First the bad news: getting into advertising is tough. Getting into Planning is tougher still. Not because it’s rocket science, but simply because the Planning department is smaller than account management or creative department; there are fewer jobs up for grabs. Adding to that, it takes a lot of time, money and affection to train a Planner from scratch – many agencies lack at least one of these three. Instead, they prefer people to first spend a year or two in account management and learn the ropes. It’s mainly the larger agencies that have the resources to train completely fresh-faced planners (although the affection is debateable).
Then the good news: it’s not impossible. Over the years I’ve interviewed dozens of hopeful candidates for different levels. I’ve also been interviewed many times. Sometimes I got the job, sometimes I didn’t, and some interviews were such epic car crashes that I’m not sure how I have the temerity to offer advice to anyone – but I’ll do it anyway. Here are my interview tips for those looking for their first Planning role.
1. RESEARCH THE COMPANY
This should go without saying. I’m astounded at how often it doesn’t. We all put our adverts on the shiny agency website. We all have egos. At some point we’re going to want to talk about our work – like proud parents of newborn babies. So, watch them and form an opinion. (Unlike with parents, you’re also allowed to criticise them, as long as you’re fiercely constructive.)
Think about the work in strategic terms: what was the business problem they tried to solve? How does the ad solve this? What is the message? Whom is it targeted at? What is the tone of voice? Do the planning backwards and spell these out. Then give your aforementioned fiercely constructive opinion on how good the ad is.
Please don’t say you like it because ‘it’s cool’ and leave it at that. I’ve had that. It’s not a good look.
What if an ad is utter dross? This will happen. Should you risk offending them by giving your honest opinion? Or risk looking like a sycophant with low standards by praising something you don’t believe in? You’ll have to decide for yourself. My advice is to frame your answer in the analysis above, and then explain why you don’t like it.
This has happened to me twice when being interviewed. Once I gave quite brutal feedback. They offered me the job (I was probably the only one who didn’t pretend to like it). On the other occasion I did exactly the same, and the atmosphere in the room didn’t just get a bit chillier. It froze. The CSO told me he’d worked on it and that I’d clearly missed the point. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get a follow up call. Did I care? No. Personally, when I show our ads to interviewees and they wax lyrical about them, it puts me off. I want our work to get better. People who think it’s perfect already won’t get me there. Give me some of that fiercely constructive critique.
2. RESEARCH THE INTERVIEWER
As mentioned, advertising attracts people with, erm, well-developed egos. We have twitter accounts and wordpress-blogs (if we’re over 35), a few awards, published articles, keynote speeches, proud mums...and what not. Dig these up. Online stalking is for exes, this is called ‘research’. Focus especially on your interviewer’s opinions on advertising – they will voice them.
Be subtle and cover your marks though. Don’t freak them out by quoting their own views back at them. Or call up their mum. Use the intel only for brushing up on their pet subjects.
3. WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE AD AT THE MOMENT?
A lazy question, but it does get asked a lot, particularly with more junior people. I know I’ve grasped for it when I’ve run out of things to ask. The problem is no one can ever think of any favourite ads. I can’t. My mind goes completely blank. Make sure yours doesn’t and think this through beforehand. Just remember there are other brands in the world than Apple. And please don’t say ‘it’s cool’ – about anything.
4. BE PREPARED FOR AN UNDERPREPARED INTERVIEWER
Interviewing people is hard. No, it really is. It’s hard to find out how good the hopeful candidates are in a short space of time, it’s hard to keep your prejudices out, it’s hard at the end of a long day when you’re stressing about the pitch tomorrow, the CEO’s chasing you for that presentation and you’ve got a bunch of missed client calls glaring at you…(yes, it’s a first world industry).
So, don’t be surprised if they’ve not prepared properly. Don’t be surprised if they’ve not read your CV or know your work. Forgive them if they are late or distracted. These are terrible things but they will happen.
Have your most charming small talk worked out for when they turn up (but don’t lick their boots). Be prepared to give a concise summary of your CV to remind them (but don’t force-feed it down their throats before they’ve offered you coffee). Give them some space to calm down and get their head in the right space – and breathe. If they’re particularly flustered, offer to come back another time. They won’t accept the offer but will certainly appreciate it.
Don’t be surprised if they talk about themselves – a lot. I’ve been to a few interviews where the interviewer asked me hardly any questions and instead talked about themselves the whole time. The egos, remember?
5. WRITE DOWN WHY YOU SHOULD HAVE THE JOB
Take some control of the interview. Don’t leave it to chance for them to ask you the right questions to learn about why you’re great. It won’t happen.
Before the due date, write down all the reasons they should employ you, and have that in the room with you. The list should be so self-congratulatory it would make even your mum feel awkward. Then subtly weave them into your answers. At the end of the interview, if you’ve not got through them all, simply state them explaining you wanted to cover them but didn’t get a chance.
I interviewed someone recently who mastered this brilliantly. I’d ask a question and she’d answer it, but then weave two or three other reasons why she was brilliant. It was clear she was controlling the interview. I respected her for it.
As there’s a lot to remember, it’s useful having a pad open in front of you with the points you want to land, a list of great ads and your questions for them. Plus it shows you’ve prepared. Make sure there aren’t any politically incorrect anatomical scribblings visible though. We all do them (don’t we?) but as mister Bond knows, it’s for your eyes only.
6. INTERVIEW THEM
It’s a two-way street: you need to interview them to see if they’re good enough for you.
Don’t just think of a bunch of random questions because you know you should ask some questions. Try this: imagine you’ve been offered the job, but have a host of other offers, and you need to decide which one to take. Then write down the questions that will help you decide. Be bold. Be nosey. Be curious. Be bold.
Humans always want what we can’t have, and don’t want what we can. Strange condition, isn’t it? If you come across as desperate, people will be less interested. If you critically interview them, it will even up the tables, and make it clear that you, too, have choices.
7. TAKE WORK
In all the interviews I’ve done only three people bought any creative work with them. I find this puzzling because everyone says they really care about the work. Creatives always take their portfolio, I think Planners should too. Especially if they’re going to say they care about the work.
8. USE PSYCHOLOGY
Skip watching one lousy 2-hour-film vampire action film on Netflix and grab a book on neurolinguistic programming instead. Read about techniques of how people relate to each other: mirroring body language, breathing rates, using similar language to match their thinking style…This can be extremely helpful, especially if you have to interview with different people in the same company who are not peas in a pod. You will need to adapt your style as you go through.
You also might want to watch this Ted Talk if even the thought of an interview makes your nerves go running around like a headless chicken. Search for Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk titled ‘Your body language shapes who you are’.
9. READ BOOKS ON ADVERTISING
Lots of people want to get into Planning, and lots of them are the oxbridgeharvardcolumbia types. Some will even have that degree in Rocket Science.
Demonstrating a genuine interest in advertising will help, such as internships or beer marketing jobs at Uni. Or reading the right books. This doesn’t only prove a flaming passion, it means you’re using the same language as the interviewer and describing ads in more professional terms (read: adland jargon). There are plenty of reading lists around and each Planner has their preferred titles, but here are five to get you started:
How to Plan Advertising by the APG
Read some IPA Effectiveness Awards Papers and APG Award Papers (particularly any from the agency you’re interviewing at or written by the interviewer…)
Truth, Lies and Advertising by Jon Steel. It’s a classic and will help stoke your excitement for Planning
How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp – an overview of how markets and brands actually work
Marketing In the Era of Accountability – Les Binet and Peter Field. A quick read but gives you a lot grounding
One Planner I know read every published IPA Award Paper in between graduating and starting his first job. You don’t need to go that far (if you prefer to have a thing called life), but I’m sure it helped him become the brilliant Planner that he is today.
10. SHARE YOUR ENERGY AND PASSIONS
The first steps are daunting because you don’t have any experience to fall back on. But you have energy, passions and interests. This is what we’re looking for (possibly because we‘ve lost ours in exchange of that experience). We once offered a job to someone who spent the whole interview talking about their passion for shoes. It wasn’t even for an Aldo account.
Another Planner opened the interview by explaining that he’d done an MA in Astrophysics (rocket science) his real passion was directing plays. I pretty much decided there and then to offer him the job. An analytical mind combined with a passion for creativity – this makes a killer Planner. So, share your passion for all things creative (or weird) and do talk about them: the films you love, a show you’ve been to recently, your favourite tattoo artist or designer…whatever it is, show some enthusiasm.
11. JUST BE YOURSELF
Feel free to ignore all the ten points I’ve made so far. The most important thing is to be yourself. We’re looking for a cultural fit and if you pretend to be something you’re not and get offered the job and you’ll take it and then realise you don’t fit in and will hate it and will want to kill yourself. Not worth it.
An interviewer is asking themselves this: could I cope with a 4-hour train journey in a shabby Southwestern train with this person, eating a rubbery cheese sandwich and battling a broken toilet on your way to Leeds for a dull client meeting? We’re a social species. We look for folks we get on with. For that to happen, you need to be yourself.
If you don’t get the job? You would’ve hated it anyway and killed yourself. Silver linings.
12. STICK AT IT
It’s a bloody brilliant job. Whilst it might feel no one wants you at first, a few years in and you’re gold dust. Once the training is done (and if you’re any good), everybody wants you, and your current agency will be bending over backwards to keep you.
If you are looking for your first job in an agency and aren’t having any luck getting into Planning, cast your net wider. If you can get a job in account management take it. You might prefer it to Planning or swap a year or two in. Try research agencies too, in particular qualitative. It’s great experience and again you can swap later. There are lots of different types of agencies to apply to: media, advertising, digital, social, mobile and so on.
Do internships, apply to grad schemes, contact Heads of Planning directly, use the APG and use your and your mum’s contacts. Keep pushing.
Energy, passion, intelligence, curiosity and something a bit different – that’s what we’re looking for. Bring that to the meeting and lay it out on the table.
And oh, good luck. You’ll need it.
Chief Strategy Officer - FCB Inferno