The student guide to working at a top agency

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Being a creative student is a weird, topsy-turvy feeling. On the one hand, you feel like you’re a success already. After all, you got on the course, which is no mean feat in itself. You’ve worked hard, and you earned the respect of your peers and your teachers. At times, you’re feeling good about your prospects, and ready to take on the world.

But then there are those darker moments, when you get The Fear. Maybe you’re not as good as you think. What if nobody wants you? When you go for a job, will you be outclassed by rivals? Will your future be full of disappointment and bitterness?

Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. Swinging between optimism and pessimism is just part of the student experience, so if your ambition is to work at a top creative agency, don’t let it put you off. Instead, put all your emotional energies into taking practical action, and confidence and certainty will eventually come as a result.

Here, we lay out seven steps to achieving your dream...

01. Interrogate your motives

Is working at a big firm like W+K London really your dream, or is it other people’s?

Before you devote yourself to landing a job at a top agency, you first need to work out whether you’re fully committed.

Be honest: is this truly your dream, or that of your parents, teachers or friends?  Would you be better off working at a smaller, less well-known agency, where you’d probably get given more responsibilities right off the bat? 

In fact, you don’t even have to work at an agency at all: there are many great opportunities working as an in-house designer. Or if you’ve already got a flow of freelance work going, you could even just go freelance full-time.

If you decide that working at a top agency is your undying goal, then great. But it’s a tough road ahead, so you really have to be sure you’re genuinely committed, and willing to put in 100 per cent… or it’s unlikely that you’ll succeed.

02. Do your research

Top agencies like Pentagram have a ton of information and case studies on their sites, so take advantage and read everything thoroughly

There’s one thing you must know about the seniors with the power to give you a job at a top agency: they have busy schedules and are constantly short of time. So if they give up vital minutes to read your CV, design portfolio or covering letter, or to chat to you in a job interview, they’re making a big sacrifice.

And if you give the impression that you couldn’t be bothered to put in the effort to properly research or understand the company you’re applying to work at… well, they’re not going to be happy, to say the least.

The good news is that, by definition, a well-known agency should be a doddle to research. So hoover up all the information you can glean from its website, its LinkedIn page and its social media accounts. Scour any mentions or press coverage of them on Google. Seek out insightful nuggets of info you might be able slip into conversations where relevant.

That said, if you do get a job interview, don’t spit out facts like a machine: that’s just embarrassing. It’s not about showing off your knowledge of the company; it’s about being prepared for anything they ask you. And even if they don’t test your knowledge at all, that preparation will give you an inner sense of confidence that will be just as impressive.

03. Work on your passion projects

Gavin Strange combines a full time job with Aardman with being a dad and completing multiple side projects. So what excuse do you have?

You’ll find plenty of advice on Creative Bloq about the mechanics of applying for a job, from the things employers are looking for in your portfolio to 20 tips for design interview success and how to create the perfect resume. But when you’re applying for a job at a top creative agency, you have to assume that your biggest rivals will have nailed all these areas too. So what is it that will get you noticed, and truly swing the jury?

Ultimately, when it comes to students and graduates, top creative agencies are looking for one, all-compassing thing: high-quality work. But at this stage in your career it’s unlikely you’ll have worked on many, or any, real-world client projects, so this is really going to fall down to your passion projects. 

What have you been working on, on the side, that conveys what you’re about, gives a sense of your personal style, and shows the kind of work you enjoy doing? (Conversely, if you don’t have any passion projects to show, then it’s basically a sign you have no passion, which is not going to get you very far at all.) 

So think about what really inspires you, and get moving. Can’t find time? Cancel your Netflix. Visit the pub less. Get up two hours earlier. You’re creative, so find creative ways to manage your schedule and create more time for what you enjoy doing.

For more advice on this, check out our guide to Why you should make time for passion projects.

04. Enter competitions

Winning a D&AD New Blood award can be a huge boost to your career

Creating impressive side projects is only one side of the coin. You need to let the world know about them, and hopefully get them liking and sharing them. 

The obvious way to do that is via an online platform like Behance or Dribbble, as well as on your own portfolio site and social media accounts. But one thing students often forget about – or lack the confidence to enter – is student design competitions.

There’s no real downside to entering, because even if you’re not successful, nobody’s really going to know. And if you are successful, it’s a great way for you to get on the radar of top creative agencies, either because they’re following the contest themselves, or because the winners’ work gets shared by the design press and social media.

Not all student design contests are equal, of course, and many lie on a spectrum between time-wasters and out-and-out scams. But others, such as the annual D&AD New Blood Awards, are well established and highly respected. Your tutors should be able to advise you on the best contests to enter for your discipline and skillset.

05. Network, network, network

Design conferences, such as our own Generate event, can be a great way to network in the physical world

It won’t surprise you to hear that jobs at top design agencies aren’t always awarded to the person who wrote the best covering letter, or even to the person with the best portfolio. 

A lot of it comes down to ‘cultural fit’: a vague, nebulous term that essentially means they like you on a personal level and think you will interact well with others in their team.

Convincing them that you can do so is a lot easier if they know something of you already. So the more you can get your face out there and network, the better your chances. And that applies to both online and physical networking.

So if there’s someone you really admire and would like to work for, why not send them a polite email asking for advice? Or check the conferences they’re attending on LinkedIn, and stroll up to introduce yourself in person?

It’s important not to become too stalker-y, of course, but you’d be surprised at how often busy people appreciate the direct approach.

06. Be confident but not cocky

Confidence will help you stand out, but cockiness is a turnoff

Following on from that last point, when you’re seeking a job at a top design firm, you need to be direct about what you want. It’s unlikely that your passion project will be so brilliant that they will come to you and beg you to take a job.

So at some point, you’re going to need to ask them for it, whether that’s through a formal application process, a chat in a conference bar, or somewhere in between.

But being direct doesn’t mean being cocky, and being humble and friendly works better than being aggressive and pushy, in the creative industries at least.

Steam in thinking you’re the big I-am, then, and you’re heading for a fall. Instead, balance self-belief with a recognition that you have a lot to learn (and are keen to do so). Hit that sweet spot, and people will be interested. For more advice, read How to thrive as a young designer.

07. Celebrate your mistakes

Don’t beat yourself up over past mistakes, use them to your advantage

When you’re at student or graduate level, you’ll have had more design failures than successes. So your natural inclination when interviewing will be to bend the truth and make out that you’ve achieved more than you really have. But that can be hugely counterproductive.

Your employers have been around the block a few times, and will be able to sniff out exaggeration and false claims at a thousand paces. After all, they were once in the same seat as you, and as the saying goes, you can’t BS a BSer.

But the good news is, design is not just about results, it’s about process. And if you can demonstrate that you’ve not only made design mistakes, but can identify how you would do it differently next time, that can be pretty impressive in itself.

We’re not saying put terrible design work in your portfolio, of course; that would be dumb. But just remember that we all make mistakes – at senior level as well as junior – and an ability to demonstrate that you can learn from them shows a level of maturity that will set you apart from many a graduate.

For more advice on getting work as a graduate, read our 5 golden rules for getting your first design job.

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