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. Getty Images
Headshot of Alissa Fleck

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.

“For all the opportunities to work with people you admire and make work that’s both beautiful and effective,” said Delaney, “it can also be a slog of untitled Google docs and trash cans full of work you loved but went nowhere.”

Something you don’t learn in school is how different the final product can look from your first draft, said Chirillo. Just because ideas change doesn’t mean they have to “lose their sparkle” though. “Lean into the process, be collaborative, and don’t be too precious about your babies,” said Chirillo. “You’ll have plenty of them.”

Avoid taking on too much freelance work too soon

Freelancing is a popular option across many careers in our now hyper-connected society, but it can become a trap and a time-suck if you try to be a full-fledged freelancer before you’ve built the proper skills and a network.

It may only take a year or two at an agency for a creative to learn the overall sense of the process, said Kuraoka, but there are other skills you need to refine in order to become a “high-level resource” for clients—skills like meeting with clients and contacts and conducting interviews—rather than merely an “outsourced employee.” These can be as important as the ability to drive traffic, he said.

There are things you cannot learn in a portfolio school, agreed Delaney, like that often the best idea doesn’t win the day—and of course that humans can be unpredictable. “It is your boundless creativity that likely got you the job,” he said, “but it’s your ability to solve actual business problems that will make you successful.” Working with multiple clients at his current agency job has forced Delaney to exercise his ability to entirely shift mindsets as he switches between brands.

Bixenspan, who now supplements her career as a writer and comedian with freelance copywriting, spent several years at agencies before breaking out on her own—she has now been freelancing for eight years.

There’s more than one way to get started

Bixenspan started her career at dot-coms and in publishing, with some time in TV writing. After a few years spent in publishing, she decided she could not live comfortably with a publishing salary in New York and looked into other career options. Bixenspan found a recruiter on LinkedIn and after taking an editing test, became a copy editor at a pharmaceutical agency. (Chirillo agreed LinkedIn is a great resource to track job openings and apply directly from the site, as well as to find agency contacts to “stalk.”) From there, Bixenspan shifted to copywriting. While she still writes a great deal of pharmaceutical content, she also does consumer and entertainment copywriting.

Delaney, meanwhile, attended the Creative Circus portfolio school in Georgia and moved straight into agency copywriting at Mother New York.

The best way to ensure a smooth transition into the field is to be ready early, said Bixenspan. If you’re still in college, look for agency internships. School can be fairly self-selective, as “the inherent test of a two-year, full-time program is whether or not you really want to do this for your career,” according to Delaney.

And, from there, stalk, stalk, stalk, advised Chirillo. “Find the ad agencies that you love and stalk them religiously,” she said. “See if they have openings, and if they don’t, send them an email anyway.”

Know when to walk away … or keep at it

Delaney noted a common piece of advice from mentors and friends in the industry is: “If you’re feeling burned out or stumped, walk away from it. Go see a show, walk through a museum, experience something that sparks your creativity and makes you a better artistic thinker.”

This advice likely applies fairly broadly, at least across artistic endeavors. And while Delaney concedes it’s good advice, “the opposite advice is also great advice—keep at it.” Packing up and going to a movie might not bring you better ideas tomorrow, not to mention this mentality can be dangerous on deadline. Sometimes the best way through the slog is to just sit down and try to hack it.

@AlissaFleck Alissa Fleck is a New York City-based reporter, podcast producer and contributor to Adweek.