solving them as part of an applied creative process.

Part of that is keeping your finger on the pulse with what’s going on in the industry (eg by reading The Drum), but it’s also about exploring tools and techniques for generating, developing, prioritising and presenting ideas. Top tip: speak to those who’ve recently made the transition from placement or internship to longer-term employment to find out not only what they do and how they do it, but also with what and why.... and just as importantly how they got the gig in the first place.

8.  Get experienced

When it comes to work experience think more broadly about what interesting opportunities might be out there in both the creative and cultural industries, but also where geographically. There are so many places and cultures for you to explore and experience, so why not get out there and see if you can combine work and travel. And what about getting experience in other cultural spaces like art, entertainment, fashion etc?

You could also consider another area of the broadening marketing communications industry, including where it meets technology; or perhaps where you can make a difference as a force for good; or anything that helps you figure out who you are, what it is that you really want to do, where and why.

9.  Get a (cultural) life

It’s trite to say but to be successful you need to be curious while at the same time understanding that brands connect to their customers through culture. That means immersing yourself into all its messiness in order to better understand the space you’ll be operating in, ie the stuff we consume, watch, chat about, interact with etc. And realising that your immersion needs be more reflective so that you are both an active participant but also an observer.

You could go a step further by using your cultural exploration as an opportunity to develop your creativity in ways that are linked to the creative industries such as through animation, art, film, music, photography, writing etc. And go a further step by showcasing your talents through non-advertising awards aimed at students and graduates like the British Journal of Photography’s Break Through competition.

10.   Be brave 

If you really want to get ahead in advertising or a related field, then you need to find ways of earning attention in just the same way that those hiring you have to help their clients do. This has as much as do with your attitude as aptitude, and the mindset needed requires trying out different things including the way you do and think about them. We’ve included some of those above, but as Goethe once said, ‘Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.’

So kudos to #FearlessGirlBristol getting that job at McCann’s after hitting a brick wall. She finally got a meeting having posed as a statue outside of their offices. There’s also the brass of Jason Scott who turned up at Ogilvy India, apparently on holiday, and told the agency's boss that he’d been sent by UK vice chairman Rory Sutherland. He was put to work right away, and he quickly learnt on the job having thrown himself into the deep end.

Justin Kirby is head of strategy at Studio 1854, the agency arm of 1854 Media who publish the British Journal of Photography and run a number of national and international awards. He also lectures and mentors on a wide range of advertising, design and marketing degree and diploma courses in the UK and Europe.

Andy Peel is a senior creative at Pulse Creative (The&Partnership) and director of the Young Creative Council – a collective of creatives who help and support young talent breaking into the advertising and marketing industry through lecturing, teaching and events. He’s also founder of Ad Job Wall, a junior jobs board for the creative industries.

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