The Battle for a Break

The quest for that first job in advertising is a difficult one and success requires determination, hard work and luck. Three graduates tell all about their attempts to get a foot in the door.

Despite competition from the well-oiled and well-organised world of consultancy and finance, the media and marketing industries still come out top as the career of choice for many graduates. So why, with some of the UK's best young talent beating down agency doors, is there a perception that the industry is lacking good new blood?

The graduate recruitment and work experience merry-go-round may have something to do with it. Many of the young hotshots who want to work in advertising are turned off after they have devoted months to sending in fruitless applications, done weeks of unpaid work experience and spent days taking senior managers' suits to the dry cleaner.

Others, however, are made of sterner stuff. Here three graduates reveal what they had to do - photocopying, sitting in on meetings with Sir Martin Sorrell or organising Christmas parties for clients - to land a job in the industry and explain why they remain determined not to sell out to the City.

SARAH FOSKETT 28

Now a planner at Clemmow Hornby Inge, Foskett quit her job at the UN in Rome for a career in advertising.

"A year-and-a-half ago I was living la dolce vita in the centre of Rome, enjoying my job at the United Nations and with an interesting career unfolding in front of me.

Living in Italy was everything I had ever dreamed it would be, but there was something niggling. In the ten years since I did two weeks' work experience in an ad agency, I still found myself constantly dissecting ads and my fascination with all things advertising remained undimmed.

Time was ticking by and I realised that if I was going to make a career change, I had to do it quickly. The first thing I was sure about was Rome was not the place to make that change. Second, I knew that my CV lacked media experience, so how would I convince an advertising agency to give me a job? I decided to pack my bags, head back to London and beg my bank manager for a loan. I then enrolled on an MA course in marketing communications at Westminster Business School, which culminated in a final project that involved building an integrated marketing campaign.

In September, I was released from the security of university and was ready to begin my agency offensive. Throughout university I had been reading Campaign, Marketing, Brand Republic and had a good idea of the type of agency I wanted to work in.

I was older than the average graduate so I did not see myself doing the usual graduate schemes - I wanted to get stuck in immediately. I decided to only apply to those agencies that really appealed to me. Most of the agencies I wrote to replied - some were curious about my very diverse CV and invited me for an interview even though they did not have a job to offer. This led to new friendships and an offer of a couple of weeks of work in a medium-sized agency with approximately 60 employees. It was great to have an opportunity to see what life in an advertising agency was really like. I wanted to find out if my memories of work experience ten years ago were sugar-coated and if advertising was as interesting as I had remembered it.

I absolutely loved it. The agency involved me in all areas of advertising, from research and pitches to production and shoots. Days in front of the photocopier and making cups of tea were an urban myth as far as my work experience was concerned. This was soon followed by an interview at Clemmow Hornby Inge and a job as a planner, which I started in December.

Now, a year-and-a-half later and somewhat lighter in the pocket, I am so glad I decided to make the leap. I would encourage anyone to do the same, and would also recommend that anyone interested in advertising takes their time, has a go at a few things, applies for work experience to get an insight into the industry and reads everything they can.

There is definitely an element of being in the right place at the right time so, if you feel it is the industry for you and you really want to do it, stick with it - just don't expect it to be easy."

TONY SOLOMON 24

Solomon has a BA in geography and started as an aspiring account man before landing a job in creative research.

"I spent endless amounts of time at university being wined and dined by financial institutions at career presentations. However, a job stuck in front of screenfuls of numbers remained a mind-numbing prospect (but thanks to Merrill Lynch and all the others for the free booze!).

I was faced with the unappealing prospect of joining the career paths of most of my contemporaries and becoming a faceless corporate lawyer, banker or accountant, being sucked dry of all creativity during a life of boredom and miserable Sunday nights, or taking the more difficult route into something more exciting.

Little did I realise that such a decision would mean I would have to spend a year sending off hundreds of speculative e-mails, tens of hours slaving over graduate recruitment forms, months of unpaid work experience, interview after interview, and numerous assessment days - all for just one job in advertising. Suddenly I could see the appeal of selling out to the City.

The first step on my quest for a job in advertising was to send countless begging e-mails and I eventually lined up work experience placements at four of the top ten agencies. I was pretty fortunate - few agencies run organised work experience schemes and some claim not to offer it at all.

One agency told me it did not offer work experience - I later found out places were reserved for clients' children.

The placements themselves turned out to be incredibly enjoyable - mucking in with everything from account management to planning and television production. The only problem is that very few agencies pay you anything - I was lucky enough to have some of my student loan left, but it seems ludicrous that at a time when advertising is trying to attract people from varied backgrounds, only those lucky enough to be able to work for free can get some of the action.

Meanwhile, I spent most of my spare moments after work filming the story of my life, creating whole brand strategies, writing a history of Britain in just 20 words and imagining who my favourite superhero was - all par for the graduate recruitment course.

Overall, the long slog has definitely been worthwhile. It was as a result of all those experiences that, having started as an aspiring account man and then setting my heart on becoming a planner, I eventually decided creative development qualitative research was more "me"- normally a career decision that can take years.

As well as meeting a wide range of people with whom I am still in contact, it was great starting my first job - once I finally landed it - with some experience behind me. I had done everything from constructing mood boards, internet research, conducting vox pops and buying CDs for creatives to the more exciting jobs such as sitting in on television shoots and on pitch meetings with Sir Martin Sorrell. I'm even sure that organising one agency's client Christmas party and taking the managing director's suit to be dry cleaned will come in useful some day.

There does not seem to be much rhyme or reason as to why some people land a job and others don't. I have met people who were told they would not even be considered by one agency yet have others clamouring for them.

You mustn't get too down about it - just as The Beatles were rejected by Decca before they landed their first recording contract, there are at least two agency managing directors who were rejected by their own company's graduate recruitment schemes.

Cling to the thought that, one day, that person sending some poor work experience boy to the dry cleaners may just be you."

CHARLOTTE GALLAGHER 22

Gallagher is temping on an ad agency reception but is still seeking a permanent role in account management.

"Dynamic, bright, articulate and passionate - these were all qualities I generously attributed to myself in the CV I hoped would secure me a job as a suit in the advertising agency of my dreams. However, even with some extensive work experience at several top agencies and this glowing self-analysis, I am still temping on the reception of an advertising agency 18 months after my graduation.

Some friends of mine, disillusioned by the many rejections, have migrated from this pool of hopefuls to greener pastures in PR or finance. I am fast considering walking into an agency surreptitiously, finding a niche for myself, and then, after a safe period, negotiating my way on to a payroll.

Extreme measures begin to look attractive when you are asked to extend a work placement after proving your ability, only to be rewarded with £1.12 an hour and a rejection after the first interview on the same agency's graduate scheme. While the advertising industry misses out on the talent that jumps ship, law firms and banks have jobs for those that have proven themselves in placements and on graduate training schemes.

But before I drown in my economy-sized vat of self-pity, let me tell you what attracted me to the industry initially. The notion of becoming an accountant or a banker made my stomach churn and I was looking for something with less pinstripe and more drawing board - advertising was the obvious answer and I have loved my work experience so far.

One favourite example of the diversity we enjoy on placements happened when a fellow graduate and I were asked to pose in compromising positions (fully clothed) so our silhouettes could be traced for a new ad.

An ongoing perk of the job is that the people I have worked with are not the sort that I would have to fake a laugh with to foster a harmonious working environment, they are people I would actually choose as friends.

I also love the fact that the product is a creative idea - it's got to beat selling debt to pension companies.

However, I think the reason for the industry's considerable popularity among graduates is the myth that advertising is an exciting world where you can go to work in your slob wear of jeans and t-shirt, feast on the company at client lunches (it's free!) and swim in Champagne at parties.

The truth is, it takes a lot of hard work to even be considered for an interview. I wrote to hundreds of agencies, sending my CV and enquiring about work experience, and got either a belated response or none at all.

I would then follow up with a call to the account handlers in charge of work experience and/or to staff in human resources. I learned volumes about how to make your application stand out and tried different methods, from selling myself in the style of a play to wrapping my application artfully.

I did a lot of research at my university careers department and on the IPA website, went to careers and assessment days, attended an interview training course at Nabs, talked to every contact I could find, read Campaign every week, joined three recruitment agencies and spoke to those in the same boat as me to see if they had any bright ideas I could pillage. I refuse to give up. Who knows, maybe someone here will be awed by their receptionist's photocopying and invite me to join their team."

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