The Junior League

When Rob Katzenstein graduated from the University of Illinois two years ago, the economy was weak and his book even weaker. His summer internship at a Chicago shop wasn’t heading toward a hire, and he was getting nowhere pursuing other local agencies and ones in New York.

So Katzenstein, 24, took a teacher’s advice to go to ad school, choosing Creative Circus in Atlanta. He says he’s glad he did it, even though he’d majored in advertising at Illinois. “[Ad school] taught me how to think, do things the right way,” says Katzenstein, who was hired last month as a junior copywriter at GSD&M in Austin, Texas.

With jobs scarce and unemployed grads plentiful these days, the crop of ad talent entering the industry is defined by a skill set far more sophisticated than in previous years, say recruiters and human resources execs. And unlike the more prosperous past, juniors’ career expectations are much more realistic.

“A few years ago, everyone thought they would get further much faster and start out higher,” says Judy Kozuck, president of New York recruitment firm Jacobs Kozuck. “I think there’s a great level of realism now about what it takes to get ahead.”

For one, students have realized that even with the extra training provided at ad schools, they’re lucky to score an entry-level post. Kathy Umland, director of creative resources at Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, says she no longer sees recent ad grads expecting to be handed Harley spreads as soon as they start. “There was a little ‘I already paid my dues’ simplicity in their thinking,” she says of the previous wave of ad school grads. “I’ve seen that tempered.”

But while expectations have been lowered, young applicants’ skills are better than ever. “They are light-years ahead of people who have been in the business for a long time from a technical standpoint,” Umland says. Others point to a more advanced approach to strategic thinking. Kara Taylor, associate manager of creative recruiting and development at Leo Burnett in Chicago, says what she’s most impressed by is that juniors now “think of problems in 360-degree ways,” considering all kinds of nontraditional approaches to advertising.

In the rush to be new and different, however, juniors still tend to overlook some of the basics. Fifi Jacobs, vp at Jacobs Kozuck, says that although books are more polished and show a broader range of work, they’re too slim on copy. “You jump up and down because you’re so excited to see it,” she says of longer copy. “To have a great concept with a writer who can write beautiful copy is special.”

At the same time that competition is forcing new grads to better prepare for a career, agencies with much leaner staffs than they once had no longer enjoy the luxury of mentoring newcomers. In effect, ad schools are substituting for the apprenticeship period once granted to youngsters at their first jobs.

“There’s less time for them to be coddled,” says Taylor. Agrees Carol Vick, placement director at Creative Circus: “Today you have to hit the ground running. [Entry-level staffers are] really held more accountable than five or 10 years ago.”

Is there hope for applicants without an ad-school education? Jacobs says she would never write off someone who hasn’t gone to ad school, but there’s a distinct disadvantage. “You’d have to be brilliant and put together a competitive book,” she says. “At ad schools, you know what your peers are doing, you know what books are going to be like.” Stan Richards, founder of The Richards Group in Dallas, says he hires some kids straight out of college, and Taylor says she looks for juniors with various backgrounds.

“It’s a little harder to evaluate a book that is less polished, but if the ideas are there, we’ll absolutely go for that,” Taylor says.

And while the agency business is now more demanding than ever, Richards says kids today are as excited to enter the industry as they’ve always been. “We’re seeing exactly the same level of enthusiasm and commitment that we did 10 years ago,” he says. “For the most part, these kids have fire in their bellies, and they want very badly to do terrific work.”