How to get a job in a creative agency

6 years after leaving, I went back to Sheffield Hallam University and offered my advice to students about the world of copywriting. I got asked loads of questions, but the one that kept coming up was ‘how do you get a job in an agency?’.

My reply was that there’s no real answer, that my career has been a mixture of hard work and luck, and that I’d be terribly annoyed with that answer if I was on the other side of the table.

Ever since my visit, I’ve been mulling things over and have decided to pull together a few tips for students looking for their first agency job. Here they are.

1. The experience conundrum

Yes, it’s hard to find time to work (normally for free) in between studying and part-time jobs. Hard, but not impossible.

Experience is invaluable. I’m in no way belittling education, it’s just that everyone my age has a degree. The reason I’m sat here now (and other people aren’t) is because I went out and got experience.

In my first year I asked a local music magazine for work. They gave me some and I sent it back 4 hours later. I became their go-to because I turned stuff round quick. I got paid after a few months and ended up working there for 3 years.

No one expects you to work for months on end for free. A week or two at a place gives you an understanding of how it works and then, boom, experience on your CV.

2. Get a good CV

Your CV is your first impression. How do you make yours stand out in a pile of 40? How do you get the person reading it to remember your name? There’s no right answer, but my advice is be bold.

Stay away from templates and get creative. Ditch the generic bio paragraph. Don’t write excellent people skills – show them in your interview. And always write less. My CV is less than half the size it was 3 years ago.

3. Get personal

It’s perfectly fine to have a stock CV, but always write a personalised cover letter.

If you want to work somewhere, you’ll take the time to research them. Find out the name of the person who’ll be reading your CV and address it to them. A lazy off-the-pile CV stands out a mile away.

And don’t stop at a covering letter. Show how you’ll fit in. When I applied to work here, a friend in the industry said I needed to make myself stand out and that I “put my face on a cake or something”. I hand-delivered my CV, and introduced myself with a tray of brownies (without my face on).

4. Don’t worry about ‘real’ work

Don’t let lack of ‘real’ work put you off applying for a job. When I applied for my first copywriting job, I didn’t have a single piece of copywriting in my portfolio. You might not have industry experience, but you have experience, even if it’s stuff you’ve done off your own back.

5. Network, network, network

Networking doesn’t have to be corporate events where everyone drinks cheap wine out of plastic cups. It’s important to get out there because you never know who you might meet.

Email people, ask an agency for an informal meeting, connect with people on social media. You’ll be surprised how many people want to help.

I’ve never got a job from a job site. I got my first copywriting role because a recruiter contacted a friend. I got a job as a chef because a barman from the pub I used to drink at recommended me.

Get involved in creative networks (where you live and online) and opportunities will crop up.

6. Develop supporting skills

There are cabbages with a better eye for design than me. But learning to use InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop means I can create social assets without having to wait for a designer. And I’m teaching myself (slowly) to use After Effects and write code.

I might be a mountain climb off using the skills at work, but they’re giving me a better understanding of how to write for video and web. Now, I appreciate the boundaries and freedoms of different mediums. Developing other skills is making me a better copywriter.

Code Academy is a great free way to learn coding. Udemy offers loads of training programmes. And there’s always YouTube, the endless videohole of knowledge.

Put pressure on people in the industry by offering extra skills outside the job description. Bring some new tricks the old dogs can’t offer. The more skills you have, the more chance you have of earning a seat.

A final thought

You don’t have all the skills and that’s okay – agencies don’t expect you to. You need a willingness to learn. Show that, and you’ll be well on your way.

One final thing. Check, check and double check your CV, your work samples, your covering letter and any emails you send for typos and spelling mistakes. That way, you’ll avoid falling at the first hurdle (I know from experience. D’oh).

If you’re a student with a question about copywriting (number 5, cough cough), or you want my job-winning brownie recipe, you can message me on LinkedIn.