Chicago Advertising Federation Career Day: Learning from Chi-Town’s Best

Chicago Advertising Day
On Friday I had the opportunity to travel to Chicago to attend the Chicago Advertising Federation Career Day to participate in panel discussions with advertising professionals, meet with other college students trying to break into the industry, and network with some of the biggest names in advertising (just a sample of some of the attending sponsors: Leo Burnett, Ogilvy, Microsoft, Digitas, OMD, The Onion, and many more). Despite being a long and tiring day (my introverted self is still trying to recover from all the human interaction), I learned firsthand so much about the advertising industry, and it cemented my desire to work in this field after I graduate.

The first event of the day was listening to keynote speaker Sherman Wright from CommonGround, who gave us several tips and pieces of advice for developing the right mindset to work in this industry. To sum up his speech in a few words: roll with the changes. With advancing technology and changing consumer attitudes towards advertising, it’s more important than ever for us to learn how to advance with society, not behind it, and that sometimes even the biggest brands fail because they choose not to embrace change.

After Mr. Wright’s speech, we were split into groups to attend two panel discussions of our choosing. I went to the client services/brand management and art direction/copywriting sessions. The panels featured employees from major agencies (Microsoft, Leo Burnett, and OMD in the first panel, Havas, Digitas, and DDB in the second), and they were structured as Q&A sessions rather than lectures.

Some of the takeaways from the brand management panel: keep up with the news, expect constant change (bordering on chaos) each and every day, and consider whether you’re more interested in working on the client side or agency side of advertising. The client vs. agency discussion was one that I had never really considered, and was definitely some food for thought. The panelists mentioned that it basically comes down to your individual personality and what you’re most comfortable with when deciding where you want to be. If you crave a little more stability and really really really love a particular company and would be thrilled to create advertising for just that brand, maybe client side is best for you. And if you prefer change and like to rotate companies to have a wider breadth of work in your portfolio, perhaps you should work with an agency.

What I learned from the art direction/copywriting discussion: have a variety of ads in your portfolio, choose interesting and unique products to advertise, and show your passion. Despite the cliched “always follow your passion” speeches we’ve heard since forever ago, these guys emphasized that it can make or break someone in the creative industry. Graphic designers and writers can be a dime a dozen, but finding that person who will nail down every detail and wrack their brains for ages just trying to find that one perfect word is a rarity. And showing a creative director that you will do whatever it takes for the job because you genuinely adore doing it (and even if it wasn’t your real job you would still be doing it) may be the difference between making your passion a career or a hobby. Obviously you’ll need some skill somewhere in there too, but they emphasized that ability isn’t always everything.

Of everything I learned between the two panels, what stuck with me the most was the differences in personalities of the panelists. The brand management panel was comprised mostly of account managers, whereas the copywriting panel was mostly creative directors and copywriters. I noticed that the account managers were all very proper, with Times New Roman-typed name tags and formal suits, and they very politely answered questions and apologized when they accidentally talked over each other. The creatives, however, were a rowdier bunch, with uniquely-typed name tags, more casual clothes, and lots of f-bombs. They told jokes, teased each other, and were overall a laid-back group.

Being able to really see the personalities was, I think, the best learning experience I could have received. Seeing how real account managers and creatives act gave me some insights into the culture of these different departments, which is something that’s hard to teach and explain. A lot of the satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) from a job comes from the relationships you build with your colleagues, and if you hate the environment in which you work, even if you love what you do, you could find yourself searching for a new career. Granted, I only met a handful of advertising professionals, so obviously not everyone fits into one of these categories, but it was still something to think about. Culture is something that’s not usually taught in school when job hunting, but it’s one of the most important factors.

After the panel discussions we had a three-course lunch, which we had served to us. As a lifelong picky eater, I’ve perfected the art of pushing my food around the plate to make it appear that I’ve eaten it, and then chowing down on snacks later. But I also faced the challenge of choosing the correct utensils for each meal and deciding when to take a bite so I wouldn’t be caught chewing when asked a question, all the while hoping the others wouldn’t think that I was some kind of uncultured swine (bonus points to anyone who can name that movie reference!).

Thankfully each table had one “industry professional” sitting with us, so most of the attention was on her as she spoke about her time in Human Resources at Starcom. I received more great advice about how to stand out and what employers look for in applicants. Memorable tips: many hiring managers don’t even read cover letters, but if they do they want them SHORT (as in just-a-couple-of-sentences short), follow up, follow up, and follow up with everyone you meet during the interview process, because very few people actually do this and anyone who does automatically stands out, and use the S.T.A.R. method when answering interview questions.

Lunch opened up into a networking session with employers, which was very similar to a standard school career fair. This part has always been the most difficult for me, because networking is one of those things that I’m struggling to perfect. One of the highlights, though, was meeting a senior copywriter from Digitas. He seemed genuinely willing to help me start my copywriting career, giving me advice to find freelance work and connect with advertising professionals, and he even volunteered to review my portfolio (which is PRICELESS!).

Overall I thought Career Day was a wonderful experience and opened my eyes to some of the finer details of the advertising industry that I haven’t yet noticed. It was also my first time actually hearing and meeting advertising professionals, because up until now everything I’ve learned about this industry has been from my own internet research (and Mad Men). To be able to supplement all that knowledge with real advice and tips is golden. And with any luck, all of this research and learning and networking will somehow lead me towards a career come graduation day.

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