The agency world doesn't quite look like it does in "Mad Men," but it can be jsut as exciting. 

There is frontline access to amazing brands, constant exposure to emerging technologies, and a continuous push of creative boundaries. For those coming out of school or looking to make a career change, it can be a great area to explore. How then, could someone with no prior agency experience or a non-existent portfolio break into this wild world? 

Determining How You Fit In

The first question you must answer is: what do agencies look for in their hires? Each type of agency (i.e., marketing, design, development, etc.) will be focused on hiring for certain skills. However, we've seen in our own hiring practices and that of our colleagues that there are three areas in particular that are most heavily weighted:

  • Technical Fit: Do you have the skills and experience necessary to succeed in this position?
  • Cultural Fit: Do you share the same values and communicate well with the agency's existing team?
  • Resource Fit: Do your compensation needs and job timing line up with the agency's needs and resources?

Focus on Landing Coffee Dates

Whether you meet these three criteria or not, the first challenge is getting the opportunity to even sit down and interview for a position. The good and bad news is that your portfolio or résumé alone won't get you that interview. According to a 2012 report by ABC News, 80% of jobs are landed through networking. If you're not having any luck, it might be time to put down the cover letter, close that posting on Craigslist, and start thinking about how you can improve your network. The best chance of landing a job at an agency is by landing a coffee date first.

Review the Network You Already Have

So how do you build a network if you don't yet have any experience working with agencies? Outside of the grueling path of an intern, how can you "hack" your way to a position quicker? The encouraging news is that you very likely already have one, if not a few, relationships with agency folk within your existing network. You just need to track those relationships down through LinkedIn or Facebook. Since you're already an A+ job seeker, both of these profiles are 100% up-to-date. Use either LinkedIn's advanced search or Facebook's social graph to explore and create a list of first-degree connections.

Once you have your list assembled, invite each of them out to grab coffee with the expectation that you're doing some research and would love to hear about their experience in the agency world. During that coffee, make the entire conversation centered on what they do. Now is not the time (yet) to ask for job offers or recommendations. Your goal is to gain a better sense for the agency landscape by asking questions such as:

  • How did you achieve success in your role?
  • What do you like about your role? What don’t you like?
  • What are the top five blogs/news sources that advance this role?
  • What are the top five events that inform this role?
  • Do you know anyone else in this space you could introduce me to?

Use this last question as a means of expanding your network to second-degree connections. Frame the question around the notion that you want to speak with other people like them and that you're not just looking to solicit a job offer.

Make Your Networking Valuable for the Other Person

Following this first meeting, set clear action items that you want to accomplish based on the advice or resources that person shared. Perhaps it's to attend a meetup they recommended or read a book they suggested. Regardless, plan to follow up between two to four weeks later with a status update on the value they provided you. Thank them again for the time they took and comment specifically on what that action item did to help you further your exploration of the agency landscape.

Not only should you follow up on the action items you completed, but find ways to add additional value during your conversations. For example, share some of the resources you've learned about from some of your other conversations. Or, offer to make an introduction to one of the other folks you've met with as it's likely you could connect the two parties with the possibility of their collaborating down-the-line. There isn't an exact quantity or time period, but once you've had at least three meaningful interactions over three months, you're probably safe to start getting more specific in your "asks" regarding a job. Perhaps now you could let them know that you've been studying the space for three months, you like everything you've seen and learned so far and are now looking for concrete opportunities that you could pursue.

Stand Out During Your Interview

After having spent months building up your network to several handfuls or dozens of people in the agency space, chances are you'll be able to land at least a few interviews. Although this article isn't focused on interviewing best practices, here are three ways for you to stand out given your lack of agency experience coming into the hunt:

1) Document Your Process

During your 'exploration process', document your experience. Not necessarily the exact conversations you're having or the specific people you're speaking with, but rather the things you learn and resources you discovery. Many agencies have documented and exposed their own processes that have in-turn become valuable artifacts for sales, recruiting, thought leadership and operational purposes. Show that you can create the same type of valuable documentation as well as communicate and synthesize ideas. This could be the basis of a portfolio for someone who doesn't have a strong one with which to already work. Select whatever form (i.e. blog, social media, etc.) you're most comfortable with and stick to it.

2) Know the Position You Want

It's encouraging for an agency to see that you understand their business. Naturally you'll want to demonstrate that you're a team player and willing to help out wherever you can add value, but come into the meeting with a clear understanding of where your talents and interest could most benefit their firm. Review their LinkedIn company page or company website, and identify all of the positions that are already filled. Know the difference between an account manager and a project manager, a junior position and a senior position, etc. These are some of the things you can dig into deeper during your exploration process as well.

3) Figure Out the Agency's Needs

Naturally, you should expect to be asked a variety of questions during the interview. When the tables turn, you should be prepared to ask the agency representative a variety of questions as well. It's your job during the interview process to clearly identify what is most important to the agency in their hiring process. Think back to the three fits I listed above (technical, cultural, and resource), and gauge what they're weighing most heavily. Don't be afraid to ask them what the ideal candidate looks like and how they see you stacking up against that profile.

There's Always Another Opportunity

The agency world is one that is constantly shifting. It seems that every day there is an article on an agency conglomerate acquiring another regional leader or a piece about a creative director spinning off to start her own boutique firm. Even economic cycles seem to drive agencies to continuously switch from building a large pool of outsourced labor to a large pool of internal talent. Because of all this, opportunities in the agency world continue to emerge on a daily basis. Just focus on plugging yourself into this landscape by building your relationships and adding value in every interaction.


Originally published Jan 27, 2015 12:00:00 PM, updated February 01 2017