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FIVE Big Mistakes To Avoid In An Ad Agency Interview

How To Ace A Creative Interview By Avoiding Obvious Traps

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Job Interview
Image Courtesy of TedMurphy

You will interview at many different advertising agencies throughout your career. It's unavoidable. Agencies fold, they merge, they lose clients, and they downsize. You may also get bored, frustrated, move out of state or just want a change of scenery.

So, when the time comes to interview, you need to be completely buttoned up. That means preparing well for the interview; and knowing what NOT to say is just as important as knowing what to tell the interviewer. Here are five major landmines you need to sidestep. Some apply to all types of roles, a few are specifically for people in the creative department.

DO NOT Tell Your Interviewer Which Agency You'd Rather Be Working At

This seems like a complete no-brainer but it happens all the time. Why? Well, if you're interviewing at a top-notch agency like Weiden or Goodby, then you are right where you want to be. But if you're younger and climbing the ladder, you will most likely be interviewing at a smaller shop. Sometimes that shop may specialize in direct marketing or healthcare advertising. And most of them are proud of it, too.

So if you come in and answer the question "where do you see yourself in five years?" with the answer "at a big shop, somewhere that does a lot of big TV and outdoor, winning all sorts of cool awards" then you are basically sticking a huge middle finger up at the interviewer and his or her agency. You should want to work there for a long time, and stay there; that's what they want from you. Sure, they know you'll probably move on, but it's unspoken. In five years, you see yourself as being "a strong member of the agency, helping to steer and shape its direction and doing killer work." That's it. Keep your eye on the prize, not the future. But don't talk of divorce before you're even married.

DO NOT Come In With An Outdated, Disorganized Portfolio

If you work in the creative department, your portfolio is everything. It's proof of what you've been doing, what you've done that's worked, what has won awards, what you actually managed to get printed or broadcast, and so much more. It's your career in one handy, portable case. Or these days, one handy website.

In the hectic world of advertising, it's very easy to overlook the portfolio, but it needs to be updated and refreshed often. Sure, that awesome campaign you did fifteen years ago may have won a few gongs, but it's probably time to let it go. Unless it's something classic like the 1984 spot, you'll want to keep changing the work out to be relevant and let your future employer know that you've been busy and have fresh, solid work.

Also, keep your portfolio organized. That means having a logical progression throughout, split into campaigns, with examples of each part of the campaign. Spec work is fine, if it's great. Start strong, finish with your best work, and put everything else in the middle. BUT, everything else should still be good work. Remember, a portfolio is only as strong as the weakest piece of work in it. Be tough. Cut the weak pieces.

And one final piece of advice on portfolios. You will come across vastly differing opinions from people. Some will love your work, others will hate it. While you should always be ready to take criticism, don't change your folio after every interview. And don't be afraid to defend your work. Sometimes, you will meet creative directors who are taking shots at you just to see how well you defend yourself. No one wants a creative who's a complete walkover. Do it with respect, but if you have good reasons for the work, shout them out.

DO NOT Be Blissfully Unaware Of The Agency That's Doing The Hiring

I once talked to a friend after a disastrous interview. He was a great art director, and he was applying to work at a shop that already had a copywriter in place that they wanted him to team up with. Everything was going well until the asked him how he felt about the merger, and moving to a new building on the other side of town.

He had no idea. Talk about a deer in the headlights moment.

He also didn't know that the agency in question had taken on several new accounts because of the merger, and also had to lose a few. He rambled on and on about a certain Japanese car maker he had always wanted to work for, not knowing that the agency had to resign the account because of the merger.

From that point on, things went downhill fast for him. Not knowing that the agency had applied to had just gone through a significant merger, was moving offices, and changing the business model was not only ignorant, it was insulting to the interviewers.

Basically, not reading up on the agency you want to work at is like not doing any studying before your finals. You should know the key players at the agency, what they've been up to over the last few months, what they've been doing that has made headlines, their major accounts, any wins they've had, and anything else that could be brought up in an interview. Study hard, soak it all up, and be proactive in the interview. Be the one to bring up things like an account win, a new creative director or planner, big awards and so on.

DO NOT Dress The Wrong Way

Most people who go for a job interview will dress up for the occasion. That means a sharp suit, tie and polished shoes for guys, and an equally smart and business-like outfit for the ladies. In most jobs, that's fine.

But advertising, like many other creative professions, is a little different. If you work in the accounts department, or production, sales or finances, you'll probably be fine wearing your best formal clothes, but you should try and add a touch of flair to be remembered. A noticeable tie, a cool accessory or hairstyle, something that says you mean business but also know what it takes to stand out. Advertising is all about presentation, and you need to make a memorable impression.

When it comes to the creative department, the usual rules fly out of the window. I've seen art directors and writers turn up looking like they'd be on tour with the Foo Fighters for three months. It was fine, they're creative, they get to dress that way. I've seen other creatives turn up in matching red suits. Again, no problem. In fact, the only time I've ever seen anyone comment on what the creative team was wearing was when it was too boring. As a creative, turning up looking like an accountant with no personality will not do you any favors. Your creativity should shine through, or at the very least, it should not be disguised by Mr Bean's wardrobe. And yes, jeans and t-shirts are usually fine. But if in doubt, talk to a few creatives who already work there and get their feedback.

DO NOT Trash Your Current Agency

It's so tempting. "Why do you want to leave XYZ Advertising?" can open the floodgates to all kinds of negative comments. If you've been at your current agency for a while, the bloom has definitely gone off the rose. And it's all too easy to turn to the dark side, and begin a tirade against the people, the work and the future of your current employer.

Big mistake.

The obvious reason not to do this is the same as for any other profession. No one wants to hear you slag off your current employer because it's indicative of how you will talk about them later on. If you see someone verbally abusing their significant other in public, would you want to take their place?

However, there are other reasons more specific to the ad industry that apply here. First and foremost, it is an incestuous industry. It's amazing how many people know each other well from agency to agency. It can quickly get back to people that you were bitching about your current agency, and that won't serve you well. Also, things change very quickly, due to account losses, wins, mergers and the ever-changing economy. Keeping a good relationship with your current employer, including the appearance of liking them, is vital. You may easily cross paths again. If anyone does ask you why you want to leave, make it positive. You want to expand your portfolio and experiences by working on different accounts; you want to expand you skill set at an agency that has different disciplines; you want a change of scenery to stay fresh. Even if you HATE everything about your current agency, don't use that opening gambit as an excuse to spill the beans.

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