Our Answers to Your Job Questions

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Last week, we asked post-grads on the job prowl to vent their hunting issues for an upcoming post. Then, we wasted a whole week of your thumb-twiddling unemployment responding. We’re ready now.

Matt Ingwalson and I took to your questions (and frustrations) collaboratively, from the perspectives of a guy who’s done a lot of hiring, and a girl who’s had a pretty reasonable time getting through it. If any of our responses seem contradictory, defer to Matt’s. While I am undoubtedly more flexible than him – talking literally here, I can out cat stretch a cat – he’s better than me at almost everything else.

We hope these answers read like wasabi, we hope they guide, we hope they help. Most importantly, we hope you pick up on the response’s broader theme, which I’ll state directly for safety’s sake: Getting is gotten by doing, not wanting. So get doing.

What should I look for in the first company I work for?

MI: Write down three things you want to accomplish in the next two years. Then look for a company that will allow you to accomplish them.

CH: Sometimes, especially when we’re young, the things we want to accomplish or explore aren’t strongly related. For instance, you probably won’t find an agency that’s hunting for an entry level art buyer-slash-digital strategist.

If an interest mashup leaves you struggling to find a matching job description, think about reallocating the development of one of your interests to personal time, then focus on the others at your day job. Like Matt said, the important thing is to define some clear goals, then pursue them in every way you can.

What might I be losing if I can only take a paid internship?

MI: In three months, you can either have real work from a great agency in your portfolio and a wealth of new contacts in your address book. Or you can have an additional $3,000. Either path is good. You need to make a call about what is important to you.

CH: Just to clarify, paid internships that result in portfolio and contact perks do exist – less profusely, yeah, but they’re out there. But if your decision really boils down to no money/awesome vs. money/no awesome, take the former, then hustle on the weekends. Because payoffs come in more forms than a paycheck.

Should I take any internship opportunity I can, or wait it out for the one I really want?

MI: Take every internship you can, but hold out for the job you want.

CH: Yes. Take every internship, freelance project, apprenticeship and nap that you can.

What matters more: credentials or talent?

MI: In a junior person, the answer is talent. Only talent. In a senior or leadership role, I would like to give you the same answer. But it wouldn't be 100% true. It's helpful to have a proven ability to produce work for established brands.

When all you have are school projects and self-initiated pieces, how can you prove to an employer that you can withstand constructive, or even harsh criticism from their actual clients?

MI: Ask for their opinion of your book. Then make changes based on their feedback. That proves you can handle criticism. And it gives you a chance to follow up with the person who interviewed you. Two birds. One stone.

In the longterm, is it better to work internally for a brand or work for an agency?

MI: This depends a bit on the type of job you want. In general, agencies need flexible people, and great work for five brands shows a wider skill set than extensive work for just one.

CH: This can also depend on your problem solving preferences.

I’ve done time in both: In the agency setting, I often felt like the problems we were helping brands solve had heavier systematic or structural implications that weren’t going to be fixed with a campaign. Advertising can sometimes feel like a bandaid business, and the more strategic side of me was unfulfilled by that.

Working internally, I was much closer to the root of challenges and could actively participate in defining a real solution. That said, I also realized how different internal perceptions of your product or market can be from what the world at large really experiences, or needs. Which is exactly what good agencies (and the people within them) actively help brands define.

How do I apply for a specific job when I don't know what, specifically, I want to do within an agency?

MI: You don't. Do internships until you know. When you apply for a job, you need to believe in your heart that you want that job more than any other job in the world. (Or at least act like you do.)

CH: It’s funny, “What do I want to do?” is a question that turns a lot of post-grads into existential emosauruses. Chill out. Rephrase that question into “What do I want to do right now?,” then go for it. Hard. As long as you’re doing stuff along the way, your future is fluid.

My level of experience takes me out of the running for entry level positions, but at I'm also being passed over for mid-level positions because my experience is too broad. How can I get my foot in the door?

MI: I am not sure what you mean by, "my experience is too broad." That's not possible. What may be happening is that you have a random smattering of tactics without any integrated campaigns. In which case, campaign out the best stuff in your book. For instance, if you have a one-shot print ad, design a website or shoot a video to go with it.

Is it necessary to have a journalism degree to be a copywriter? If not, what are some things I can do to break into that?

MI: I don't think a journalism degree is necessary or even preferable for copywriters. A marketing or advertising degree would be better. But there is no degree that can take the place of a book.

CH: If you want to be a writer, start writing. Blog, often. Seriously. Shop yourself out to websites and people that need content. Put together a book of work, real or self-administered, that shows your ability to craft a headline. Study the work of other copywriters. You don’t need the degree, but you do need talent, experience and quite a slew of words under your belt.

In addition to a well written and creative cover letter, what would be a good way to show an ability and desire to write?

MI: A good portfolio. In fact, that is close to 1,000,000 times more important than your cover letter.

Why are all the jobs I see postings for mid-level? Is it that all entry-level jobs are filled by interns or not-so-qualified applicants for the mid-level ones, or do they just not exist? What's a gal supposed to do until I magically accrue 5 years of agency experience?

MI: Mid-level is a popular position. It means you won't ask for a big salary, but you know how to do your job without constant supervision. And yes, many entry level jobs get filled by interns. The good news is that "midlevel" is a subjective term. So my advice is to declare yourself midlevel and go forward.

I have degrees from notable schools, covering communication and web design. But I don't feel knowledgeable in (almost) anything! I've only had one internship, so I really don't have experience in the working field. How the hell am I supposed to get experience for a real job if no one will ever accept me as an intern without experience?

CH: I might be misreading here, but with two degrees and just one internship, it sounds like you’re feeling intimidated by The Real World. Education is important, and it feeds our need for structured preparation – which some of us cling to more than others – but it just doesn’t develop real life experience. You have to get out there.

People accept interns without experience every day, so your issue may be that your potential employers can smell your intimidation, or are simply bucketing you as an “academic.” This can be cured by some heavy networking – which I’m not sensing you’ve been too aggressive about, either.

Long story short, if you have the same skill set as your peers and make yourself visible, the world won’t conspire to hide a job opportunity from you. Get visible.

I'm looking for a job in the branding industry, specifically logo development and page/catalog layouts. Where are these jobs, and how do I get a foot in the door? I know networking is key, so where are the graphic design networking meetings, events, etc?

MI: Volunteering at the ad club or art directors club is a good way to start meeting people. Interning is another. Showing your book around is great too. I don't think I have ever turned down someone who called me up and said, "I know you're busy and probably not hiring, but do you have any time to sit with me for 15 minutes and give me feedback on my book?"

CH: I’ve found that the pure graphic design community is more closed off than the ad world. It’s just more prone to introversion. That said, it’s also a very supportive community, so if you’re nice and your work is admirable you’ll have no trouble breaking in.

My pals that are in this world hardly ever arrived by knowing the right people. They got there by putting their heads down and making stuff, then putting it on the internet. Do more of that.

How do I make the transition from Designer to Art Director? I'm a pretty stellar designer, with 5+ years experience in just about every medium. But I love creating the concepts and big picture ideas.

CH: Make it known that your goal is to get there, and go above and beyond to meet the requirements for moving up. And if all else fails, just start your own agency – and give yourself that title.


Thanks guys, I really appreciate you taking the time to put this together!

Great post and Q&A series. I really look forward to seeing more of it.

Sound advice from the master.

great Q&A..
really useful posting.thanks for sharing...

Thanks for the advice. As a young designer in the market for a job posts like this are really helpful. I especially like the idea of asking to meet with potential employers simply to solicit feedback on my book.

OMG!! I was totally one of those post-grad existential emosauruses! ... emosauri? ... Hopefully not anymore. Anyway, this was a great post, I hope you guys will do more in the future. Thanks much!


I think the school issue is a larger part of the problem, however.

I went to a 'University', and the advertising program was in the Journalism School. I was in a different propriatary school, but my peers did, even knew a gal in coywriting. I didn't neccessarily want to go to a University; having attended a vocational/craft school prior to and wanted to skip the prerequisit 2 years. The 'advertising' program is being revamped nationwide. It is definately not for everyone!

Regardless of my personal path. Creative jobs are hard because there is such a broad spectrum from the left to the right. Many different schools, that are known for different aspects[ie. portfolios]. Many of these schools end up in a very narrow corporate arena, that can be less than flexible w/out supplement triaining/licensing.

Some people that are crazy talented don't even go to school, but have the natural gift and meet the right people in the right environment. It is all part of the equation minus/plus a few in your own experience.

Design is competitive and even more amplified with businesses & twitter. School research is key, and program adaptation to current jobs/technology that keep changing! I agree with the keep doing & designing attitude.

My school was cracking down on the people accepted when I went there by wanting to require a portfolio to get in, along with all their other squabbles between schools/firms in Boulder/Denver.

With the school/work scenerio, the truth be told is, that they're both not far from kindegarden, and people need to be less inferior of themselves. Confident people aren't so judgemental. I know were I stand on the age issue; it can be discrimination. Ofcourse, inner company jealousy did not happen yesterday!

You can get to the point were you either have to partner up, your stuck in the academic world, or you can't quit your day job[moonlighters].


PS. Despite all my training, if I have to be the janitor, I will.

You guys rock for taking the time to help people find their way into the insanity.

Very helpful guys! Love your answer to the last question (the one I submitted!). Just the other day I thought about ditching the job search, starting my own company, and giving myself whatever title I want...

Thanks for the feedback! Glad to know I am not the only one out there struggling to make my way into the industry.

Great post and would pretty much agree with all of it, except for the starting your own company and giving yourself a title deal. People that have a title at an established company have already proved that they can handle the responsibility and work associated with it. Calling yourself a CD/AD or even designer without doing it just seems like you are misrepresenting your experience to a client and that can really burn you if you over promise and under deliver.

That being said... get out there, talk to people, show your book, keep making work and be a great person to work with and you will get work.

A suggestion to you recent grads who find themselves with no work and no book:

There are tons of non-profits dying for design and copy work at low or no cost. Contact a few and ask them to get the word out that you are willing to do pro bono work. This will give you real client experience, help build out your book, and you'll be doing good and networking.

The non-profit association in Denver would be a good place to start.

Ed, you are totally correct. So I will rephrase my last comment:

I'm going to start my own company, give myself an applicable title, and update that title as my skills and experience grow.

Thanks so much for answering! you guys are amazing.

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