How to Get Agency Experience Without Agency Experience

In my past life, I was a staffing agency recruiter specializing in the creative and digital space. My bread and butter had always been working with advertising and marketing agencies to recruit for a wide variety of roles, from art directors to account managers to writers and strategists. My fill ratio was high and my network was deep.

I seem to have a knack for identifying the top 5% of creative talent. Hey, it’s my one super power (besides breaking the local record in caffeine consumption). I can quickly scan a resume and know almost immediately if I want to move the applicant into the ‘yes’ pile. Even with the odds stacked in my favor and my cape flapping behind me, I still hit high levels of frustration when partnering with advertising agencies. Why? Because of the three dreaded words at the end of every job description:

Agency experience required.”

Why do agencies deprive themselves of engaging the other 75% of applicants?

I think a lot of it comes down to reducing the number of applicants by increasing the number of requirements. Hiring managers and internal recruiters get inundated with resumes and portfolios. As a result, the agency experience requirement dissuades some applicants and makes the pile a bit smaller. It also draws a hard line in the sand while recruiters are screening and vetting. It becomes very easy to shrink the stack by eliminating all candidates who lack agency experience.

Agency recruiters and hiring managers also fear that applicants void of agency experience will not be able to acclimate to the fast pace of the organization, the shuffle of priorities, or the intense pressure of shortened deadlines, critical feedback, and unrealistic standard of work.

That’s where I call “bullshit”.

Deadlines, pressure, and high standards are everywhere.

My favorite thing to do was to call a hiring manager and pitch a super talented, smart, strategic in-house creative to the exclusive "prior agency experience required" positions.

I made compelling arguments and scored quite a few candidates their first agency job.

Now that I am on the other side as the agency gatekeeper and I get to choose who gets scheduled for an interview, I am happy to tell you what I look for in a candidate. Here are my 5 tips for breaking into the ad agency world.

1) Spec Work

Pick a brand and show me how you would design or art direct their next campaign. If you are a writer, come up with some clever headlines or slogans for your favorite product. Create a portfolio of work that an agency would want to see and will identify with.  Don’t be safe. Have fun with it and show the hiring manager your potential and how far you can push the envelope. I talked to our founder Pete Sena about this topic and he made the connection between doing personal and client spec work. He raised the point, "Don't like doing free work? Nobody does but agencies do this to win brands as clients every day and if you aren't willing to invest in your own story, why would we?"

2) Start with Boutiques

It is a lot easier to break into a boutique agency or start-up than it is to get your foot into a "big box agency" because there is way less red tape and process to navigate through. You can pretty easily get your resume, portfolio, and spec work right into a decision maker’s hand. These boutique owners identify with and appreciate the grit, scrappiness, and entrepreneurial spirit of an applicant that is putting in the extra effort. You can expect most founders of smaller agencies to be empathic. They remember what it was like before their big break so they usually pay it forward and provide some tricks of the trade or better yet schedule an interview.

3) Brand Yourself

Your personal brand helps you stand out amongst your competition and helps to tell your story beyond your work experience. It creates a POV and helps the hiring manager or recruiter get a glimpse into what makes you unique. There are a million articles on how to create your personal brand but the TL;DR is brainstorm, define, and create your message. Make sure it is consistent across all platforms. Your resume, business cards, portfolio, blog, LinkedIn, and any other social platform should share the same look and feel.

4) Let It Go

Your title means nothing. There is little symmetry between in-house titles and agency titles. In fact, titles vary drastically between companies, industries, and verticals. Don’t let a change in title sway you from your dream job. Focus on the responsibilities, company culture, and career progression — not what they call you.

5) Be Open

You may have to take a small step backwards to take a huge leap forward. In order to break into the agency world, you may have to take a small cut in salary. A small deduction (that you will barely feel) could help set up your future in advertising.

Are you ready to take the first step? Check out our open positions.