Advice For This Year's Graduates (That Might Not Be Helpful)

In about six weeks time, the annual graduate rush will start. Agencies will start getting calls, books will be rushed into finished states, final shows will be planned, invites sent out, D&AD will start to heat up the room that New Blood will be held in.

I feel a bit sorry for this year's crop. Advertising has never been a more confused business. Half of it doesn't want to be advertising anoymore. Ads are boring to them. The other half can't agree what's good and what isn't. Being seen to be ahead of the curve seems to be more important to some agencies than doing good work that works.

Against this background our young hopefuls have to make enough of an impression to land an opportunity. By which I mean job. As an aside, to my agency peers I'd like to say, please, stop doing unpaid placements. Just stop it. Either take a chance on someone and give them a job, or pay them for a trial. The business can't survive as a creative, interesting place if the only people who make it into agencies are those with the financial back-up to live in London for months without pay.

In advance of the rush, I thought I'd post up what I consider to be good advice. Now the thing with advice for graduates is that every agency, every creative director, is looking for something different. As I say to people who come in for book crits, if you go to twenty book crits, you will get twenty different pieces of advice. The hard part is knowing what advice to take.

So be aware that the advice I'm going to give you here (should you choose to read it) might not he helpful. In fact it might be unhelpful. For example, I'm sure that for every person who finds a QR code in an ad to be butt-clenchingly lame, there are a dozen who think it's really jazzy and modern. If you follow this advice, it may well screw up your career forever. But what the hey. This is, genuinely, the advice I would give myself, if I were starting out again today. It is advice specifically for people graduating from college, wanting to land a job in an ad agency (creative agency) as a copywriter or art director (see later for non-use of the word creative) Use some of it, use none of it, the choice is yours. In no particular order...

1 – Be different.
I don't mean wear a clown suit, or speak in tongues. This isn't wacky different. Just be yourself, an individual. If there is one piece of advice I could give, it would be this. Make your work true to your own opinions, approach, skills, ideas, outlook on life. Be yourself, and you will be different. The biggest single criticism of all the ad graduates I've seen over the last three years is that you could barely slide a cigarette paper between them, they were so similar, and their work was too.

2 – Use the phone.
It's a people business. Try talking to someone. If you're trying to get a book crit, use the phone. It will mark you out as different. Some (a lot of) agency creatives don't like talking on the phone, they like to hide behind email. They might find it awkward, but that doesn't mean it isn't a great way of getting to the front of the crit queue. Be nice, be yourself. Make it easy for them, but try to get a date and time on that first phone call. Oh, and be resourceful. Don't ring up a big agency and ask for the ECD and tell them you're a student. Research the people at the agency, find out who the next rung of creative directors are and get in touch with them. More often than not, these people have a lot of influence in finding new graduate talent. The ECDs have much bigger fish to fry. Then ask for them initially by their first name only, and when the receptionist/PA asks you your name, just give them your first name. You know - be normal, human, friendly, but put yourself in the position of your target audience, in this case the agency creative, and the person trying to not put you through to them.

3 – Forget middleweights.
Unless you're interested in a pointless kicking. The people you want crits from are either people who can give you great advice because they were very recently in your shoes (juniors) or people who have influence in getting you a job, or a trial (senior creatives or creative directors). Everyone else is just an opinion.

4 – Start now.
You haven't started already? What the fuck are you doing? Do you think your college tutor is going to give you a job? I know a couple of guys who came for their first crit when they were 18 months away from graduating. That is how to get things done. If you leave college and then start trawling around for book crits, hoping for a trial, you're already doing it wrong. Do you see anyone successful in advertising who waited around for good things to happen to them? I don't.

5 – The point of your book is to sell yourself.
Remember this. Above all other advice that I or anyone else may give you. Your whole book is a piece of advertising for you. Even though it is full of ads for products and services (and probably charities), the actual point of every ad in that book is to sell yourself. If you get that into your head, you're already thinking like a good advertising person - what is the real point of what we're doing here? If something in your book isn't a great example of what makes you a great person to hire - what the fuck is it doing in there?

6 – Ads.
I like ads. This is where I may differ vastly from some people out there - beware of my warning above. I find it useful looking at ads. I like a book full of advertising campaigns. It makes it really easy to see if someone has talent. I like a couple of fun, experientially type things if you must, and if you really, really have a good idea for an app, by all means put it in. But if you're going for a job as an advertising creative, show that you can do what advertising creatives do for most of their time, and do it well. Good ad people I know got hired off ads, know how to judge ads, and know whats makes for a good ad. If you can show your talent for thinking and creativity through conventional print and posters, you stop people wondering if you can apply your creativity to the real nitty-gritty.

7 – Sell.
That might sound obvious coming from someone who's company has that word in its name - twice. But sell in your work. Too many projects in graduate portfolios are self-indulgent uses of some technological gizmo, or some self-indulgent idea. They show no real understanding of how to move someone closer to using or choosing that particular product or brand. The real valuable people in advertising are those who can use creativity to make other people want to buy their clients' products. If you can prove that you can do that, you're well on your way to getting a job. Make me actually want to buy the products in your book. Think about how you might achieve that.

8 – Think big.
The work in your book should display big thinking. It's no good showing what you can do with some boring offer brief. That's the stuff you'll get lumbered with when you get a job anyway. Unlucky. Part of the problem is that some colleges are trying to get too clever. A lot of briefs that they (or the ad creatives they sometimes get to set briefs) set, the problem is that they're too realistic. Too everyday. A promotion for this, an app for that. Whoever got famous doing that? Briefs for completely turning around a tired brand, or launching a new car, they don't come around very often for everyday creatives in agency-land. Fuck that - they do in imagination land. Make a every campaign a big, important one. The products don't all have to be big, serious products - think very broadly about different categories of product and service and try to cover as many different ones as possible. But the campaigns themselves should be the big campaign they ran that year, or the one that turned around the brand.

9 – Realise that you're selling yourself, and know what that is.
What's that? You're hoping to land a job being paid vast sums to sell other people's products, and you haven't realised that you're selling yourself? Okay. Good luck with that. You need to realise that you're selling your brain and talent to people. And you need to be self-aware about what that talent is. Don't, for fucks sake, be one of those hundreds of homogenised creatives who come out of college looking for a job as a creative. I tell you what, I've worked in quite a few agencies, with quite a few really good people, and never really met a creative. I've met great writers with strategic nous. Writer-nazi copywriters for whom a picture is a foreign object. Great art directors who have design skills, smart art directors who are also good with copy. What are you? You must be more interesting than just a creative? Know where your skills are, make sure you make the most of them, make sure they come across in your work, make sure people know why they would be hiring you.

10 – Fuck QR codes
Just stop it. Now. That goes for other passing technological fads, too. It's true though, some feckless CDs out there, desperate to feel with-it, might well be impressed by your display of knowledge of the latest thing. For everyone else, it's just painful.

11 – Keep updating your book
College gets people into the mindset that your portfolio is something that you work on, and then is finished. This is confusing. Your portfolio should be an ever-changing reflection of how good you can be right now. At this stage in your development, you will improving your thinking faster than at any other point in your career. Don't let your book be a reflection how good you were last month. Keep working on new things, and put them in. Think about your book being completely reinvented every month.

12 – If something is bombing in crits - throw it out.
Loads of people come into crits, and they have campaigns in their book, and they go “This isn't quite working, someone at (some agency) told me it's because the line isn't right, but...” Kill it. If people are struggling, stop bimbling around with lines, just move on. Do something new, better. The campaigns in your book should be like an arrow between the eyes, or a punch in the mouth (or a gentle cup of the balls, it depends on the tone, darling). If people can't see immediately what makes it good, right, interesting, different, then I'm sorry, it's just dragging you down.

13 – Don't worry too much about finish.
Unless you're selling yourself as an art director who also has design talent, don't worry too much about finish – even then we'll understand that you cant exactly get Nadav Kander to shoot your campaign, so don't sweat it. Finish it to the extent that people can get the idea and the way it you see it. That's all.

14 – Tone of voice.
Almost every brand you will work on will have a slightly different tone of voice. At some point you'll get to develop those tones-of-voice for brands. Do it in your book. Make sure that every campaign has its own voice and style that suits that brand or product. A lot of graduate books just look like 20 pages of 21-year-olds jokes applied to whatever brand was unlucky enough to be in the way at the time.

15 – The good is the enemy of the great.
Someone else told me this once. It's good advice. I have nothing to add to it.

16 – Work your contacts.
This is hard work, you know. If you go at it half-arsed, you'll get nowhere. The onus is on you make something out of nothing. When you have a crit with someone ask who they know. Get names, agencies. Ring those people, name drop, “Brian said I should give you ring”. Keep doing it.

17 – Be a person.
That is solid advice, no? Insightful. I just mean, when you're in to see someone, be normal. Be a human person. Say hello, shake people's hands, say please, say thank you. When they say things, listen, if you have a question ask. Make conversation. Don't be a doe-eyed rabbit-in-the-headlights, and equally, don't be a know-it-all knob. This all sounds so obvious it makes you wonder why I feel the need to write it, doesn't it? But still...

18 – Know your agencies.
Research ad agencies. Know the kind of work they do. The kind of clients they have. Are they independent, or part of a network? Read industry mags. Know the business you're getting into. Have an opinion on which agencies you want to work at, and why. Be smart. There should be five agencies that are your bullseye ideal places to work. If you don't have that bullseye, you probably don't enough about the differences between agencies yet. Do more research. Or maybe you don't know enough about yourself. Anyway, who says your first job has to be your ideal job anyway? Not me.

19 – Good luck.
In reality, I really wish that more people would find their way into advertising from places other than advertising courses. But despite that, I really do wish you the best of luck. But, for God's sake, don't leave it to luck.

I hope this helps in some way. I'll add more if I think of it.


20 – Passion. If you don't have it, just do something else.
This was donated by John W in the comments. He's right. If reading the above makes you think “Phew this sounds like hard work to me” – quit. Get out now. Okay, maybe get your degree or whatever, but then go find something that you are passionate about. Because, and this might sound silly because we are just talking about a business here. A business where you get paid to make things for clients. Because, if you aren't passionate about advertising (yes, I know it sounds silly), if you don't have some stupid thing inside you that demands that you make some really great advertising, to influence thought, to stop people, to present something in a way that no one ever thought of it before. If you don't have that, well firstly you are going to find it a very painful business to be in, and secondly, why are you wasting yours and my time? Go find something that you are passionate about and do that instead.


  1. Great advice. Blindingly obvious it's passionate and from the heart…which is the first base everyone needs to be at IMHO.

  2. Thanks John. I agree about that first base. Hmm, I should have put that in.

  3. This is perfect.
    I want to work for you.

  4. I've seen so much crap work come out of top agencies, that I am beginning to wonder what it really takes to land a job in advertising these days. Is it talent alone? PASSION? No, it can't be that. If it was that, I'd be seeing a lot more good ads than bad ads.

  5. @13:51
    Anonymous it's not a case of cherry picking from the list set out. You gotta tick all the boxes. Perhaps that's why, as you put it, there's so much crap about, too many involved don't tick all the boxes?

  6. Great as always. Can I just make more of a point about failure?

    You'll probably see a lot of it in advertising and in life. It's normal.

    Don't take it personally. It doesn't mean you are a failure.

    You will learn more from failing than winning.
    Dust yourself off and laugh at yourself a little.

    Then change,don't go around doing the same mistakes over and over again.


  7. THANK YOU for such a strong and encouraging post. It is a tough time right now, not for people about to graduate but for those of us who graduated last year. I wish more businesses like yours took onboard the paid internship system, it's really frustrating and often upsetting, to the point where you feel like strop trying, really.
    But like I said, thank you! Very inspiring and useful words!
    My "This is Bullshit Free Zone" poster has been up on my wall ever since you guys came to give that talk at LCC!

    All the best!

  8. I am in love with this blog, just because of this piece. Sell_Sell, you have got yourself a new fan!!!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.