Mission Impossible

Nanci McMenamy had no work experience outside her hometown of Minneapolis. An account supervisor on a packaged-goods account at Campbell Mithun, she had always dreamed of moving east to, she says, the “heart of advertising.” When she hit her early 30s, she decided it was now or never.

She began her search in May 2002, posting her résumé on Monster, staying on top of who was winning new business, picking up the phone to make connections. She set a goal of initiating two contacts a month, which might yield three or four meetings. “I figured it would take six months,” she says.

In May, one year after her search began, she scored a job at Arnold in Boston. “I tried to stay open to any possibility,” she says. “I kept occupied, exploring new opportunities. But I was surprised it took so long.”

Executive recruiter Susan Friedman says that last year she told job seekers to expect their search to take at least three months. Today, she warns them that nine months is common. And many candidates aren’t in McMenamy’s happy position of looking while still employed. In June, the unemployment rate rose to 6.4 percent, the highest in nine years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet despite the gloomy news, people are still landing jobs. Here’s some lessons from a few who have.

Focus on what you really want. It seems counterintuitive, but some say it’s better to be selective. That tack did the trick for Neal Arthur, 27, who narrowed his search to just three agencies.

A former programmer, Arthur graduated from Miami’s Ad School in December. “I didn’t want to go just anywhere or do anything,” he says. “I would have kept freelancing and waited as long as it took. A year if it came down to it.”

It took six months. When he found out via a connection that Fallon, one of his top picks, had an opening for a planner, he tracked down the director of planning, showed off his familiarity with the department and explained why he was a perfect fit. “It was a point of distinction that I knew exactly what I wanted,” he says. “I shared a predetermined commitment to them.”

Choosing an agency outside New York, Los Angeles or Chicago was also key. “Smaller markets are picking up,” says Amy Hoover, vp at Atlanta recruiters the Talent Zoo. “The more flexible you can be in geography, the better.”

OK, so you know where you want to work. Now show your dream employer you really mean it. When creative team Nick Cade, 25, and Adrien Bindi, 28, left the Circus in Atlanta in September, they trekked to L.A., San Francisco, San Diego and Chicago to show their book. They soon realized a spiffy portfolio wasn’t enough. “They need to know you have serious passion,” says Cade. “We were totally gung ho, jumping around, being excited about the work we love.”

The pair took every opportunity to make their case. They called agency execs to ask for 10 minutes of their lunchtime. Then they followed up by phone and e-mail. “There’s a fine line between persistence and annoyance, and there are people who we probably annoyed,” admits Cade. When Flinn Dallis, director of creative operations at Leo Burnett, gave a speech at the Circus, Cade and Bindi followed her out to her rental car. “We said, ‘We’ll jump in the suitcase and go back with you!’ ” says Cade.

In December, Burnett gave them junior freelancer positions. “We knew if we got in, we’d get a job,” says Bindi. In January, they landed full-time associate posts.

If you’re up against a slew of peppy candidates, stand out by leveraging what makes you unique. Hashem Bajwa, 22, studied international relations at the New School in New York and had some experience at the United Nations. But when he graduated a year ago, he chose advertising over diplomacy, applying to 50 agencies. “I pitched myself as being valuable because I had a different background,” he says.

For a long time there were no takers. By January, he was out of money and facing pressure from his parents to move home to L.A. and give up on advertising. “I was torn,” Bajwa says. “Do I wait tables in New York to hold out for leads?” When he heard that McCann-Erickson had won Nikon, he called contacts he’d made at the shop through a communications class and begged for a phone interview. Their vote of confidence, plus his unusual background, helped him get a job as an assistant account executive in April.

Bajwa is thrilled, and his parents have come around: “They realize this decision isn’t so farfetched—now that I have a job.”