Updated: Dec 31, 2018
Peter Rodick is an art director by trade and co-founder of a St. Louis creative boutique called Darling Makery.
Fourteen years and forty pounds ago, the University of Missouri handed me a diploma and ushered me to the nearest exit, eager to make room for a new crop of aspiring (and not-so-aspiring) advertising creatives.
As I stood blinking in the harsh light of the real world, alongside many thousands of others across the country with a basically identical piece of paper, I took stock of my situation and learned the first of many lessons during my first job hunt as an apparent grown-up. I’d like to share them with you:
1. Nobody owes you a job.
Until that point in life, from birth until college graduation, the path was tidy—mapped out by others. When you finish A, move on to B, then C, D, E, and so on. I killed it in preschool, so Ms. Mary warmly welcomed me to kindergarten. I awkwardly stumbled through junior high and found myself in high school. Entering college, it was reasonable to assume that my undergrad efforts would be rewarded with a job. It was the next logical step. It was how the world worked.
Except the charted path ends when your formal education ends. After that, you start your own path, one that you chart yourself. Perhaps that’s intimidating, and the adjustment may not be easy, but it’s also pretty exciting. And it requires some recalibration.
I think the most entitled of us thought we were owed a job. That a diploma was a token redeemable at an employer of your choice. Some of the most talented and successful folks I’ve worked with didn’t even get a token. My college experience was great, but college is a step. It doesn’t open doors on its own. At the end of the day, talent is what matters.
2. Your portfolio isn’t finished.
Your portfolio demonstrates your talent, which is good, because employers are interested in talent. It shows what you can do for them. Your resume provides context. It’s nice to see where you’ve been and what you’ve done. But if you’re in or fresh out of school, then you probably don’t have an enviable stint as senior art director at Droga5 listed next to your summer lifeguard experience. Employers will look at your portfolio, and if they’re interested, they might open your resume. So, focus on what matters most.
My first portfolio site (preceded by a roll of parchment) c. 2002.
3. Not-great work pulls down great work.
Your portfolio should contain your best work, and only your best work. Don’t fall into the trap of including work just because it ran. It may seem exciting when your work is out there in the real world. As an intern, you got something through the agency-client gauntlet. It ran on your favorite site. People saw it! That’s great. But is the work itself great? If not, be proud of your accomplishment, but don’t include it in your portfolio. Great work that lives only in your portfolio is far more enticing than a mediocre ad seen by millions. Likewise, five great campaigns alone are far stronger than the same five campaigns next to five mediocre campaigns. Quality over quantity.
And here’s why: that mediocre campaign in your portfolio, it pulls down the work around it. Creative directors are busy and will initially flip through your work quickly and make a snap judgement. You don’t want that so-so campaign soiling the brilliance next to it. It brings down your average. Work your ass off to make everything gold so that they glance at your portfolio and see only the height of your potential.
4. Demonstrate your skills. All of them.
Are you an aspiring art director? Presumably you’re proficient in the basics like Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator.
Is there anything else? Do you know your way around a camera and basic light kit? Can you shoot and edit video? Motion graphics? 3D? Are you a good illustrator? Can you code?
Make sure all your skills are represented in your portfolio.
Or maybe you are a copywriter. Are you as comfortable cranking out a long-form content piece as you are writing a quippy headline?
These probably aren’t all job requirements for a given position, but they’re nice-to-haves. In an era of crunched budgets when agencies are asked to do more with less, they are very, very nice-to-haves. So if you can add one or two “bonus” skills to your arsenal, you’ll have a competitive advantage. And make sure employers understand your capabilities.
5. Campaigns are king.
Multi-faceted campaigns are a constant in this business. An idea may work brilliantly in a single execution, but the ability to think in campaigns and to pull an idea through multiple executions and media is a unique and important skill.
Think about each medium within a campaign as a unique creative opportunity. Campaigns that extend seamlessly across new and old media demonstrate versatility and sound strategic thinking. Each execution should stand on its own, while collectively they must hold together as a visually and conceptually cohesive campaign.
Resizing a poster to become a banner ad doesn't count. And merely swapping a background image from layout to layout may yield variations of a single execution, but that's not a campaign. Show your ability to tackle each execution as a unique piece to a larger puzzle. If the pieces fit together nicely, you will have completed something that's harder than it looks.
Creative directors know and appreciate how hard that is.
From the archives: this ad appeared in my student portfolio. Crudely Photoshopped and hinging on sophomoric humor, it's an archetypal student piece. I'm still weirdly proud of the visual solve, except for the fact that I couldn't figure out how to extend it into a campaign. Either the cork gag would grow tired or other objects would feel like a stretch. It was strong on its own, but not a strong player in the context of my portfolio. <Sigh>
6. If possible, go straight to a creative director.
This is admittedly a bit of a gamble, but as I began my first job search, I quickly learned that applying via the “careers” section of a website or a blind email to firstname.lastname@example.org was about as useful as throwing copies of my portfolio out the window and hoping a creative director would stumble upon it. When you are teetering between moving into your parents' basement and commencing what you hope will be an illustrious career, those emails and applications mean everything to you—and hopefully something to the recipient. When the form response arrives—“thank you for your submission. We’ll keep your information on hand for one year and will contact you if....”—it’s demoralizing.
It's a slow process with poor odds. First, HR or a creative recruiter serves as gatekeeper. If you’re lucky, your portfolio is opened. If you’re really lucky, they’ll have a position open and send it—alongside many other applications—to a creative director who will ultimately make a decision. If you're unlucky, it never reaches its intended audience.
But, if, using your powers of sleuth, you could dig up a creative director’s name, or a creative who works in her department, someone who has her ear, and then dig up an email address—well, you could go straight to the decision-making source. Or at least get much closer to it.
But she’s very busy. Wouldn’t that piss her off? Yes, unless….
7. Don’t seek a job. Seek feedback.
Emailing out of the blue and asking a CD if they are hiring is unbecoming. Remember, we skipped human resources to get here, so don't ask a CD to do HR's job. And if you’re in school or a recent graduate, your intentions will be evident anyway.
What's more, if you ask for a job and there is no immediate opening, you’re giving someone who is disinclined to engage an immediate out. They can shut down the conversation before it starts. "Sorry, we're not hiring. Good luck."
Instead, solicit feedback on your portfolio with confidence and humility. You’re new at this. You know your portfolio is your key to a job. You think it’s pretty good, but you’ll be the first to acknowledge that it’s not your opinion that matters. You want to make it better. So, ask her for her honest, unfettered assessment of your book. In asking for and valuing her opinion, you’re appealing to her sense of pride (everyone is human), and you’re demonstrating initiative. It’s a strong position for you.
And it’s a lot harder to turn away someone trying to better themselves than someone merely looking for a paycheck.
Not everyone will respond. You may ruffle some feathers. But I’ll tell you, I was shocked at how many prompt, pleasant, and overwhelmingly helpful responses I received from creative directors. My portfolio improved as a result. And I still remain in touch with some of those folks 15 years later.
This approach opens doors that would otherwise be firmly closed. Something may not be open immediately, but in a few months when something does open up, you’re already on their radar.
Try your best to discern themes in the feedback you receive. Have the last few CDs turned their nose up at a particular campaign? Make it better or drop it. If only that one guy critiques it heavily, don’t get hung up on his feedback. That’s why it is important to gather as much feedback as possible. Themes will emerge, and making adjustments based on those themes will make your work much stronger.
9. Measure yourself against the best.
Not your peers. Seek out the folks who have been plying their craft successfully. Look at who is doing the best work in the world, and hold your work next to theirs. Yours won’t be as good (mine isn’t), but it will stretch you.
In college, I frequented the library where they kept a back catalog of Communications Arts and The One Show advertising annuals. Or I’d plop down in the Barnes & Noble cafe (are those still around?) and "borrow" the latest issues of CMYK and Archive from the newsstand. I pored over those things. And by doing so, I realized how far I had (and still have) to go. Had I been content to compare myself to the guy sitting next to me in class—someone who hadn’t even begun his career—I would have overestimated my abilities. That’s not a good place to start, so don’t do that.
Seek out the best work in the world and study it.
10. Don’t settle, but don’t overreach.
This is a hard one to discern. You may get an offer from an agency that is almost but not quite right for you. They may not do the exact sort of work you aspire to do. Maybe they specialize in social content, and you want to write commercials. Or you want to specialize in digital, but they’re a full-service outfit. It’s a gut decision. I’m not sure how to counsel you on this, but be careful about pigeon-holing yourself somewhere you won’t be happy. Your first job may not be your dream job, but consider whether its a step towards your dream job.
The flip side is the temptation to overestimate your abilities. You may be an exceptionally talented rock star who can work anywhere. I envy you. My first job was a stepping stone. I needed that first step to take the next and the next. You may be in a similar situation. You don’t want to turn your nose up at that opportunity.
It’s a difficult balancing act. Be honest with yourself, and strive for a job that will afford you the opportunity to do the type of work you want to do, even if it isn’t perfect.
Ten seems like a nice, round number on which to end, but I didn't plan well. So here's a bonus no. 10:
10. Know what you want to do.
Please do not go into an interview and say that you’re open to anything: account services, copywriting, maybe art direction—you're flexible! Frankly, no employer wants to pay someone to figure out what they want to do. You cannot straddle the fence when asked the question. Put yourself in their shoes: what's more appealing, decisiveness or uncertainty?
Difficult as it may be, I know of people who successfully switched from account services to the creative side after a few years on the job. People change their minds. But I guarantee they did not go into that initial interview expressing uncertainty. The decision to switch came later.
Best of luck.
The first job is the most elusive, but it will come. Be proud with a balancing measure of humility. Meet people. Make friends. Let them help you improve your work. And should you find any of these tips useful along the way, please remember me when you reach the top.
If you’re an employer in a creative field and would like to add something, or if you’re in pursuit of an internship or that first job, feel free to continue the conversation below.