Your Guide to Becoming a Creative in Advertising

Advice from a Young Art Director

Jade Song
Jade Song
Feb 10 · 8 min read
My first ever agency headshot!! How exciting!

Why I Wrote This

I decided to become a creative when I was 12 years old. It was 2008, and I was visiting Beijing for family. The subway televisions showed various English-speaking ads, and as a young kid who didn’t yet understand the magic of being in a foreign country, I was starved for language I understood. I was captivated by a Nike ad that kept playing on a loop. I told my mom I wanted to make “stuff like that.”

As I grew older, I followed a more traditional prestigious academic career, one that looked great on a resume but didn’t feel great in my heart. I wanted to be a creative! I wanted to make pretty things that people saw! All my feelings kept leading me to advertising as an Art Director, but I didn’t know where to start or how to get there.

In 2016, I went to Central Saint Martins, an art school in London, for a semester-long Graphic Design & Advertising Study Abroad Program. It was there that I finally got to be around creative people who were creative for a degree. It was eye-opening. The program was wonderful in that it brought in creative directors and alumni from London-based agencies to chat with us, talk about their work, and look at our work. Instead of essays and tests, we were given creative briefs to solve any way we wanted. For a class project, we had to make a lemon famous, so my partner and I invited people to throw lemons at a random wall in the middle of Camden Market. I loved it, and the five months I spent there showed me how to become an art director and why I wanted to become an art director.

Looking back, I was so dumb. I emailed random recruiters and creative directors with a barely-functioning portfolio. I didn’t know the Creative Suite (what kind of art director doesn’t know InDesign?) yet I expected an art direction job to fall into my lap. I didn’t understand how competitive it is to break into the industry. Yet, my naivety worked in my favor. People invited me to their agencies for a visit. They introduced me to other people at their agencies. I got portfolio reviews from accomplished creative directors at top agencies (I cringe when I think about what they saw.) People were so kind.

Three years of hard work inspired by the kindness of other, more knowledgeable creatives led me to getting my first real art direction job. I graduated May 2018 and am now a Junior Art Director at McKinney in New York City, working on clients like Samsung and BMW Financial. I didn’t go to portfolio school, and I worked hard to make up for the lack of formal ad education. The following is a collection of links, explanations, and resources vital to any young creative looking to break into the advertising industry.

Portfolio References

As a creative, your portfolio is your resume. It should have your professional work, your personal work, your bio and social links, and any other tidbits of work or self you’d like to put in. Your portfolio can be kooky, colorful, splashy, or a simple presentation of your work.

To create a great portfolio takes time. Many people go to ad school to build one, but you don’t need to spend the time and money on ad school. You can easily build one yourself with your own work and ideas. However, it is a great idea to look at others’ portfolios to inspire your own.

Portfolio schools such as Miami Ad, VCU, and Creative Circus all publish their graduates’ portfolios, including where they are working now, which can help you discover other agencies. These graduates are the ones applying to internships and entry-level creative positions at agencies, so if you don’t go to portfolio school, this is your competition. Comparing your portfolio and work with theirs is a great starting point.

Modern Copywriter is a site from Creative Director Jason Siciliano that collects noteworthy portfolios and work from creatives around the world. He writes, “Copywriters (and all creatives) are gentle souls in a rough biz. It’s important to stick together, share what we know, inspire each other, and be there for one another when things get shitty.” Too true.

Lastly, you can stalk people. I loved and still love to find people’s portfolios, especially to see their personal unrelated-to-advertising work. Find an ad or design you like, do some googling, and you’ll be able to find the creatives behind it. For example: enjoyed the Superbowl It’s a Tide Ad? Check out this portfolio!

Award Shows & Award-Winning Work

There are three types of creatives in advertising: the one who deeply cares about awards, the one who doesn’t care at all, and the one who says they don’t care, but they really do care deep down. Regardless of whichever you aspire to be, they are a great resource for inspiring work that comes out every year. You can use them to find agencies and creatives you admire, understand how ads are made to satisfy the client and the award, see cultural trends, etc. Make sure to check the winners archive. There are so many advertising award shows; the following list is just a handful:

Briefs

Young Shits was designed as an ad contest to actually get you a job. They release a creative brief every month or so. It was created by an art director-copywriter pair who now works at top agencies. If you win, you get a one-on-one with the judge, which is a great opportunity to network. Read their FAQ section, it provides great info about the hiring processes of agencies!

The D&AD Young Blood Awards are annual awards for students, recent graduates, and aspiring creatives between ages 18 and 24. They provide real briefs set by real clients; the submissions are judged by top creatives. D&AD is a British-based company, so several of the briefs and companies are UK-based, but it is an excellent opportunity to practice and produce work.

Someone put a bunch of excellent mock briefs up on a public Google drive. Feel free to download and practice!

Obstructions isn’t necessarily an advertising brief, but I’ve found this site from an RIT Art & Design professor an amazing creative practice. The use of obstructions to guide your creation mimics the restrictions you’ll run into in advertising, such as client feedback, budgets, and legal.

Books

Books might seem outdated when so much of daily work in advertising is spent on the computer. However, there are many books that will inspire and inform your ad career. It is pretty cool to read anecdotes by Ogilvy or Hegarty, two kings of the industry. If you only choose one book to read, I would absolutely recommend Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. Other books include:

Inspiration, News, & Advice

If you’re really talented and your client is cool, your work gets featured in non-trade outlets, like Fearless Girl in the New York Times. For the rest of us, there are plenty of media outlets that report on advertising. You can use them to browse current ads, understand media trends, and find out new business wins (and therefore who might be hiring!)

There are also a few fun curation blogs and sites to scroll through. You can use these resources for inspiration, tools to find creatives, and industry tips. A few of my favorites are below:

Several people with extensive experience in the advertising world have started blogs where they jot down thoughts, motivations, and creative processes. I would definitely check out Medium, especially Heidi Hackemer’s page. Many agencies and creatives post on Medium. You can also read the following blogs:

We Are Next is an excellent career resource started by Natalie Kim, a former ad strategist. It has a weekly email that sends out advice, a podcast featuring successful people in advertising, essays by people who broke into the industry, and even a jobs board that is updated weekly with entry-level positions in advertising.

Lastly, I would really recommend again stalking people. Finding work you love by cool people is equally inspiring and jealousy-stirring. You can reach out to them for a coffee or a phone call.

Design Resources

If you are an aspiring art director or copywriter, knowing the Adobe Creative Suite is a must. There are many excellent tutorials for these programs, like YouTube or Lynda (usually free for students!) There are also many resources you can use to save precious time for mockups, stock imagery, and prototypes. These are all free, so if you’re still a student, using these links will help you build your portfolio:

General Advice

Reach out to people. Find a portfolio you like, cold email them, find something you have in common, compliment them, ask them out for coffee. 99% of people will not reply, but the 1% who do will mentor you, recommend you, invite you to visit their agency, give feedback on your portfolio, and offer endless nuggets of advice.

Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. Every new idea you have can replace an old one. Practice your skills on Adobe Creative Suite. Re-iterate and re-make your portfolio. You can only get better (and more hireable!)

Look at agency sites for their past work, their career openings, and who they hire. Each agency has a different style of creative. Independent tiny agencies and massive holding company agencies have very different cultures. Figure out which one you’d prefer and chase it.

Conclusion

I truly hope this collection of resources and advice helps aspiring creatives. I sourced these resources throughout my three undergrad years of learning and attempting to get that elusive first gig. Being a creative in advertising is a ridiculously exuberant and crazy career. I hope I and the following words help aspiring creatives, as others have helped me. Please feel free to reach out to me at song4jade@gmail.com and see my work at jadessong.com/ — I will always make time to chat.

Jade Song

Written by

Jade Song

art director & artist. jadessong.com/

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