Recently I had someone email me, asking for advice. I get this type of request semi-frequently, so I thought I’d turn my response into an article—that way I can direct future requests here and hopefully my experiences can guide and inspire others on their own journey.
I’m a recent grad, so I’m not necessarily the most qualified to dole out advice, however, I have been extremely active the last few years and I’ve picked up a few nuggets of wisdom along the way.
I am a graduating marketing and advertising graduate looking to get a job as a copywriter for an advertsing agency. Do you have any advice on how to get a job in the business and create my portfolio?
Thank you so much for your time.
Totally not trying to come off as a douche canoe here, but as someone looking for a copywriting job it’s important to be super intentional about every single word you write.
“I am a graduating marketing and advertising graduate looking to get a job as a copywriter for an advertsing agency”
Repeating graduating/graduate and misspelling “advertising” could be mistakes that prevent you from getting a job. Again, not being critical here, just honest.
More importantly, an answer to your question about getting a job and building your book:
1. Meet with people
Especially copywriters. They’ll have invaluable advice about how they got their start, how they’ve progressed through the industry, what they did right, what they did wrong, etc. Asking those people out to coffee (or drinks, or lunch, or mini golfing) to discuss their experience and (if you’ve got it ready) your portfolio is so, so helpful.
And oftentimes those people are the same folks that hire you, or connect you to someone that hires you.
Find the people whose work you admire and reach out to them. Ask people for connections. Be bold—within reason, these are busy people and you should respect their time. Be concise. Stick to any plans you make. Come prepared/do your research/be on time!
And be grateful, I typically send a thank you note after we meet, it’s a meaningful way to let them know you appreciate their time and energy. It’s also another opportunity for you to stay on their radar.
2. Find a mentor
This person might be a young person, or an older creative veteran. But find someone who is willing to spend some time giving you feedback and advice. This is another remarkably valuable resource. In a way, they become your career coach. They don’t have to make a huge commitment to you beyond occasionally meeting up and giving you honest feedback on work-in-progress and/or direction for your portfolio.
Most people had someone that supported them on the way in/up and they’re typically flattered and excited to pay it forward. Don’t be afraid to ask someone (hopefully someone you vibe with) if they’re willing to be that person for you.
My mentor(s) have been so crazy helpful. Do yourself a favor and go get one… or 3, 4, 5.
I recently opened a small creative shop, which would have been impossible without my network of supportive people. One of my mentors recently sent me an email with this line:
“Jump and a net will appear.”
It was exactly what I needed to hear, and I would reiterate the message to you: dive into this stuff headfirst, don’t worry about hitting the ground.
3. Get involved
That means going to events, meetups, conferences, etc. People like to call this “networking,” but I think networking is bullsh*t—don’t approach it that way. Instead, approach it with genuine curiosity and suddenly it transforms from networking to connecting, which is much more rewarding and beneficial.
“But I can’t afford to go to these events and meetups, Grant, I’m a poor college student/recent grad.”
Volunteer. Volunteer, volunteer, VOLUNTEER! No excuses!
Nothing has opened more doors and proved so undeniably advantageous as the act of volunteering. I’ve attended a ludicrous amount of events and conferences because I’ve contributed in some way. It’s such a no-brainer on so many levels:
a. You get to attend things for free (huzzah! money problem solved.)
b. You get “insider” perks/access and the chance to see the machinery that makes things happen. You may even get some really valuable recognition.
c. You usually get to meet and work with incredible people. These people, like the people you’ll meet on your informational get-togethers, are often the ones that open doors for you. Prove yourself worthy and you’ll likely win a ton of support from these folks.
d. Volunteering is truly rewarding work and it’s usually pretty fun.
Over the last three years I’ve volunteered with these organizations:
MN Blogger Conference
And those experiences have changed my life.
4. Read and absorb
Read as much as you possibly can. It’s important to know the history of the business—it’s a lot easier to predict where it’s going when you know where it came from. Know the legends: George Lois, Bill Bernbach, Mary Lawrence, David Ogilvy, Dan Wieden, Lee Clow etc. Know the big campaigns and influential pieces of work.
Follow what’s going on right now. Read Creativity. Read Fast Co. Get your finger on the pulse of creativity and creative work.
Troll portfolios. Look at the work of your peers and of more established creatives. This will help you begin to understand who these people are and how they got to where they are. It will help you discover the best ways to display your work. A great place to start is Modern Copywriter.
Don’t limit yourself to industry materials, either—understanding story structure, drama, and characterization will improve your work 10-13 fold. Maybe even 15 fold if you’re lucky.
And heed Joss Wheedon’s instruction (in the Fast Co. article linked below):
“The last piece of advice on that level is fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks. Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show.”
Some suggestions for reading/viewing:
a. Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, Luke Sullivan
b. Imagine, Jonah Lehrer
c. Anything by Seth Godin
d. The Alchemist, Paul Cohelo
e. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
f. Damn Good Advice, George Lois
g. The Art of Immersion, Frank Rose
h. Art & Copy (film)
i. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock
j. Your Elusive Creative Genius, Elizabeth Gilbert (TED Talk)
n. Joss Wheedon on Fast Co (how to be prolific)
o. Writing That Works: How to Communicate Effectively in Business, Kenneth Roman/Joel Raphaelson
p. Breaking In
q. Lovemarks, Kevin Roberts
5. Build your circle
Not just your “network,” but your inner-circle of other creatives, your core. I have a small crew of people I continually turn to for feedback on work/projects/life. People that I trust, who give me honest, productive feedback.
We inspire each other. We collaborate. We help each other in so many ways. It’s super rewarding to have a group that you enjoy working with. It makes things easier and more fun. And fun is important. Without fun, life is pretty lame.
6. Make stuff
You’ll hear this over and over, but make things, lots of things. Initiate projects on your own terms. I’m fascinated by work of my local Minneapolis wunderkinder Brock Davis, Dschwen, Allan Peters, Phil Jones, I look to them for inspiration. These guys are prolific, smart, funny…they embody creativity.
Self-initiated projects will push you to ideate and to execute. They may very well prove to be the gems of your portfolio.
My documentary project, Creatives Go West, has opened numerous doors for me. This was born of nothing but a desire to see the West. My self-initiated branding project, Royal Dodo, won me two pieces of new business this summer. And it gave me the opportunity to better understand my personal method of creative development, while providing potential clients with a view into the process.
Come up with your own brief. Find a creative competition. Create an idea/campaign (though “campaign-thinking” is on the decline, in terms of marketing) for an existing brand. Write 200 headlines. Cull the list down. Produce some work. Whatever you have to do to make stuff.
The truth is, if you can’t create without a direct paycheck tied to the work then maybe this business isn’t for you. You’ve got to love it, you’ve got to have an insatiable appetite for making that isn’t born solely of money.
7. On portfolios
a. You should find a designer/partner. Good work/thinking with shitty design is shitty, or at least potentially crippling to the work if the visual component isn’t adequately represented.
b. There are a million (yeah, okay, that’s a hyperbole) easy-to-use portfolio sites. You’ll have to pay for hosting (~$10/month), but bite that bullet.
A few of my favorites:
- Cargo Collective
c. Quality over quantity. A bunch of crappy projects is worse than one good project. Focus on making the work in your portfolio really polished. Quickly tell me a story of why it’s good work—whether it’s in the form of billboards, or a mobile app, a television commercial or a guerilla stunt. Show me the core of the idea. Show me why it’s smart, strategic, effective, interesting. And keep it simple, stupid.
d. Make your portfolio memorable. Make it representative of who you are. Show some personality. Don’t hide your awesomeness in murkiness. Be clear.
e. Prove two things to me:
First, that you are a conceptual thinker, capable of considering how an idea lives in different contexts and extends beyond one medium. Prove you’re capable of pitching ideas that aren’t “advertising.”
Second, that you are able to hunker down and actually write. “I’m an ideas guy” just doesn’t cut it these days. Execution is everything. Writers must write.
Speaking of writing, a blog is good to have, of course—if only to keep you writing. But you can prove those capabilities in other ways, perhaps by showing process in your work. Perhaps by writing for a publication.
Above all, tell interesting stories. They’re important in your bio, your descriptions, in everything.
We can get into the nitty gritty of portfolios—layouts, imagery, etc., but it’s more important you first cultivate your creative lifestyle. Spend time getting to know yourself, the business, and the act of creation. Your portfolio is what comes from this process. Get a draft up and worry about iterating, not shipping a perfect first attempt.
Doing these things will help you discover who you are and what you believe in. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to go through this self-discovery. You’ll be more interesting to talk to, more passionate about what you do, more confident in yourself.
If you have any other questions or want to stop by the studio, let me know. Happy to help, if I can.
Go kick some ass, dude.