Job Hunting 101

What (not) to do in that first agency interview

Andy Berlin vividly remembers interviewing Peter Wegner in the late ’80s, when Wegner cold-called Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein in San Francisco.

“He was an interesting guy, well-read and extremely knowledgeable about photography,” recalls Berlin, now co-chairman and chief creative officer of Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, New York. “But he didn’t have advertising experience.” Let alone the all-important “book” that illustrates a creative’s work.

After looking over some examples that candidates had left behind, Wegner asked if he could return the following day. Berlin and his partner, Jeff Goodby, said sure.

They never expected Wegner to walk in less than 24 hours later with a portfolio Berlin describes as “dead brilliant.” One mock ad, for instance, featured “God’s remote control.” Instead of numbers, it had words like war, sorrow, joy and life, says Berlin.

Wegner was hired that day. “Peter took the entire process of the interview and turned it into the kind of problem an advertising creative person would have to solve to make an ad,” Berlin says. “He used creativity in every aspect of the presentation of himself.”

Wegner went on to work at Wieden + Kennedy before becoming a renowned artist. While his innovative and imaginative efforts opened doors for him, others have failed miserably when trying to impress prospective bosses.

Kathy Delaney, managing partner and ecd at Deutsch, New York, interviewed a “cocky” candidate a few years ago who revised an Ikea ad, thinking it could be improved. “It was awful, by the way, and he was completely confident it blew our campaign away,” says Delaney.

That person wasn’t hired. Nor was the guy who committed the most egregious faux pas when he called his interviewer by the wrong name. “When I worked at Carl Ally Inc., a potential copywriter hire asked me if I minded if he called me Carl instead of Mr. Ally,” says Tom Messner, now a partner at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners in New York. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was just Tom, so I said, ‘Sure.’ “

Not that it bothered Messner, who found the incident funny. He wasn’t going to hire the guy anyway because there were no openings.

“It was very amusing,” says Messner. “But I was surprised that he would think somebody as famous in the ad business as Carl had been for a brief period in the late ’60s would be as young and as disheveled as I was.”

Like his peers, Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide’s Charlie Taney says doing your homework is key to securing a job. “It’s surprising how well the basics can work for you,” says agency vice chairman Taney. “Write a thank-you note, stay in touch, be persistent. These things pay off.” So does knowing the clients on a shop’s roster and the campaigns created for those marketers.

Never, ever resort to gimmicks. They just don’t work. A few years ago, Austin-based GSD&M received four résumés in bottles from job seekers at The University of Texas. “A desk full of sand and shells isn’t going to go far in influencing someone to hire you,” says the shop’s human resources director, Joy Matheny. The shop has received cookie pizzas and shoes from those, yup, trying to get a “foot in the door.”

While agency executives like Taney encourage confidence, they warn against arrogance. Taney knows firsthand how arrogance can derail job prospects. Early in his career, while working as an account executive at Ted Bates in New York, he traveled to Boston for a job interview with Ed Eskandarian. “I had the absolute stupidity to ask him about stock in the agency,” says Taney. “He looked at me like I just grew four heads. It was a lesson in not being too big for your britches.”

But candidates should be “dead frank” about themselves,” says Berlin. “Be yourself. They’re going to find you out anyway.” It’s tough to do, admits the man who had to start out on the account side of the business because he couldn’t get a job as a creative. “For God’s sake, it’s advertising,” says Berlin. “You can’t be too proud.”

Adds Messner:”Being yourself is the best advice. Unless you’re an asshole, in which case, fake it.”