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Working At An Ad Agency

A beginner's guide to advertising careers.

Advertising agencies are great places to work. The jobs are creative in nature, the people are interesting, and the challenge of meeting the needs of the ever-evolving world of advertising keeps you on your toes.

People who work in advertising are often asked how to get into the business. The answer is fairly simple: develop an understanding of the job, make connections within the industry, and demonstrate to those connections that you're the person to hire.

The Seven Ad Agency Areas

An advertising agency is made up of seven distinct departments: Account, Strategy, Media, Creative, Interactive, Production and Administrative. Here’s a basic picture of what each does:

Account Department - Account Managers are the client's day-to-day liaison. They work with the agency's clients to write briefs that detail the advertising that's needed, work with the creative department to develop campaigns, and work with the other departments to get the campaign produced, shipped and paid for.

Account Managers are people-oriented and enjoy splitting their time between the client and the agency. They enjoy solving business challenges and building relationships. The best Account Managers have a thorough understanding of business and advertising.

Strategy Department - Strategists, or Account Planners as they are also known, research the facts needed for creating advertising, and strategize the best messages and methods to use to reach their target audience.

Strategists are generally people who enjoy research and understand how to turn data into an actionable plan for advertising. Strategists spend the majority of their time working alone and with other agency personnel.

Media Department - The media department plans, coordinates and purchases media space to run advertising that the agency has created.

Media Planners and Buyers have a deep knowledge of magazines, newspapers, TV shows, cable channels and Internet sites, and understand the audience for each of these mediums. Media Planners spend less time with clients and more time with agency personnel.

Creative Department - Creatives include Copywriters, Art Directors and Production Artists. They are the people responsible for writing and designing advertising campaigns.

The best Creatives can continually think of fresh approaches to advertise a product or service and are equally adept at selling their ideas to clients. Creatives spend less time with clients, but the time they do spend with them is crucial to the agency’s sales process.

Interactive Department - The Interactive Department designs and creates all of the digital components of an advertising campaign, including websites, banner ads and interactive applications.

People who work in Interactive are knowledgeable about the latest developments in digital technology and how they are being used in advertising. Training is specific to each medium, and as a result of new digital developments, an Interactive Designers education is always ongoing. Interactive Designers tend to spend the majority of their time working in an interactive studio environment.

Production Department - Production includes all the people who help get a job routed internally, proofread, checked, printed, duplicated, and distributed.

People who work in production are very detail oriented, thrive on juggling a number of projects at once and understand the importance of meeting production deadlines. Production people spend the majority of their time working with other agency personnel and with outside vendors, and have a minimum of client face time.

Administrative Department - Handles all of the internal business of an advertising agency, like finances and human resources.

Administrative jobs within an advertising agency are similar in scope to the same jobs in other industries, but have the added challenge of needing to understand and service clients and the distinctly different groups of agency personnel.

Educational Requirements

One of the things that makes working in advertising appealing is that you don't necessarily need a degree in advertising to get an entry-level job. Account, media and production jobs are mostly learned on the job. A business education will certainly help, but isn't required.

For Creatives, a writing or art background is essential, but it can be in any number of related fields like design or creative writing. Strategists can come from a variety of educational backgrounds and often are trained in human study fields like sociology or anthropology. Interactive designers need a technical background and software training, but can learn about the business of advertising in an agency setting.

For Creatives

While prior experience isn't necessary, aspiring Art Directors and Copywriters need to create a portfolio so that they can show their creative abilities to prospective employers. A portfolio is made up of sample, or spec ads. Spec ads can be for any product or service, but should show off your very best creative thinking and production skills.

Some aspiring Copywriters and Art Directors choose to go to portfolio schools like Creative Circus or The Portfolio Center to develop their portfolios. This is not a requirement, but it does give you help in building a sample portfolio, as well as access to industry insiders and creative peers. To get a complete understanding of the portfolio development process read How to Put Your Book Together and Get a Job in Advertising by Maxine Paetro.

Preparing to Work In Advertising

Once you have chosen advertising as your desired career path you should learn as much about the business as you can. The good news is that you have already been exposed to advertising in every form. You now have to start paying greater attention to what you are seeing, and begin to understand the thinking behind the advertising. One of the best ways to do this is to read the leading advertising magazines: Communication Arts, Print, Ad Age and Adweek. Many local libraries carry these titles, and their content is also available online. Whether you are planning to be on the account, creative or production side, read everything so that you gain an understanding of how an advertising agency works in total, and not just your portion of it.

How To Get Your First Ad Agency Job

Getting a first job in advertising can be challenging. But if you are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and willing to start at the bottom, you can get in.


If you have the opportunity to intern, by all means, you should. While many internships are unpaid, agencies often end up hiring interns once they have had a chance to see how they work on the job.

Interning can also give you a good look at all of the areas within an agency, and help you evaluate which one is right for you. If you get an internship, make the most it: develop contacts, gain experiences and do something that you can put on a resume.

Take an Entry Level Position

Many people have successfully started their career in advertising by taking any job in an agency and working their way up. Don't be afraid to work outside of your job description. Just get in and learn everything you can. If you're unable to move up within that particular agency, you can still use the experience to get a job at another agency.


If you're an aspiring copywriter or art director, consider freelancing as a way to get into the business. Freelancing is a great way to see if you like the agency, meet new contacts and try out a place without a long-term commitment.


Look for opportunities to meet with people in your area who are working in the industry. Many cities have local advertising clubs that sponsor special events, educational seminars and professional workshops. Get out there and meet the people who could be your next potential employer or peer.

Many network connections begin online. Seek out and join advertising groups on the Internet and get your name and opinions out there. Ask questions to learn and to build relationships. And don’t be afraid to email people in the industry. Email doesn't have to be answered the moment it is received. People can answer when they have the time and, if you engage them and toss in a compliment or two, probably will.

Be Knowledgeable and Enthusiastic

Before going into an interview at an ad agency make sure that you know everything about them: know their history, their clients and their point of view, and be able to talk about them. Convey that you have chosen them, and want to be a part of what they do.

Are you passionate about working in advertising? Really passionate? Then make sure you show it. In the interview talk about advertising that excites you and be able to express an understanding of why it does. Employers get excited when they see someone with genuine passion and enthusiasm. There's a reason they got into the field and your energy and enthusiasm are a reminder of that. People with a lot of experience have been beaten out of jobs by someone with less experience, but a lot of heart.

Advertise Yourself

The great thing about working in advertising is that there's always room for the best and the brightest. The key to marketing to ad agencies is to be someone that stands out above all the other people vying for the same position. You don’t necessarily need experience to do this, but you do need resourcefulness. With email, social networks, websites and blogs you have unlimited opportunities to communicate with the advertising community. Use that access to advertise yourself.