So You Want to Be a Copywriter at an Ad Agency. Now What?

Advice from those in the know

If you want to be an agency copywriter, prepare for a good deal of unpredictability.
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People have pulled some pretty outrageous stunts over the years to land copywriting jobs at prestigious ad agencies. These jobs can be highly competitive, but do you really have to dress up like a statue or pen your own rap to nab such a position? Adweek asked some experts in the field how they got where they are and what their advice would be for anyone looking to break into the industry. Expectedly, we got a wide array of—often creative—answers, but here are some of the key takeaways:

Make your portfolio stand out from the crowd

“Sometimes [stunts] seem to work, and every time they do they pick up buzz so they become a self-perpetuating loop,” explained John Kuraoka, a freelance advertising copywriter who’s worked at various agencies. “They’re clever and if they’re relevant they can help differentiate a candidate.” Still, he added stunts are increasingly becoming “just obnoxious.”

“Whatever stage you’re at, you should have a portfolio ready to showcase your abilities,” said Lynn Bixenspan, also a freelancer with years of agency experience. “Even if you haven’t actually worked on any campaigns at an agency, create some spec work to show what you can do.” Bixenspan said it’s also wise to pair with a designer to produce work in which you take genuine pride. “If your portfolio kicks ass, you don’t need a stunt,” added Kuraoka.

So, how exactly do you make your portfolio kick ass? “Ad agencies value different things in your book depending on what kind of client need they’re trying to fill, but range is usually your best bet,” according to advertising copywriter Rose Chirillo. “Show that you know how to write for diverse voices.”

Chirillo also warned to not go overboard, as a few really solid pieces is better than a deluge of less polished ones.

Beyond the portfolio, everything about the candidate can have an influence, said Amity Dannefer, senior talent manager, creative, VML. “If the work stands out to me, and I can see the passion they have for writing it’s a good indicator that it will also stand out and connect with consumers,” she said.

Hobbies outside of work are also considered, and soft skills can be as important as hard skills, Dannefer added.

You can also leverage your social media presence, particularly as the industry goes increasingly digital. Use your social platform following to showcase your unique ability to influence followers. If you haven’t yet built a diverse portfolio, you can still find ways to show that you have personality and a perspective you’re passionate about, said Chirillo.

Balance finding work that nurtures your soul with practicality

According to Bixenspan, anyone looking for advertising copywriting gigs right now will find a plethora of openings at pharmaceutical agencies, which is how she first broke into the business. Even if pharmaceutical copywriting doesn’t sound terribly sexy, it might be easier to move as an advertising copywriter across industries than, say, cross-departmentally within an ad agency.

There’s a high demand for junior copywriters so there are a lot of opportunities available. “They aren’t always amazing,” Chirillo agreed, but added that’s how she got her first agency job.

“Go wherever you’ll be able to make killer work to show off and grow your skills,” said Dannefer. “So if that opportunity is an internship, take it. That investment will pay dividends.”

But, if what you’re selling doesn’t inspire you, don’t do it just to prove you’re a “hot-shot creative who can make a mark and sell anything,” said Kuraoka. “Keep your soul. Feed it and nurture it with clients doing stuff you care about.”

Still, even at an agency that aligns with your interests, you’re going to have to work with clients or products you don’t like, and you’re going to have to sell them. After all, at the core of a job in this field there is a tension, said Maxx Delaney, a senior copywriter at Preacher—”You can simultaneously feel tortured by the work and still yearn for the work.”

Be prepared to weather a storm of unpredictability

Advertising is really a person-to-person business, and people are impossible to predict, said Delaney. In the industry there’s the recurring frustration of seeing projects scrapped due to “some combination of wrong place and wrong time and wrong client” or other times, someone who maybe just was having a tough day and did something out of left field.

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