How to get ahead as a young ad creative

Mark Duffy has written the Copyranter blog for 10 years and is a freelancing copywriter with 20-plus years of experience. His hockey wrist shot is better than yours. Follow him on Twitter.

You graduated — or are about to — from a fancy (and completely pointless, but more on that later) Miami Ad School or Portfolio Center, and you’re told you have a kickass portfolio. Now what the hell do you do?

Are your parents rich? Then go back to school and get a tech degree, dummy. No? Well, at least you don’t have a journalism degree.

Here’s your problem, if you care at all about doing good work: American ad agencies, across the board, are all markedly crappier, creatively, from what they were just 15 years ago. I know this because I have viewed/sat through more ads in the last decade than any other person in the world.

One of the reasons for this drop in quality is that the good creatives continue to bolt the bloated mega-merged agencies like they smelled gas. But these agencies revel in their mediocrity, supported by the traffic-desperate trade publications, which praise their mediocrity as excellence, Monday through Friday.

But that could be good news for you, millennial! If you’ve got a decent portfolio, their executive creative directors will have a hard time hiding their hard-ons for you. You’ll get hired, and then watch in real-world horror as all your decent ideas are not applauded by your instructor but stolen, killed or Frankenstein’d to blandness by committee. Then, you’ll maybe leave too.

Now what? Here are five other job options:

1) Internal client “creative” departments; 2) media website “creative” studios; 3) digital ad agencies; 4) at one of the few good independent ad agencies out there, like Droga5 and Barton F. Graf 9000; 5) move to London.

If you, too, are mediocre, not to worry! The first two options are good bets, because their creative output is 99 percent absolute crap. Just be a crack interviewee, get a Peaky Blinders haircut (men and women), and mention the word “content” a lot then, you’ll probably be in like Flynn, the new cool kid with his/her finger on the pulse of your flitty generation.

If you think you’re good, you can try No. 4. But be ready to fail. Everybody is applying to those few agencies, including a ton of creatives with more experience and way better portfolios than you — the aforementioned ADs and CWs from the big agency exodus.

Digital agencies are, of course, “hot” right now. They’re making big traditional agencies squirm, or acquire them, or try to mega-mega-merge into an indestructible $20 billion ad Kraken.

Digital shops talk about “tech” a lot, something I can’t really weigh in on with any authority. But an idea is an idea. Always will be. All the data and programmatic BS they can muster don’t mean anything if the idea isn’t good. And that’s why they need you: you’re an Idea Man/Woman!

But while digital agencies are improving, they’re still generally awful, creatively, so do your homework.

Lastly, why London? Brit advertising, just like Yank work, has dropped in quality this century. But it has dropped from a point far higher than that of American agencies. The best non-scam ad work (I’m looking at you, South America, Thailand and India) in the world is still being produced in the U.K.

But again: the talent pool there is swimming with more experienced, better creatives than you, so you might have to find an office drone job at first or maybe deal meth (it’s still big in the town, I’m told).

Addendum: Here’s the secret success formula that every ad school uses: Every week, you get a fake assignment (medium varies) for a real product. “Real-world” instructors then tell you whether your ideas are good or bad. If you’re lucky, they’ll lucidly tell you why. This “expert” criticism is what you’re paying way too much money for. (The only exception I know of is if you can get Luke Sullivan as your instructor at the Savannah College of Art and Design.)

But here’s the thing: These teachers are paid to pump out “happy” students with “good” portfolios. But “grading” advertising is completely subjective. (A lot of people hated this McDonald’s ad. I love it.) If the instructors don’t put out enough “happy” students, they don’t stay instructors. You want to spend all that money on this specious dynamic?

Instead, create your own fake ads for real products (no condom, WonderBra, or erectile dysfunction concepts). If you’re a copywriter with no layout skills, find a good freelance art director to pretty up your ideas. If you’re an AD who needs word help, find a good freelance copywriter to help you smarten up your writing.

Then, send your portfolio to me — a “real-world” CW with 25 years experience, including guest-teaching ad classes at FIT here in NYC — and I will give you an honest assessment of your work, for free. But be forewarned: It won’t be ad school sugar-coated.

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