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What I Know Now

Posted on March 26, 2012 and read 3,740 times

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Allison Headshot small What I Know NowAllison Baxley
Freelance Art Director


I think most people would describe me as a driven, ambitious, competitive and downright motivated person. I’m on a mission to prove something. To someone. Anyone. I know it’s not always a healthy mentality, but I feel compelled to demonstrate my worth in this world. Whether it’s as a wife, friend, athlete, amateur chef, or at my official profession — Art Director.

All this potentially unhealthy motivation has its healthy benefits. I’ve learned quite a few lessons in my unwavering quest to break into the advertising world over the past 7 years. Lessons that I wish someone had taught me when I was in school. So when I planned a last minute trip to Chicago, I was ecstatic to stop by Chicago Portfolio School, my alma mater, to host a workshop for current students. I wanted to shed light on some of the hard-earned wisdom I’d gathered over the years. And after so many people had helped me along on my journey, the least I could do was pay it forward.

This is what I told them:

Be Socially Active (Network)

Although the face of networking has changed in the last 10 years, it’s still one of the best ways to get your name at the top of the list of candidates for any given job. With the inventions of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and many more, there are far fewer barriers to connecting with thought-leaders and decision-makers. Find people and employers whose work you admire and cultivate relationships with them. Reach out to them. Connect with them. Befriend them. Show them you’re a passionate newbie to the industry and ask for help. You’d be surprised how many respond. Contrary to what you might think, they too remember how hard it was to break in and are happy to lend a hand to the next generation of creative thinkers. They want to see true talent succeed, so send them your site and ask for their opinion.

But don’t just ask for a job. That’s like knocking on a blind date’s door and asking to head straight to the bedroom. Let people get to know you and your work for a little while. People help people they like, and coincidentally, also want to work with people they like. So give them a chance to like you before you cut to the chase. One way to get senior people to like you is to ask for feedback on your work. This shows initiative and proves that you are willing to put in the effort it takes to make your book better. And it’s a bit of an ego-boost to them as well, which definitely doesn’t hurt.

When someone you’ve reached out to gives you feedback on your work, always implement it and resend. Nothing is more disheartening to have the same site sent to you time after time. Especially after you’ve given that person a handful of ways they could improve the projects on it. If they weren’t 100% thrilled the first time, they won’t be three months later, either. In fact, they might even think that you’re just wasting their time and that’s no way to get them to hire you.

No project is ever “finished”. You just run out of time to work on it. Fortunately, if you’re still in school or job-hunting, you have tons of time to keep making things better. So do it. This is how it works in the agency world. You put your heart into something and then the people you work for tell you how you could do it better. So you take their constructive criticism and apply it, and most of the time, they actually know what they’re talking about!

Produce, Produce, Produce! (Make things and stay relevant)

A great way to impress the people you want to work with is to make something. Anything. A website. A business card. A photography collection. Showcase your creativity in any way you can. More and more these days, I hear of people being hired at agencies that have no agency experience but have shown their creativity in a multitude of ways.

There are a number of ways you can produce work. In the age of Craigslist, eLance and plenty of other online forums, it’s easier than ever to find freelance projects. It’s great if you get paid, but even better if you get your work produced. Do work for friends and family. Design greeting cards or t-shirts. Write a blog or submit articles to trade publications. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your design sense or use of hyperbole and sarcasm, just get your voice heard. Make things. Share those things with others. And hope that they remember your name and call you the next time they have a project up for grabs instead of that other person who just sent them a link. Produced samples run circles around fake ads so get out there and find people who are willing to give you a chance.

You can also produce spec work. This comes in all shapes and sizes. Technically, student work is spec work. Go back and look at the projects in your book and ask yourself if there is anything you can do to make them better. Be honest with yourself. Is that campaign the best damn campaign it can be? If not, make it better.

You can also peddle your services to local businesses for free and if they like what they see, voila! You just got work produced for a real company. Whatever you do, continue to make things, keep yourself relevant and the more you keep your work in the eyes of those you hope to work for one day, the more likely your name will be top of mind the next time they need to hire someone.

Find work, any work (Be humble)

If someone offers you a job, take it, especially if you’ve been looking a while. Sometimes this is hard to do. The agency offering the job isn’t good enough or doesn’t do the type of work you want to do. It doesn’t matter. If you need a job and someone is willing to give one to you, take it. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but the experience will count more early on in your career than the actual work. They call them stepping-stones for a reason. Take a step. Get some work produced and then keep on stepping on.

Every creative in the industry would tell you the same thing. It doesn’t matter how great an agency is, there are always crap projects that have to be done. In the midst of Super Bowl spots and awards festivals there are still direct mail pieces and in-store POP displays that must be made. Every project is an opportunity. And guess what? Direct mail pieces and POP displays win awards too, if that’s your game. Whether it’s a direct mail insert or a 30-second spot, give it your best and show that no matter how unappealing a project is you can make lemonade out of poop.

Look, nobody likes a whiner. In an industry inundated with self-righteous douchebags, unbridled enthusiasm will take you further than “poor me”. So, instead of complaining about not working at the best agency in town, take the starter job and make the best of it. And if you do a good job, you may just be working at your dream agency sooner than you think, and making a lot more money, too.

Good luck!

Advice from Industry leaders:

I reached out to a handful of the industry leaders I’ve developed relationships with over the years and asked them for some insights to share with current portfolio school students and recent grads. Here’s what they said.

Allison: So many students come out of portfolio school clueless about how to actually break in to the ad world. If you could give them one piece of advice, what would it be? If there was one thing you wish they knew, what would it be?

Tom: My first piece of advice would be to be a Maker of Things. A website. A blog. A tumblr. Show your talents of creativity by creating something amazing. Justin Gignac has his NYC Garbage project. Don’t just put fake ads in your portfolio and

hope that someone will hire you from those alone.

The next piece of advice is take any job you can get. I started at Ogilvy & Mather Direct and I was kind of embarrassed by it. My friends were working at cool places like [insert your dream agency]. I was gutted that I ‘had to take a job in direct’. But the thing I realize now is it doesn’t matter. Just keep pushing and you’ll get there.

Two years later, I was hired by Kirshenbaum & Bond to do direct writing for their Citibank College account. I was told, “This is not a stepping stone to general. You are here to do direct.” Two years later I was the go-to writer for general at K&B.

Tom Christmann, Freelance Creative Director


TJ: I wish students were less afraid to reach out to senior people in the industry. Some are great at it, but most shy away. I was a guest teacher at Pratt a few years ago and gave my business card to everyone in the class, suggesting they reach out with any questions on the project they were given. No one did. When I came back to look at the work, I asked why they hadn’t reached out and most of the students didn’t have an answer. I think some may have been shy or afraid of receiving feedback they did not want. But you should always welcome feedback. After the class, I again suggested that everyone should feel free to reach out with questions about the job search process, etc. Only one student did. Every person you meet in this business is a potential connection to your next job. Take advantage when someone offers to help.

TJ Bennett, Associate Creative Director, Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners


Brad: The students should be honest with themselves. They should be asking if their books are the best they can be!! CD’s are looking for something that hasn’t been done before. Too often I see the same old idea in on site after site.

And when it comes to doing fully integrated ideas, make sure there is a purpose for each working part. If you try to retrofit ideas, they always fall flat!!


Brad Emmett, Executive Creative Director, DeVito/Verdi


Jim: I think the biggest thing maybe I didn’t understand coming out of school was how much people were willing to help in terms of looking at work, offering feedback, putting you in touch with other people, etc. People are truly willing to help you. The thing you can do that most encourages the people who help you want to help you even more: MORE WORK.

Remember that your book/site is never done. It is not a finished product. When you’re trying to help a student/recent grad, the most discouraging thing is when they show you their site like it’s done. It’s finished. They don’t really want feedback. They want you to tell them it’s great. Perfect.

It’s always more interesting to interact with a student/grad and see them doing more work over time. Watching someone take feedback and make the work better, and then seeing them have new ideas and make new work. These are the things that really impress working creatives because it’s what they have to do every day.

Jim Darlington, Freelance Copywriter


Ron: I can imagine the pressure students must be under to keep up with emerging media. I’m seeing more and more books that try to shoehorn everything under the sun into their campaigns – simply to prove that they work in an “integrated” way. Don’t be too eager to complete a checklist. Demonstrate that you know your target and which tools will best engage them.

While it’s good to have an understanding of everything new, I’m really only looking for great ideas that are brought to life in smart ways—not every possible way.

Ron Smrczek, Executive Creative Director, TAXI Europe


Tom: Keep approaching your work with enthusiasm. You’ll do better work, gain more respect and have more friends.

Tom Monahan, President, Before & After, Inc.

  • Hilton Barbour

    A wonderfully mature and level-headed article. Great advice and, having had numerous “How do I get hired” conversations, astute tips on making a first impression.

  • Anonymous

    Well said Allison. I went to Chicago Portfolio too but a long while before you. In fact, I was the first grad way back in 2001 (after it had transformed from AdEd) and it was the same story then as it is now. It’s amazing how few doors of opportunity jr’s actually knock on. They try to be clever with a self promo but they hardly ever promote themselves.  

  • Monica Aguilar

    I would super love to see a write-up for strategists! I recently graduated out here in California and I’m now at my first agency gig; a marketing agency. I have so many questions and unable to use my current employer as a resource (her background is in media buying not strategy). Being able to ask someone in the field for feedback and actually get some would be awesome!

  • Patrick Pope

    How important are portfolio schools really to become a copywriter? I’ve looked at Chicago Portfolio and Miami Ad.  I’d love to go but financing it through the financial ad programs are out of the question – 10% to 15% interest rate on a private student loan is dangerous!

    I’m currently an Account Coordinator for a small agency in Chicago that has a niche with auto retailers. And though I’ve written copy and played art director on several projects I’ve been told my work is exciting.

    I’ve heard of people getting jobs based of sketches drawn on cocktail napkins or being journalist. So how important are Portfolio Schools?




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