Agency Pros Share Crucial Advice for New Graduates Entering the Industry

There's realism, but optimism remains

People throwing up graduation caps with question marks in the air as well
What will work look like post-graduation? Pixabay

Last week, We Are Next founder Natalie Kim joined Adweek Together to discuss some of the more practical ways 2020 graduates can navigate their post-school lives. As the industry continues to adjust to substantial change, there are still some tried-and-true ways that young and new talent can progress forward, such as networking and keeping skills sharp while looking for that first job.

Adweek asked several agency professionals their thoughts on what the class of 2020 can do to navigate so much change, how talent can make themselves more competitive and stay motivated, and which roles in the industry are primed for growth. Among the responses, there are some real doses of reality, but there is a reason for optimism, too.“Believe it or not, this will make you stronger,” said Lee Roth, North America director at BeenThereDoneThat. “When you get through this—and you will get through this—you will feel like there is nothing you can’t overcome. It sucks right now, but don’t stop believing in yourself.”

Geoff Edwards, co-founder, Saturday Morning

“The current work climate is like nothing we’ve witnessed before. Instead of stating all the reasons that we should be worried or concerned, I’d like to offer a different perspective: optimism. The pandemic has given rise to the data economy. This bodes well for graduates everywhere because they’ll author the ‘new normal.’ My belief is that smart companies will want to know and understand how a fresh perspective can help build their business and fuel the new economy.”

Best industry opportunities: “It may be too early to tell, but trends show that roles in data analytics, creative strategy, business strategy, experience design and all creative fields will be needed. ‘Problem solvers’ and creative thinkers across all disciplines will be in high demand.”

Lindsey Allison, head of strategy, Engine

“Even though the world has changed, my advice to graduates remains the same. At the beginning of your career, the work is all that matters. Not your job title. Not your salary. This is where the trajectory of your career will be defined, and it’s imperative to be around super-smart thinkers and part of amazing work from the beginning. Good work under your belt is the single thing that will get you to where you want to go. My advice would be to—if you have to—sacrifice salary, titles, and any other perks people may throw at you to be around greatness.”

Best industry opportunities: “Become a Swiss Army knife. Clients are demanding more with less. Agencies are replacing wide benches with fewer people who can do more things. If you’re a strategist, try learning about media. If you’re a creative, try learning about data. The most in-demand candidates will be able to stretch to fill multiple disciplines. Big budgets don’t exist anymore, and if you’re not really good, efficient and malleable, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Vann Graves, executive director, VCU Brandcenter

“To thrive in this industry, you must be persistent and resilient—regardless of whether a pandemic is taking place. There will always be someone critiquing your work or a project causing you stress, and the current crisis is [proof] for the need to push through and stay the course. [Conversely, as an industry], we must understand recent graduates have gone through something similar to the ‘five stages of grief,’ and they’re just getting to the stage of acceptance: Understanding that it will be hard but that they will make it through.”

Best industry opportunities: “There’s more to advertising than just working for a traditional agency. In-house agencies, social platforms, production companies, etc. are all offering top-to-bottom advertising/digital/media experiences, so graduates should understand that it’s not ‘agency or bust.’ Opportunities in the advertising industry are no longer siloed, and new graduates shouldn’t silo themselves either.”

Trish Adams, president, Opinionated

“Try your best to maintain a sense of optimism and positivity. Use the downtime to further invest in yourself and your skills (e.g. take a MasterClass from someone in your area of interest). Work on refining your resume or book. Network as much as possible and leave no contact unmined … friends, neighbors, professors, headhunters. Even if companies you’re interested in aren’t hiring at the moment, ask for an informational interview so that you’re more likely to be top of mind when they’re looking for talent again.”

Best industry opportunities: “I think there’s always a premium in advertising for people who can help older generations understand younger ones—their consumer habits, their lifestyles, their taste in art/music/culture, their communication tools, etc. This is an evergreen role for recent grads, regardless of the specific role.”

Stephani Estes, svp, executive director of media, Cramer-Krasselt

“Data fluency may be the most critical skill anyone can bring to the media and advertising industry. Knowing how to leverage data and having a foundational understanding of statistics and data strategy is becoming more and more important. If you have some downtime right now, consider brushing up on your data skills. Take a statistics or data science course. Learn R or Python. It doesn’t matter what aspect of marketing or advertising you want to pursue—understanding data will serve you well no matter which path you choose.”

Best industry opportunities: “Data and technology roles are only going to continue to increase in importance, particularly now that Covid has accelerated the digital transformation of many industries that might have been lagging behind. The more digitally savvy and data fluent you are, the better off you’ll be in the new economy.”

John Newall, president, Noble People

“First, know your personal ‘why.’ Ensuring that your mindset is centered on the ‘why’ you want this job, this industry will keep your energy high and your focus consistent. Second, while you wait for the job, learn something new. Learning is all within your own control. You will feel like you are making progress, and progress is the name of the game. Third, have a plan, execute it and adapt.”

Best industry opportunities: “Our industry always needs original thinkers. We constantly need new ways of looking to solve the same set of problems. ‘Not knowing’ is the greatest canvas for original thinking because the possibilities are infinite.”

Katie Ramp, director of talent, Muh-tay-zik/Hof-fer

“[Agency founder] John Matejczyk schlepped his portfolio in person to 32 agencies before he got his first job, which was considered relatively quick. Persistence and determination will be key. And it’s OK to do what you need to do to make money to subsist in the meantime. Talent at agencies come from many different backgrounds, I’ve seen financial advisors become copywriters and scientists turned designers. You don’t have to follow a linear path, so if you’re not getting into an agency’s door immediately, that’s okay. Just don’t stop creating.”

Best industry opportunities: Social, social, social. We’re always looking for people who can be scrappy and make entertaining, beautiful things that live on social in an engaging way.

Emily Steele, account director, Planet Propaganda

“I am generally surprised by the lack of creativity I see from applicants in the hiring process. It’s often a sea of sameness, with many applicants simply regurgitating their resumé in the cover letter. This is a missed chance to sell your personal brand through a meaningful and memorable connection. Recent graduates will need to differentiate themselves. Being confident, creative and authentic. The cover letter that got me my first job was in poetry, a personal passion of mine. My current boss told me the story often of receiving a creative’s cover letter on a roll of paper towel. My boss happily rolled out 50 feet to read every word. He got the job, too. For any job, your portfolio, if applicable, academics and extracurriculars are all important. But be memorable.”

Best industry opportunities: “I would guess freelance opportunities will grow as agencies avoid long-term employment commitments. I think new graduates should be open to that structure. For that same reason, more entry-level positions may begin as internships, evolving into full-time hires once there is more stability. Also, clients are cutting budgets and moving forward with similar trepidation. Agencies will have to respond to that change. For now, agencies are forced to be nimbler and leaner. I think hires that can help agencies adapt to that request will be in higher demand.”

Chris Cannon, creative director, Terri & Sandy

“You just have to keep putting yourself out there. Talk to different people. Don’t just focus on annoying one person at [Wieden + Kennedy]. Keep refreshing your book with ideas that beat your other ideas. There are so many agencies out there, and to be honest, now is a great time to talk to all of them, no matter where you live. For now, all you need is Zoom, and you can work anywhere. That’s kind of a silver lining to all this.”

Best industry opportunities: “There might not be many junior positions open right now, but taking a paid internship is a pretty damn good opportunity, and I’m sure agencies will be filling those up. It’s a trial run, and that at least allows you to show what you can do. If you crush it, agencies will do everything they can to make you stay. Just make sure they’re not taking advantage of your cheap price tag.”

Courtney Reames, account director, St. John & Partners

“Remember that this is a season in your life and career. It may not go as you planned or hoped, but it will pass. And your future may change because of it, but that has happened to countless people over countless years. Those most willing to accept change and embrace uncertainty as an opportunity are the ones most likely to look back and be thankful for those challenges.”

Best industry opportunities: “I think research roles and data analysts will be in high demand. We are overwhelmed with data, but there is an acute sense of urgency to understand it all. Ecommerce is growing exponentially, and everything from UX to customer loyalty will be in high demand as well. I also think generalists—people that are willing to take on more than one role—will be appreciated.”

Steve O’Connell, partner, co-CCO, Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners

“Graduates who can prove they’re self-motivated and proactive will be especially appealing to any employer. Even if some of us return to the office soon, it’s safe to say people will be working from home more than ever in the coming months and years. So, prospects who can show they’ll work hard and take the initiative will stand out even when their boss isn’t right down the hall.”

Best industry opportunities: “Over the last decade, agencies have taken more and more production in-house, but suddenly ‘in house’ is taking on a whole new meaning. This means any creatives that can produce content at home will be extremely valuable. Skilled makers and content producers will be shining more than ever this year.”

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.