How to start a Career in Advertising

How to start a Career in Advertising

Everyone waits for the Superbowl ads. But, if you enjoy commercials, magazine ads, billboards, radio spots, and alternative media year-round, you might want to think about getting into the advertising business. If you’re creative with words, art, and people, if you have good ideas, this might be the job for you.

If the thought of being around other creative people, people from different backgrounds with different experiences and different takes on life, excites you, look for openings in advertising. If you don’t want to wear a suit every day, choose advertising as your major on your college application.

Back in the day when the ad gurus like Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy started making ads, ads with real ideas behind them, there was no such thing as studying advertising. Someone with a business background, or art, or auto mechanics, could waltz into an ad agency and get hired. That still happens sometimes.

Because the fact of the matter is, if you have good ideas and you get them in front of the right person at the right time, it doesn’t matter if you even went to college. But it’s more likely that you’ll get a job in advertising if you have an academic background in the field, some agency experience, the right kind of networking skills, and some luck.

If you want to write ads or design them, you’ll need a portfolio, one that’s better than everyone else’s. The competition for jobs at an agency that bills millions is fierce. The competition for jobs at a smaller boutique can be fiercer, seeing as there are fewer openings and usually more freedom.

Departments vary by the size of the agency. For example, a huge agency like Publicis has clear-cut departments: account service, account planning, creative, media, etc. An agency with three people obviously will not have these decisive departments, as one person will have to multi-task to get the entire job done. Different agencies run different ships, but they go through similar functions to get an idea scribbled in sharpie marker into a produced ad.

When a company is looking for an ad agency or wants to change agencies, they put their account into review. For example, if Proctor and Gamble wanted to find a new agency to come up with ads for Crest toothpaste, they’d ask agencies to submit proposals and sometimes ad concepts, for a new ad campaign. Lots of factors depend on how long this process lasts, like the size of the account (the money it has to spend on advertising).

But once a decision is made, once an agency wins an account, there’s a huge celebration, complete with alcohol eleven times out of ten, before the very intensive work begins to prove the client made the right choice. It’s time for the collaboration of several departments who work to get a great ad campaign out the door. Here’s a general job description for the main people in charge of the life of a campaign.

Account Service

If you’re a people person, a mediator, a firefighter, consider account service. People are assigned to specific accounts. You start off as an Assistant Account Executive (AAE), then you’re an Account Executive (AE), and then you’re an Account Supervisor. Agencies hire people they think would be a fit for the account they’re looking to hire for.

It’s their job to be the face of the agency to the client, to act as the liaison between the agency and the client, to make sure the client’s concerns (and sometimes demands) are being met by the agency. There are lots of meetings, some lunches and dinners with the client (expense account!), and usually some traveling. Account service people are the messengers.

They show the client potential ads that creatives have spent days, weeks, sometimes months preparing, then they have to go back to those same people and tell them what the client wants to change in the ad. Sometimes it’s minimal like the client wants the girl to brush her teeth with her right hand, and sometimes it’s more involved, like starting over. The account service people aren’t “yes” men or women, though. If they believe the client would benefit from the creative, even if the client doesn’t like it, it’s their job to prove it.

If they think the client’s opinions are right, they’ll tell the creative department to make some changes. These people defend the ideas they believe are the best from the agency and would work best for the client. The account service people stay on top of the creative and production departments, ensuring all deadlines are met.

Needless to say, things don’t always go smoothly, and there are lots of fires to be put out. It takes a strong communicator, a fast learner, an organized, patient person to handle an account service position. A general advertising background, and/or agency experience is what most agencies look for when hiring account service employees.

Account Planners

For some agencies, planning departments are relatively new. Sometimes agencies don’t even have a specific planning department. Planners start off as Junior Planners, then move up to Senior Planners. They are researchers, number crunching (quantitative research), and interview conducting (qualitative research).

They do surveys, focus groups, personal interviews, and content analyses to get a better understanding of the market, the competition, and what people currently believe about the product category. They look at how people currently think and compare that to what we, the agency, and the client, want them to think. If cavity prevention is a primary concern for customers and they don’t know that Crest prevents cavities, that gap must be closed. If a consumer knows nothing about a specific product or brand, it’s time to launch an introduction campaign.

If consumers think a product is geeky, how do we make it cool? How do we give it a personality? Planners have to be comfortable talking to people, as they are trying to unlock feelings, both positive and unfavorable, from consumers. They have to make people feel at ease when sharing their opinions. There’s a lot of listening, digesting information, and making that information mean something to the client’s product.

The client isn’t always happy to hear what planners have found from consumers. It isn’t easy to hear people think your brand sucks, and sometimes it’s hard to believe. So, it’s the planner’s job to provide evidence, to back their research up with statistics and concrete findings. The job is about troubleshooting and opportunity seizing, and it’s not easy.

Once they’ve conducted research, planners write up creative briefs for the copywriter and art director team on the account to ensure the creative stays on track with the findings and that it addresses the problem or opportunity.

Some questions that appear on a brief may include, “Who’s the target market?” “What do they know about us?” “What do we want them to know?” “What’s the single most important thing to tell the consumer?” A general advertising background and experience with conducting surveys and focus groups in a school environment helps. Experience interning at an agency is better.


Every part of an agency is creative, but this title refers to the people who actually write and produce the ads. Copywriters are responsible for writing print (magazines, billboards, etc.), radio spots, and television commercials. They work with art directors, the people responsible for designing ads, whether it’s making an ad in a design program from scratch or finding images and people to make the pictures come to life.

Copywriters and art directors are paired as a team. You start off as junior writers and art directors, move up to seniors, then maybe, someday, you become a creative director. But no matter what level you are, you work as a team. Each team is assigned to specific accounts, and they usually work on everything together; you don’t work with different art directors if you’re a copywriter.

They work from a creative brief, concepting solutions to the listed problems or desires that the client wants to achieve. The team could come up with hundreds of ideas, but it’s their job to come up with a good solution that everyone is happy with and that will be effective. The writer and art director have to produce work that they’re proud of, work they’d want their names on while having the impact the client has in mind. A lot of times, it’s hard for the creatives and the client to see eye to eye.

To be a creative, you’ve got to have really thick skin, as your ideas are being shot down on a daily basis, and you can’t give up, you just have to keep hammering away until everyone’s happy. The creative process of making a campaign usually has tight turnaround times, which means if the ideas aren’t accepted the first and second round, which they usually aren’t, there’s going to be some late nights to make the deadline. It’s a lot of going back to the drawing board to stay on schedule.

There is no 9 to 5 for most of the agency, especially these folks. You have to love this job to be able to do it well. The only way you can get hired is if you have a portfolio of ads, usually student ads. There are a few schools that focus on making a portfolio, like Miami Ad School, Portfolio Center, and Creative Circus.

You can earn a graduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin or Virginia Commonwealth University while on the portfolio track. Check each Web site to learn about requirements and costs. It’s great to have agency experience, even better to have something actually published, but it’s not required. Your portfolio, your book, is what sells you. And it’s got to be better than good to get you a job.


The media department in agencies places the finished ad campaigns in publications or on stations to reach the public. It’s not a guessing game. They use computer programs to see who’s reading and watching and listening to what, when, and for how long. Media departments take a number of things into consideration when determining where to advertise: age, income, city/area, ethnicity, education level, number of children, number of pets, occupation, etc.

They look at ratings, frequency, subscription holders, and times of day, to make sure the campaign reaches the intended audience. They figure out the best way to spend the client’s money while reaching the audience. It involves math, organization, and accuracy. Publications, radio and television stations, as well as alternative media sources, have their own deadlines, so media departments have to ensure that the agency is on track.

They correspond with sales representatives for numerous stations and publications on a daily basis, usually via phone, but sometimes in meetings to learn about a particular station. Media people get a lot of perks, like tickets to concerts and movies, food, etc. because salespeople often thank them for business, or they want to stay in their good graces.

There’s also a lot of other people who make things in an agency happen: HR, travel coordinators, the traffic department, project coordinators, broadcasting, mailroom employees. Everyone under the agency’s roof contributes to its success.

Here are some important things to know about working in advertising.

A huge misconception is that the advertising business is glamorous. It is fun, it’s different from working in any other industry, and there are some perks, but I wouldn’t call it glamorous. The hours are usually long. The pay is not good until you put in years of long hours. Everyone works on a deadline all of the time. Not all of the projects are interesting.

In fact, you’re more likely to do less exciting things, especially in the beginning. But, every now and then, a cool project will come up. And when you prove yourself, prove that you are willing and able to work on anything they put in front of you, when you take those assignments seriously and make something happen, you’ll get better assignments.

Every agency has its thing, its persona, its atmosphere, its brand. They’re all out to make good ads, but they all live differently. Each has a distinctive personality. If you visit BBDO, you’ll find the atmosphere is different from Ogilvy, JWT, and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Huge agencies will feel dramatically different than small boutiques. Deciding if you want to work in a large or small agency is pretty easy.

Do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or vice versa? Huge accounts will look great in your portfolio but will have more restrictions on creativity than a smaller agency with small accounts that lets the agency have some creative freedom. Some people say it’s hard to start at a big agency and go to a smaller boutique because the mentality is different, and vice versa.

Consider where you want to live. New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have lots of agencies. You’ll find some in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, and Raleigh. One of the biggest, and currently hottest agency, Crispin Porter Bogusky, is in Miami. Wieden + Kennedy’s headquarters are in Portland. Check out where your favorite work is coming from.

Could you live there? Is the agency more important than the city that you’ll live in? And when you’re interviewing at agencies, a good rule of thumb is to decide how you feel when you’re in their space. If you get a weird vibe if the people seem unfriendly, why would you want to work there? Trust your instincts and your gut.

Just because an agency has a lot of big accounts doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the place you want to be. Because remember, you’ll be spending most of your time in that building with those people while you’re working there. Find someplace where you feel comfortable, welcome, and inspired.

It’s never “another day at the office” because every day is different. It’s a dynamic business run by dynamic people. You’ll find advertising people love culture, movies, music, art, books…and you’ll learn a lot about the world from being around these people. It takes all kinds of people from different backgrounds, ages, and experiences to make good advertising. And anyone who has ideas, good ideas, is welcome.

Here are some publications where you can see great work.

This is the stuff that you probably won’t see in the magazines in your living room. You’ll learn which agency created the ad, and in particular, who the people were that came up with the ideas. Check out Archive and Communication Arts.

CMYK features student work, but is highly regarded and read by professionals. Adweek and AdAge will keep you up to date on who’s doing what and where. Look at agency Web sites and learn what each is about, who their clients are, what their portfolio looks like. Read books written by people who work in advertising. Immerse yourself in the industry.

Know who’s losing accounts and who’s winning accounts, and you’ll know who’s hiring. Know everything about an agency when you interview. Be smart, be yourself, and you just might get hired.

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