How to Land a Job in Advertising When You Have No Industry Experience

Want to switch careers? Here's how

Do your homework before attempting a career switch. Getty Images
Headshot of Christine Birkner

Despite spending several years successfully leading digital and branding efforts, respectively, for Chicago-based agency Schafer Condon Carter (SCC), John Anthony and Kathy Gaynor never expected to land careers in advertising. But it’s a switch that neither regret.

Prior to joining SCC in 2015, Anthony, now the agency’s chief digital officer, had spent 15 years in finance, working with investment banks, technology and telecom companies. “Instead of being in the banking chair, it’s great to actually build something at an agency,” Anthony said. “What surprised me most about the transition is, there are a lot of different types of jobs, and ways to find a home in advertising. There’s a need for technical, quantitative people—it’s a much wider net than I would have thought three or four years ago.”

Gaynor joined SCC as director of brand planning in 2012 from foodservice consultancy Technomic, where she was director of research and consulting services. “Advertising was never the first, obvious career choice,” Gaynor said. “I was expecting to move from consulting to the client side, but it surprised me how many strange bedfellows I’ve been able to find using my foodservice learnings [at SCC]. There are a lot of parallels.”

It’s that ability to connect the dots that made both Gaynor and Anthony such valuable hires, said David Selby, SCC’s CEO, who had experience in executive recruiting before joining SCC and recommends agency executives look beyond the usual suspects for talent.

“John and Kathy bring us perspective that’s made us more aware of certain dynamics in the marketplace and opens doors that wouldn’t have been open if we had brought in somebody from a traditional path,” he said. “There’s plenty of room for outside individuals to thrive.”

So, how should wannabe copywriters, brand managers and strategists make the leap into advertising from other industries? Here are three important factors to help land the job:

Do your homework

Getting your foot in the door in advertising requires being a student of the industry, Selby said. “Ask yourself where you personally add value: Have you been through an industry in transition, or do you have specific skills that are of value, like data science? To be successful, you have to understand what makes the industry tick.”

Leslie Kay Bach, talent manager and owner of Kay & Black, recommends figuring out what your day-to-day role would look like before applying. “Finding a job is like going to school: you have to do your homework,” she said. That means tailoring your resume to highlight skills that are applicable to the position, and possibly literal homework, too—attending 4As’ educational programs, or General Assembly’s advertising classes, or taking on short-term assignments and consulting work at agencies to get your foot in door.

Mary Johnstone, associate partner and head of talent at Venables Bell & Partners, suggests taking meetings or informational interviews with copywriters or strategists—people in the roles you want. “From a recruiting perspective, when someone takes that initiative, I see that they have passion and are committed to honing their skills,” she said.

Make your previous work applicable

Next, you need a killer portfolio that shows prospective employers how you can translate your creative skills into an advertising job. “When it comes to advertising creative, you have to think in a strategic way for products,” Bach said. “It’s important to be account-minded. As much as agencies want to see side hustles, when it comes down to it, if they’re worried that somebody can’t think in [the format of] TV, online, digital social content, it’s a problem.”

At Venables, Johnstone has hired talent from journalism and law backgrounds, as well as former comedians and artists. “The industry is more open to diverse backgrounds than ever right now, so it’s a good time for making the switch,” she said.

Lisa Clunie, co-founder and CEO of Joan Creative, has hired a mix of former Vox, Vice and Glamour writers, video production experts and branded content specialists as well as former client-side staff, for its digital publishing agency, Damn Joan.

“We hire people from outside the industry on purpose,” Clunie said. “If you’re coming from photography, social, content or journalism, it’s an easier transition than if you’re coming from automotive sales. Find an agency that’s looking for people outside of the industry, and then find a way to present your experience as a boon to their business. If I have someone who’s working with Warby Parker with experience in paid social, they should say, ‘Here’s what I can do for Damn Joan—I can grow your social by XYZ because that’s what I did for Warby Parker.’”

Adding value is really the most important thing to prospective employers, she added. “If you have a sizzle reel, or a specific example of how you can add value, it would be shocking to not get a meeting.”

Be flexible

As in any field, landing a job in advertising means being a cultural fit. “For Venabales, the measurement of the fit, culture and values weigh just as much as their skill set,” Johnstone said.

It’s important to be thoughtful about the transition, too, Gaynor advises. “Ask questions and be open-minded,” she said. ‘Coming into advertising from corporate consulting, I’m not a subject matter expert anymore, but a strategist. It’s about being empathetic to the fact that not everyone has the same experience you do.”

The payoffs are worth it, according to Clunie. “It used to be insular—who you knew, or whether you already had agency experience on your resume to open the door,” she said. “But now, agencies are more receptive to it than ever. Be fearless and go for it.”

@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.