Don’t give in to Temptation!

It’s that time of year. New ad creatives are busy trying to get that first job.  And, yeah, you’re hearing from your professors and placement department about how to get that entry level job.  You’re hearing that the advertising business is tough to break in to. That it’s a buyer’s market.  You have to have a strong plan, a focused strategy to get in.

Well, I’m telling you all of that is true, except it’s not totally a buyer’s market.  And not just if you’re amazingly creative and talented.

Getting your first job is more within your control than you might think.  This difficult-to-crack field is in some ways a seller’s market, too. That is, if you’re smart, patient, and, yes, I’ll admit, it doesn’t hurt if your portfolio displays your supreme creativity and talent.

Or, to put it another way, don’t be seduced by the first job that comes along, or even the first half-decent job.  There are a lot of lousy jobs out there.  That last thing you want to do is take one and start your career off on the wrong trajectory.  This is the launching pad for the rest of your professional life.  The same way you only get one opportunity to make a first impression, you only get one chance to start your career.  Not that you can’t cut your losses if your first job sucks, but why wouldn’t you simply avoid it altogether if you could

I don’t care what anyone says, you’re better off waiting tables while you’re waiting for a good opening than taking a crappy job.

Here are some things to look out for in the job market.

A big title.  

Like, say, creative director.  Don’t think it doesn’t happen.  I’ve seen it on many occasions. I remember when my agency hired a young artist who turned out to be the best production artist we ever had.  Her first job out of art school had been as a CD. Then she got a better job at a lower rank – art director.  Finally, she started at the bottom rung in our company, an agency that did great work and brought along young people.  She said she finally felt like she was in the right job.

Big responsibility.

Graduating doesn’t mean you’re done learning.  Your first job should be an extension of your learning experience.  Make sure you’re not put in a place where they expect you to know it all.  You don’t.  But don’t feel like a loser.  The best people in advertising, or any other field, for that matter, know they don’t know it all.  Try to put yourself in a place where you can learn from great people.  The first job can the best grad school there is.  And the checks flow in your direction.

A load of money.

There’s no correlation between pay and quality of opportunity.  Particularly for entry level.  If anything, there may be a reverse correlation.  It used to be said about the early days of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB, today) in what might have been the best ad agency for its time, ever, “DDB was a great place to work, if your parents could afford to send you there.”

The same has been said about almost all great creative agencies during their heydays.  They did not always pay the best salaries, but, believe me, they compensated well.  They put you on a career trajectory that ultimately paid huge dividends, both the monetary and more important kind, self respect.  You see, it is not all about the money.  If that’s what you want, work for an agency that does lame work and has to pay people well, even juniors, to get anyone to work for them.

Great accounts. 

If a CD says she or he is going to put you, a wet-behind the ears junior, on their best accounts and give you any legitimate responsibility, turn around, walk out of the place and don’t look back.  They must really suck if they have inexperienced dweebs leading on important accounts.


If the above agency offers you the opportunity to do TV, don’t walk away, run away as fast as your junior legs will carry you.  Great agencies offer wonderful experience, but any company that’s going to put someone with a lot to learn on a sexy medium like TV is just playing to your ego, irresponsible to their clients, or both.

“Your portfolio is brilliant!”

Before you think this chapter is ignoring the obvious, your portfolio is the most important factor when trying to get a job.  That’s why you’ve been working your butt off on your portfolio all these years.  I’m sure there is a great deal of valuable advice in this book on how to build a killer portfolio.

But if a potential CD loves, loves, loves your portfolio and doesn’t offer any suggestions on how to make it better, that could be a sign that either that person doesn’t know what’s lacking in your work or doesn’t know how to help you make it better.  Neither are good signs.

There are a lot of CDs out there who can manage clients and other suits, and sell their department’s best work.  Look for those qualities in a potential employer.  But, as a junior, the main thing you want to look for is a nurturer, someone who can help you make your work better.  Look at that CD’s track record helping juniors become stars.


A lot of CDs are jerks.  They are egomaniacs.  They think being head of a freaking creative department is like being a rock star.  Don’t work for them.  This is advertising.  It’s cool, it’s fun, it’s important to the free enterprise system, but it’s not high art.  And if you’re good at it, even one of the best in the business, it doesn’t make you better than the valet who parks your Porsche at the hottest club in town.

If a potential CD is rude or condescending to you or others, you don’t need that.  There is a ton of stress in the ad business, you don’t need your boss to be one of the stressors.

That said, you don’t need a coddler, either, or a CD who can’t criticize.  But you definitely don’t need a badgerer.  If you’re really good, really driven, you’ll be your own badgerer.  Look for a CD who gives you respect.  That’s one of the most important elements of motivation that will get you through the low times, of which there will be many.  This is work.  It’s subjective.  Great work dies for all kinds of stupid reasons.  You don’t need people to beat you up.

In summation. 

I share these warnings with you, not because I want you to be a thankless brat.  I really do want you to be a humble eager beginner. But I’m putting this stuff on your radar because, if you’re really driven, and you really want to make it in the advertising industry, you may be going into it like a innocent, slap happy puppy, and you just might have such a great half-full attitude that you’ll be easily charmed by some of these shiny things that dubious employers might dangle in front of you because they know you’re eager and easily led, and they don’t really have the main thing you need – a nurturing environment to do great creative work.

So beware of some of the bad signs.  There’s an old expression “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”  Actually it’s an old advertising line for a consumer protection campaign created by a young copywriter who worked for the aforementioned DDB during it’s era as the most creative agency on the planet.  This writer went on to be one of the great nurturers in the advertising business, a guy who helped me learn how to help young people.

I rest my case.

© 2014 Tom Monahan

Tom Monahan is Head Creative Thinking Coach at Before & After, a company specializing in training business people to think more creatively and facilitating brainstorming sessions.  B&A works with major marketers and ad agencies worldwide, including Target, Virgin Atlantic, Budweiser and Unilever, among others. Previously Tom was a founder and ECD at Leonard/Monahan, a major incubator for advertising creative talent. Tom has published The Do-it-yourself Lobotomy for John Wiley & Sons, under the Adweek imprint, he was advertising columnist for Communication Arts for over a decade and was written up in The Wall Street Journal’s long-running “creative leaders” series.