Driving Ambition

Advice from a recent grad who hit the road in search of work

After graduating from VCU in June and interning at Wieden + Kennedy, New York, in July, I packed my Saab full of all my earthly possessions and, with my friend Monica Taylor, an art director, drove cross-country in search of a job. We lived on the road for a month, stopping at every agency between Richmond, Va., and Seattle, interviewing as a junior creative team. We survived on trail mix and Diet Coke. We agonized after interviews. We visited 12 cities and 25 agencies and got three offers. Here’s what we gleaned from the road.

The search

First step: Make a list. We memorized the annuals and used them like a Rolodex. Before we hit the road, Monica and I sent books to our favorite shops, Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis; Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore.; Butler, Shine & Stern, Sausalito, Calif. We visited smaller shops like Cultivator in Boulder, Colo.; Perich + Partners in Ann Arbor, Mich.; and DDB Seattle. We aimed high but also looked at the opportunity within.

Before each interview, we tracked down agency friends and asked questions. Which accounts is the shop working on, and which ones has it lost? What is it pitching? The most useful information often came from creatives who had recently left. One woman’s advice: Run.

We talked to headhunters, but Monica and I did most of the legwork ourselves. In the process of e-mailing and calling, word got around about our cross-country journey, and the trip generated its own buzz. By the time we hit the West Coast, agencies knew we were coming. We asked for contacts. If a creative director liked our work but didn’t have an opening, we whipped out our pens and took down names in other shops.

The interview

Seeing shops in person was crucial. One agency looked like the Gap; one receptionist sneered at our portfolio cases. At one interview, the art director we talked to was so miserable he asked to climb in the car and drive away with us. Needless to say, we ran.

Visit. Call. E-mail. And follow up, follow up, follow up. Even if the agency says it isn’t hiring, a position might open up unexpectedly. We sent postcards thanking everyone who met with us. We thanked Cathy Umland, creative recruiter at Carmichael, with a Sturgis biker postcard.

Your book gets you in the door. It proves you can think, write and sell a product. We showed six campaigns, but there’s not a magic number. In the interview, employers are looking at you, so sell yourself. Can you be trusted with a client? Do you honestly want the job?

Monica and I interviewed as a team, but we let everyone know we were flexible. Before we left VCU, we agreed that if one of us got an opportunity at a shop, the other wouldn’t stand in the way.

On the road, I culled my book. Monica and I concepted in a campground in Moab, Utah. When a creative director actually read my copy, I knew that was a shop I’d like to work for. We listened to critiques, but politely defending my work often sparked great dialogue with interviewers.

Hallelujah! The job

In August, Monica and I drove to my family’s place in Oregon and spread out all the business cards on the kitchen table. We made plus and minus lists. When Fred Hammerquist, the creative director at DDB Seattle, called and offered us both jobs, as copywriter and art director, we jumped at them. DDB gave us responsibility, creative freedom and a hell of a challenge. We loved the vibe. We loved the city. Most important, we found a creative director we admired and could learn from.

My student book got me in the door. Now I’m working as hard as I can to replace it. I’ve learned that success isn’t just the ability to spit out a good idea. It’s turning out six campaigns after the first one gets axed. Monica and I just returned from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where we shot our first television spot for JanSport.

Above all, we’ve learned to love the process. This is advertising, not accounting. We keep it fun. It’s why we’re in this business in the first place.

Beth Ryan is a copywriter at DDB Seattle. She can be reached at Beth.Ryan@sea.ddb.com.