Sell Yourself Short

You’re at a party at Cannes when you spot Jeff Goodby a few feet away. You introduce yourself, and the clock starts ticking: What do you say to get his attention and make a lasting impression before he moves on?

The right pitch delivered at the right time can jump-start a career, but it can be surprisingly difficult to pull off. Advertising professionals are practiced in pitching their ideas, but how well do they sell themselves, to bosses or prospective employers?

“You’d think marketing specialists would find it easy to market themselves,” says Laura Allen, a former account supervisor at Moody Communications in New York who is now a career consultant. “But many need help to focus themselves and are embarrassed to admit it.”

The Martin Agency’s Mike Hughes concurs. “In the creative ranks especially, people are uncomfortable with the idea of pitching themselves,” notes the creative director. “They think it’s phony or that they shouldn’t need to” because their work speaks for itself. But a pitch, he says, is a way to “reveal the interesting side of yourself—and shows you know how to connect quickly, which is important for dealing with clients.”

The tightly worded, 30-second “elevator speech” seeped into the business lexicon when startups wooed busy investors back in the dot-com heyday. The concept caught on among job seekers when the recession hit and networking became a must.

Allen, who launched last year to advise people how to craft a quick introduction, says most pitches are too generic—such as, “I was a creative director”—or too jam-packed with information. Highlight a specific accomplishment that will pique the target’s interest, she says. For instance, when Allen was pitching her agency experience, she talked about a three-foot pyramid her agency shipped to George Lucas to win a Star Wars marketing project.

The well-tuned pitch is disguised as conversation, seamless and smooth. “In that all-important first impression, you want to get beyond the feeling of a sales pitch,” advises Harry Corham, account director on Microsoft at McCann Erickson in San Francisco. “The most compelling introduction,” he says, is when “someone is being themselves—they aren’t making an overt play.” In many ways, it’s like presenting to a client, Corham adds: It takes enormous preparation before you can put aside your notes and readily “hit the right nerves.”

The irony is that the more you practice your pitch, the more conversational and unrehearsed it will sound, as Weldon Smith will attest. “Before I had a script, when I met someone who was hiring, I would sound nervous, overeager and say things that were irrelevant,” says Smith, a promotions account supervisor who was laid off two years ago. “The difference now is probably 80 percent internal. It feels very natural and easy.”

Hughes advises writing your idea on your business card so your target can better remember you. When he’s approached at functions, he says, he’s most receptive when people ask interesting questions “and want to know how we do things.” And while people usually compliment The Martin Agency’s work, he’s just as happy to hear a smart criticism. Hughes recalls being particularly impressed when a young person gave him negative but specific feedback, because it provided new insights into young consumers. Plus, he says, “the meeting is more valuable if we get past the compliments and have a real conversation about the business and the work, about what we have in common.”

Lance Jensen, creative director at Modernista! in Boston, says when he meets a prospective hire socially, he first wants to know if he or she has worked at a shop or on a campaign that Jensen respects—”then I’ll listen to them.” Being “funny, but also nice” helps keep his attention.

Smith, who’s studying marketing at New York University, recently grabbed the attention of a Grey Direct exec after a professor introduced the two at a school luncheon. “Normally, I would have let the conversation fade away,” says Smith. Instead, he cited his success trimming costs for his Kraft Foods client. Before the lunch was over, Smith had the numbers of several industry execs who share his interests. He’ll call them when he starts his job hunt next month.