THE GRADUATES - CONFESSIONS OF A JOB SEEKER: In our on-going look at graduates in the advertising industry, a student discusses his experiences

In our on-going look at graduates in the advertising industry, a student discusses his experiences of the application and interview process used by ad agencies.

To begin at the end, after three months embroiled in the graduate recruitment process, I have not been offered a job in advertising. I am disappointed, certainly, but by no means disenchanted. These are not the indignant, poisoned words of a bitter reject. This is an honest appraisal of my experience as an undergraduate seeking employment in advertising.

Considerable time and effort has been invested by myself (and a dad keen to get me off his payroll) in applications, interviews and final rounds that, ultimately, ended in rejection. But frustrating though this failure may be, the events of the past three months have strengthened my resolve for the 2003/2004 process and made me realise that I really do want to work in advertising. If I immodestly cast myself in the role of Odysseus, then I am not yet in Ithaca.

Quite why I want to find my way into the world of advertising is a question that I addressed on numerous application forms. The pat response would be that I am attracted by the allure of working with people in a creative environment where lateral thinking is encouraged, and where each day presents new and fresh challenges. This is undeniably true and some very enjoyable summer schools and work experience positions have cemented my ambition.

Other internships outside of advertising, for example in asset management (where I felt like a battery hen churning out numbers in my cubicle), have also shown me that the alternatives pale in comparison. However, just as much of the magnetic appeal of adland, if I am truthful, is the exhilarating buzz that it gives off, with its glamorous shoots and beautiful people. To a wide-eyed student, a career in advertising appears funky, youthful and thrilling. In short, I want in on the general "flashness".

The HR gurus from the various advertising agencies obviously recognise the innate lure of advertising. The graduate recruitment sections of each website align themselves with this and evidently attract us like bees to honey. They all state they are seeking "young", "talented", "creative" and "dynamic" individuals and, indeed, hundreds of us believed that we fit the bill; J. Walter Thompson's scheme was apparently inundated by 1,200 applicants. I actually enjoyed answering some of these forms and felt confident about them, eventually sending off five. Ogilvy & Mather replied about three weeks after its deadline and, in fact, replied so late that I was able to deduce that I had been turned down after I met a grad at another interview who had just attended the O&M first rounds.

Probably not the best way to learn that you've been knocked back. The other four applications were, thankfully, successful and I received positive e-mails and letters from JWT, BMP DDB, Grey Worldwide and TBWA/London.

TBWA was my first interview and it was a shock. With so many of us trying to squeeze our way through a tight bottleneck to so few jobs, these agencies can ask us to jump through hoops. At TBWA, we practically did. Eighty of us were invited from all corners of the country (with no expenses paid), to give a three-minute presentation on something we are passionate about. Once we had done this, we were each given an envelope, the contents of which told us whether we were through to the interview stage later that day.

The parallels with a reality TV show were not lost on any of the applicants there and, if I'm truthful, it did not paint a very good picture of TBWA.

It reeked of smeary-eyed, sneery-mouthed executives tightrope-walking the current televisual zeitgeist in an attempt to concoct an original and entertaining (for them) recruitment scheme. We are not talentless wannabes and it smacked of a patent disrespect for us. Those who had to fork out for a long journey back home (I met one returning to Edinburgh) after only a three-minute shot at impressing the panel would have had a right to feel disillusioned.

I made it through to the interview, which was a much more amiable and personal affair. However, an embarrassing lack of research about the agency - company research is probably rule one of preparing for an interview - meant that I slipped up when they asked me which was my favourite TBWA ad. I had no idea and my vain attempts to glean some clues from the posters on the surrounding walls were not impressive. I did not deserve to get through after that fiasco and the next day I was informed over the phone that I had not.

On this same day, I had my first and soon to be final round with BMP.

After my last encounter, I had fully swotted up on this agency. BMP took the form of two interviews with two members of the agency and was quite a formal affair. An interesting aspect of BMP was that it was interviewing for planners as well as account executives.

I started with Richard Butterworth, the head of account planning, and this was an unsettling experience. Just as Bernie Ecclestone is not the face you expect to be behind Formula One, nor does Butterworth look like the man you'd expect to head the university of account planning. Despite this, he seemed scarily intelligent and my answers felt awkward and transparent.

I did not gel with him at all. My second interview here went better, but I was not confident about a positive reply. The e-mail came through a few days later with the rejection and the consoling words that I am "suited to advertising, but not right for this agency at this time".

I was fully warmed up by the time Grey and JWT came around and these interviews went really well, mainly because I got on well with the agency people I met. I really enjoyed these interviews and left the respective offices with a big grin on my face, which must have looked very odd to any nervous applicants going in. The letters came through asking me back for the final rounds and I have to admit that I was very chuffed.


Day One - Morning

I arrived in a confident mood after what I thought had been a quality application form and a very good interview. Fifteen other hopefuls were waiting in reception and each of us seemed to be working the floor, meeting and greeting our fellow competitors. Whatever the collective term for smiling assassins is, it would have been appropriate here.

We were shuttled to a meeting room and given an uninspiring speech by Russell Hopson, who runs Grey's graduate recruitment programme and works closely with Garry Lace, the chief executive, about how we were all winners to have got so far. A rumour that Lace wanted to provide alcohol for us over the two days to see how we would react sounded like the whole event had been mooted in the Grey office as some sort of social experiment - "like flies to wanton boys are we to Garry Lace".

Day One - Afternoon

This was when the wheels started to come off. We were put in groups of five or six and given a pitch for a family product.

Assessors came to observe proceedings throughout the next few hours. These assessors had a very sinister presence and greatly influenced team dynamics.

I noticed that if you raised a good point when they weren't in the room, someone else would pinch it on their return. I really couldn't settle in this environment and became fairly introspective and quiet. I was committing recruitment suicide.

Day One - Evening

We were given an enjoyable meal at a local Italian with members of the agency. Everyone seemed to be talking shop. We stayed at a Holiday Inn and my team had its most honest and effective discussion so far in the bar. There were, noticeably, no assessors watching over us.

Day Two - Morning

Our pitch was coming to fruition but I really was against a key idea, which was to shave the brand's initial into a woman's muff, Gucci-style, and spread it via viral e-mails. I argued that this was against the family essence of the brand but could not sway the rest of my group. I could feel the "ability to influence teammates" box being filled in by the assessor with a dark, thick cross.

Day Two - Afternoon

At noon, each team stopped working and the pitches began. The quality of the ideas in such a short space of time was very impressive and it struck me most of us in the room would be more than capable of account management. Our presentation was good, although the muff idea went down like a lead balloon. Gary Holloway, a senior account executive, and Hopson both congratulated us all afterwards and seemed really genuine. We were each given an exit interview, which was really appreciated. I knew by this stage that I had been conspicuously unimpressive, although I felt that many of my ideas were good and effective but I just hadn't been comfortable in that environment. I laid all this bare.

All the applicants went for a drink afterwards and the atmosphere in the pub was great; there was none of the pervasive falseness I had loathed about the two days. The mood change when Lace joined us later was palpable. We were being watched again.


Day One - Morning

The experience at Grey gave me an insight into what to expect at JWT and gave me new-found confidence really to give JWT a go and, right from the start, I had a good feeling about this final round.

Twenty-five others had also got through, but the dark undercurrents of cut-throat competition behind the forced smiles at Grey were thankfully absent. This may seem naive, but there was a sincerity, an enthusiasm and a desire to do our best.

They split us into groups very early on, in a break-the-ice session.

Teams had to come up with a creative brief for the banana, the most memorable proposition being the dubious "the fruit that fills a hole". While I felt confident within my team, it was strikingly clear that it was a very vocal group simply because everyone was so irrepressibly keen.

Day One - Afternoon

Lunch was interesting, because we were introduced to the successful graduates from last year's scheme and showed around the impressive offices. After this, we were given our pretend brief from a client (Kit Kat) and we set about coming up with our pitch in the afternoon.

It was at this stage at Grey that I felt my chances slipping and at first at JWT I found my ideas drowned out by a barrage of noise from my teammates. Gradually, however, I honestly felt that I began to lead the group, not with the volume of my voice but with the quality of my ideas. I was actually enjoying myself.

Day One - Evening

The evening programme kicked off with drinks in the agency bar, where some of the big wigs had come to meet us. The chief executive, Simon Bolton, gave us a really warm welcome and toasted us for getting so far - a really nice touch. Dinner followed and the conversation was much broader and the event was more relaxed than at Grey. A really charming aspect of the dinner was that the assessors who'd been watching us all day made an effort to get to know us. The Millennium Hotel was a very welcome place to lay our heads.

Day Two - Morning

The morning was spent tightening our pitch. The team was still quite loud but I saw myself as a calming influence, quietly and purposefully driving the team in the right direction. By the time the presentations arrived, our team pitch had my ideas stamped all over it. I was assured, confident and quite pleased with the way things were going. The presentation went really well.

Day Two - Afternoon

In the debrief, the consensus was that the standard had been excellent. Our team did not win, although we were commended for many elements of our pitch that had been my idea. I was in an excellent mood. A couple of my teammates told me I had been impressive and I felt I had a fighting chance of making it.

A phone call two days later ended all of these hopes. I was told by HR at JWT that I had been on the borderline but that "they would not be taking my application any further". I was well and truly gutted. Apparently, although they had liked me, valued my ideas and rated my presentation skills, I ultimately slipped up on the fact that I was too quiet in my group. This was most vexing, as although I had not been the most vocal member of my group, I thought that the quality of what I said far outweighed the quantity of what I said. The efficacy and originality of my ideas, my focused direction and my understated assurance had won me the respect of my teammates. Was this not more important than the volume at which I spoke? Is the ability to listen patiently not valued in account management? I still am a bit confused.

I really wanted to join JWT but the toil and sweat of three months of effort had ultimately been for nothing.

On reflection, this is not true. Far from being disillusioned, my experiences have shown me that I do have the ability to be successful in advertising.

I met some great people along the way and I enjoyed many aspects of the process, from answering the imaginative questions on the forms and interviews to the intellectual and creative application required in the final rounds.

Yes, advertising is something I want, and I know that come next time, I will complete my odyssey.