Recently I was asked if I would give some advice to a friend of a young colleague on how to get into advertising, specifically as a creative.
It occurred to me that I am not sure I know how anymore, so I said the best person to talk to was our junior art director, Ellie. Then I realised I wouldn’t mind knowing how people get started these days myself. Is it so different from my day?
So this blog is a ‘double-header’. My story from the 80s (a topic I have written about before but what the heck – this has a new twist) versus Ellie’s story in the 2020s.
What will be the same, what will have changed? Who knows but I’m hoping some principles still apply.
OLLY: It was 1985 and Live Aid had just happened. (Yikes I am old) I was unemployed as I’d been travelling across the USA all spring, having ditched my job as a junior art director at an agency called Connell May & Stevenson – long since de-funked mediocre agency who made the Michelin tyre ads and those famous Peaudouce nappy ads (I jest). I had been in the retail dept – doing newspaper ad layouts for House of Fraser, the department store chain. It was a good grounding I suppose, if a little unambitious, and I had been working there for 18 months straight out of art college. I don’t regard it as my first job in advertising, it was just my first job in an ad agency. I wanted to be downstairs with the cool dudes doing TV nappy ads.
ELLIE: It was 2019 and Marmite had just capitalised on the great Breakfast/Brexit blunder of Conservative MP Andrew Davies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUFWIkkCxF4). I was unemployed as I’d graduated from the University of Lincoln and not long after, Brexit had cut budgets and prompted agencies to cancel their placement offers to save their pennies. I had a degree that on paper was useful but all I really needed was experience; turns out it is difficult to get experience without previously having had experience (I could site many a job ad that requested juniors with at least 3 years agency experience, surely qualifying them as being above junior status…but we move on).
OLLY: I started by sitting in my bedroom and thinking up what I thought were ideas that could pass for TV ads. I remember one idea clearly: Musical notes coming out of a toilet for an air freshener. Don’t judge.
I then looked in the Yellow Pages, a thick yellow directory that people mainly used for finding a plumber, for Ad-agency names to visit (yes seriously) then -mercifully – I discovered Campaign magazine.
The art side of things.
From an art point of view it was simpler if more rudimentary, there was no software to learn- it meant we had to draw layouts by hand and put them in an actual portfolio and then call the agency and arrange a ‘book crit’ with a real life creative person. The hope was that they would help you improve your work through advice but also that they might show your book to the CD, if they liked it enough. I assume this still happens, maybe just on Teams these days.
ELLIE: We kind of learnt Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign as we went, I remember one brief was titled ‘Hide an Elephant’ and the task was to camouflage an elephant into a setting using photoshop although this one hasn’t quite made it to my portfolio.
Books were still hand-drawn, because turning pages the ‘old-school way’ (not my words Olly!) was more satisfying than swiping a screen, plus you could add in pages on the train route to London.
Usually, the plan of attack was to email a creative team asking for a book crit and the trick was to make the subject-line funny, otherwise you’d never hear back. Our most popular subject header was “Do you plan on being thirsty any time soon?”. Whether that is a comment on the alcoholism of the Advertising industry or our sense of humour I will never know.
Learning and networking
OLLY: A job??? a job was a ludicrous pipe dream, and it was generally accepted this concepting, foraging and hustling for placements was just the way it was. Because all the people who were already in jobs had done it themselves.
It was a right of passage.
ELLIE: We were told about the gruelling right-of-passage and most of us tried it, some succeeded but not all. Against Brexit cutting budgets and an impending lock-down, many of us failed and went a less-traditional route.
Along with a wave of unemployed junior creatives came a wave of courses to try and scoop them up. Competitions like D&Ad Newblood Festival and Cream had promises of giving contacts to the industry. I logged into sessions by @OkMentor and signed up to Brixton Finishing School (A course designed to boost multicultural, working class, neurodiverse and female talent in the industry) to get me through the placement drought.
Social Media was key for finding opportunities – groups like After Hours (@the_afterhour_ on Instagram) and The Casual Creatives Group (https://chat.whatsapp.com/Fg1fNrce2ZX52nnvTPm6UG on Whatsapp) brought us together in pubs and online to talk industry and collab on projects while Young Creative Council (youngcreativecouncil.com) promised a golden list of email addresses to try.
OLLY: How would you find the names of people to phone? Simple, you just bought your copy of Campaign and looked for work that you thought was cool. They usually credited the creative team and who doesn’t succumb to flattery? “I saw your new campaign for the BMW 3 series and I wondered if we could come and show you our book”.
ELLIE: We call the alumni of my course ‘the Lincoln Mafia’ because they spread across quite a few agencies, and as a first-year fresher I had eagerly added them all on Facebook! Flattery still goes a very long way so instead of a copy of Campaign I would scroll through adsoftheworld.com and then ‘stalk’ all the creatives on LinkedIn. In the 2020’s there was a big emphasis on having a ‘side hustle’ to stand out from the crowd, I am a doodler, and I would doodle things I’d overheard out of context and sometimes people would purposefully meet me to try to end up on the page.
Getting a book together.
OLLY: I quickly realised I needed a creative partner. I decided I was an art director (well I had been to art school dontchaknow and I could draw a bit) and so I needed a writer. In a rare moment of clarity that summer I called up Watford copywriting school and they were kind enough to send some writers my way who were looking for art directors.
Rob was a total stranger who I would end up spending almost every waking hour with, holed up in my Shepherd’s bush bedsit or at his family home in Beckenham just talking and riffing and discussing ideas and sharing the same dreams of ad-stardom.
ELLIE: On my Uni-course, we spent two years working with all the people on the course one-by-one until we could choose one to graduate with. A few pairs stayed loyal, but many (including mine) broke not long after our first tastes of industry.]
OLLY: We would then rock up at BMP, WCRS or CDP or some other agency that we thought were doing the kind of work we wanted to do, with a portfolio under our arm and the wide-eyed hopes and dreams that this time it would be the start of something. Maybe even our book might get shown to the CD and maybe we could get a placement (internship).
I remember that familiar feeling of disappointment as you sat in the agency reception and a young female ‘secretary’ (executive assistant) would appear out of the lift, look at you as if you were something she’d trodden in and then recite a familiar apology.
“I am afraid Tony is in Italy on a shoot. Would you like to leave your book with me and he’ll take a look when he’s back next week”.
This presented the next problem. You needed at least two books, even three. One to leave on the mountainous pile of other black A2 portfolios outside ‘Tony’s’ office with the hope that it might get seen, and the other to accompany you round the circuit and another for emergencies.
ELLIE: If this happened to us, we had business cards which had details of our email address and website, that we would leave with them and queue another punchy email header asking for a book crit again.
OLLY: After a short time of Rob and I working together, and I assume it continues to this day, we enrolled on the D&AD evening course. This was where you were set a brief by ‘Tony’ and you would work on it for a week and then visit Tony’s agency along with other hope-fools. (In those days there were hardly any Antonias or Antonellas or Tonis in creative depts but that’s another blog).
ELLIE: D&Ad New Blood Shift is still standing the test of time.
OLLY: The work would be put up on the wall and he would critique it and the class would discuss it. I guess these days it would be called a workshop.
ELLIE: We called this a crit, usually productive but occasionally damaging to the ego – I guess the need for resilience will always be part of Advertising.
OLLY: All the work was usually piss-poor but that wasn’t the point. We learned from being awful. Then you’d receive another brief from the next agency and the fun would start again.
At first, when we showed up for a book-crit (and Tony remembered to be there) it would take ages to go through your work. Every campaign was torn to shreds. ‘Don’t get it, not funny, poor taste, just crap….that’s half decent but you don’t need the line’ etc.
But after about six months of Rob and I working evenings after I got back from my day job, (I had rejoined my old agency as I was broke) something began to click. The ‘interviews’ got quicker. yep, yep, nope, yep…nice…not bad, but you don’t need the line’ etc.
We also learned to tailor the book for certain agencies. JWT liked classy headlines, GGT liked strong visual ideas. I remember one poster (OOH) campaign we had in our book for the 80’s equivalent of Tinder. (Dateline) It featured couples who had visual pairings that fit together amusingly. So a woman on the right with 80’s mohican haircut and a man on the left with a bald head exactly where the mohican was. A man with two front teeth missing, a woman with only two front teeth. You get the idea- despite it’s binary executions. Most creatives loved it (even though today it seems fairly crude) but one art director flew in to a rage over it. Take that campaign out!
We dismissed him as an anomaly and later went to see another creative team at the same agency. The same art director was passing the office as we were showing the Dateline campaign and saw it still in our book. He completely lost it, storming in and berating us for not taking his advice.
ELLIE: We also learned this trick quite quickly, whilst one Creative Director would be impressed by a sex-positive Love Honey campaign with the headline “Go Fuck Yourself”, it gained us some concerned glances and swiftly turned pages elsewhere. Our ‘riskier’ ideas would begin as strategy lines at the back of the book to test the waters for our next visit.
OLLY: That’s when we learned the first rule of job hunting. You can’t please everybody.
Committing to it.
ELLIE: After looping the agency circuit for some time, my creative partner and I decided it wasn’t working out. Cue creative break-up. So, I found myself without job, without partner and all I knew was I wanted to be creative and I was good at Art at school. Great.
But all was not over yet, Brixton Finishing School replied to my application! I got back on a train to London and networked my socks off and simultaneously talked myself into an internship in the Marketing department of OLIVER. In one day, I went from no job and no partner to a course, an internship and as a result, no time.
OLLY: Eventually I couldn’t get to enough interviews, think of enough ideas for our book, accept the unpaid placements on offer and hold down a mundane job at the same time. Skint, I had returned to my old job doing 20×2 layouts for House of Fraser, so I resigned (again) to go full time as a person who worked for free and waited in agency receptions getting disappointed by Tony.
Then in the January of ’86 in a moment of romantic giddiness I asked my girlfriend to marry me. (By the way, this is not recommended if you are penniless and unemployed).
She said yes.
Cripes, now I had a deadline to get a job by. Nothing like added pressure to flavour the process.
ELLIE: I did 9 months at OLIVER and juggled it with BFS for the final 10 weeks, working on decks and illustrations in the evenings. 9 months was long enough for me to realise I would rather be making the creative than just boosting it on social media so when BFS gave me the opportunity to bid for an internship at CDM London I ran for it.
I competed against 6 other BFS students (a significantly smaller crowd than it would’ve been through a jobsite) to answer a make-believe brief for Tinder for two potential places at the Agency. We all presented back, to my now colleagues, on Zoom- praying that the poor WiFi wouldn’t put an end to my chances. A week later I had another Zoom call and I FINALLY had a promise of an internship.]
OLLY: Why didn’t we just go to a headhunter you ask? well, of course we did but there wasn’t much call for two ‘students’ (even if you had been working for a while you were termed a ‘student’…which in some ways for me was truer than it had ever been). They would be very kind, look at your book and then give us a few names to call. It wasn’t much but those meetings helped more than they knew. (Thank you Liz Harold and Camilla at Kendall Tarrant).
ELLIE: I briefly tried a head-hunter but by that time I had my sights on CDM London and wouldn’t take much less if I could help it.
The turning point.
OLLY: I think a turning point was visiting GGT, at that time the hottest agency in town. A young CD there, not much older than ourselves, Paul Grubb, looked at our book. He nodded through it and said the work was nice enough, with some highlights. But he then challenged us to go away and do as good a book (about 8 campaigns) again in a week. It had taken us months to get these 8 campaigns good enough so that the interviews were going well. This wasn’t possible!
But bloodyfuckingshittinghell this was GGT. Okay, we accept your challenge.
The next week we returned, quietly confident.
Yep, not bad…now go away and do it again. In a week.
This went on for three weeks and on the third visit he again smiled and nodded.
“There’s no job for you here” he said “as we’re not hiring”. He could see our exhaustion and how our faces must have dropped – the effort it had taken to reproduce enough quality work to make up a completely new book each week had nearly killed us. And now there wasn’t even a job at the end of this assault-course?
“But the good news is you’ve got enough great work now to make up a book that will get you a job somewhere”.
We cursed him. But he was right.
Within a few weeks we were offered a job at the then Homes, Knight, Ritchie and DDB on the same day.
And my future parents-in-law breathed a sigh of relief.
ELLIE: After 6 months interning at CDM London, I finally heard something along the lines of “you can stay” and myself and I couldn’t sign the contract fast-enough.
OLLY: Firstly, I think if you have a portfolio people love but you are still just looking for internships, you just have a book everyone loves.
Which is almost worthless.
What you need is a book that will get you a job. And that means throwing out everything mediocre and working all hours until you get a book no one can ignore with great, audacious ideas in it. Be funny, be serious and be thought provoking in equal measure. And obviously these days it’s not about just ads but it’s a good place to start.
Secondly just meet and talk to as many people as you can. Rob and I did a hundred and ten ‘book crits’ and one job interview in nine months. It can be quicker, it can take longer.
Thirdly, practise concepting. Keep doing it and it will become easier and you will get a feel for what is good, great and exceptional.
Fourthly, just stay in the game. Have tenacity and don’t give up.
And I guess fifthly, don’t ignore Pharma like I did. These days some of the work agencies like McCann Health, Havas Lynx, VCCP, 21 Grams and of course Area 23 in New York and heck, even my own beloved CDM, are doing is truly inspiring.
ELLIE: Although quite a bit has changed, my advice would be largely the same.
I only really have one add to make: with the world becoming more and more ‘woke’ to social, political environmental situations, getting people to actually care about your adverts was a good route to take.
I too was ignorant to Pharma until my search for a purpose-driven agency led me to Healthcare; I had always been told that there were too many regulations to make creative but I now see that as a challenge rather than a hindrance if anything.
OLLY: Thank you for your story Ellie. Seems it hasn’t fundamentally changed that much.
So your journey might be far more complex than either of ours or you may just fall in to it, if so grab it with both hands. If that’s what you really want.
ELLIE: “May the odds be ever in your favour” – Effie Trinket
“Peggy, just think about it. Deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will jump up in your face.”- Don Draper
Rob left Holmes Knight Ritchie after six months eventually becoming a motorcycle messenger and we lost touch. I’m still married to the girl who was daft enough to say yes to a penniless unemployed wannabe and we have two fabulous adult children.
Tony is currently in a care home in Sussex for the bewildered.