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How to Nail a Creative Agency Job Interview


Whenever we start looking to hire, I inevitably end up reflecting on my own interview experiences -- from both the interviewer and interviewee sides of the table. I've run the interview gamut, from extremely structured, multi-phase roundtables to loosey-goosey lunch chats. I've sweated (literally) and rambled and Miss America-ed and stumbled and, in retrospect, sent out my fair share of really awful cover letters. Despite all of this, I've managed to land some pretty amazing gigs over the years, and these days I find myself in the interviewer chair rather than the interviewee hot seat. I'm lucky.

With an unemployment rate of nearly 6 percent, millions of Americans are searching for jobs on any given day. A college degree is no longer a guarantee that you'll walk the stage, grab your diploma and transition seamlessly into the job of your dreams. Lately, it seems I've been seeing a lot of articles about the struggles millennials face when applying and interviewing for jobs. From CNBC:

Some of the biggest mistakes recent college graduates make involve interview preparation or lack thereof.

In an Adecco survey of hiring managers, 75 percent said millennials' biggest interview mistake was dressing inappropriately, and almost as many said they tended to mess up by posting inappropriate material on social media. Almost two-thirds of respondents said millennials tend to demonstrate a lack of research preparation for interviews. These hiring managers also said they were three times as likely to hire a worker over age 50 as a millennial.

One of the things I am frequently asked is how to land a job in the creative industry. For me it was a combination of personal connections, passion and serendipity. I was almost 28 years old by the time everything came together. In the event you'd like to seize the reins instead of waiting for fate and opportunity to show up at your door, here are some of my best bits of advice for those looking to land a job in the magic and mayhem that is the creative industry...

PHASE I: Scoring an Interview Prep work. Grunt work. Leg work. Whatever you call it, do it. Good things come to those who hustle, and in no place does that adage ring truer than in the creative industry. Competition is fierce and talent is rampant, but with a little (lottle) effort, you can make yourself stand out from the crowd. I'm not talking about the kind of hustle you ramp up  a week before you submit a resume. Think of this as a long-term personal branding strategy -- and you're your most important client. This is your chance to polish yourself up and shine. 

FOLLOW + ENGAGE Fun fact: You'd be amazed how many people proclaim their love and admiration for your agency -- then it turns out they aren't even following you on social media. Before you lay the flattery on thick, take the time to connect with the company and people you're hoping to interview with. Many of the positions that open up within the industry are filled with candidates pulled from our personal networks and connections (or referred from the networks of people we know and trust). It really is about who you know, so start connecting today. Comment on their posts. Retweet their content. Reach out and have a conversation. Trust me. We notice that kind of genuine and sustained engagement, and it makes you top-of-mind when a job opens up. 

REVAMP UP YOUR RESUME Here's a little tip: if you are applying for a job in a creative industry, invest in creating a beautiful resume. Not only does that help you stand out in a pile of Microsoft Word templates, it shows that you have an eye for detail. (Which is always a good thing -- even if you're a copywriter!) For well under $50, you can tap into the collective talent of the interwebs and hook yourself up with a gorgeous template. (A few places to start: esty, Behance + Loft Resumes.)

CUSTOMIZE YOUR COVER LETTER Remember that old trick where you write a generic cover letter and just change up the name of the recipient and the job title using find-and-replace? Yeah. Don't do that. We notice. And it sucks. Cover letters are a necessary evil, but they're also a golden ticket. We get a lot of resumes -- a lot -- and a cover letter is an opportunity to stand out and let your personality shine through. Take the opportunity. Put the effort in. Look up the proper spelling of the person you're addressing. Forget you ever heard the phrase "Dear Sir or Madam." If you can't put in the effort to craft a compelling, custom cover letter, that sends the message that you're not going to put effort into anything else. And that's about the fastest way I know to find yourself in the thanks-but-no-thanks pile.

CLEAN UP YOUR SOCIAL PROFILE One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was passed down from my mother. Don't put anything in writing you wouldn't want your grandmother to read. (Lucky for me, my grandmother had an awesomely quick-witted sense of humor and a penchant for using the phrase "Oh, piffle!" when she really wanted to say, "Oh, sh...omething else!")

I grew up in the pre-social media era; a time when the worst thing young people had to worry about was having a teacher intercept the note you were passing during class. Shenanigans were documented on real film, and, for the most part, all evidence of our dumb, young lives was kept safe in the vaults of our memories and 20-pound photo albums. Social media has changed all of that. Everything you do, say and share is public these days, and each post you make represents your personal brand and who you are.

We were all young and wild at one time. We've all done silly things. (Some of us still do.) But the reality is that the things you do, say and share influence how other people perceive you. I implore you to consider this deeply when you share publicly. Before you apply for a job, run your social streams through the proverbial WWGS (What Would Grandma Say) filter. At the very least, know when to flip the privacy switch.

DON'T CONFUSE MISTAKE CRAZY FOR CREATIVE There is a fine line between making yourself stand out and coming off as a creeper. Creativity is always noted (think sending individual hand-designed thank you cards -- rather than a group email -- as an interview follow-up), but don't go overboard. You don't need to ship yourself to us in a wooden crate or pop out of a giant cake to impress us. Just bring your talent and truth to the table. Be yourself rather than trying to be the person you think we wish you were. There's a 99.99% chance we're gonna love the most authentic version of you.

INTERN One of my few regrets in life is not interning like crazy before I hit the point of no return (i.e. adult life + bills, bills bills...). Had I interned, it's possible I would have found my calling a lot sooner. So my advice to you is simple: if you're in a position where you can afford to work for minimal pay (or even no pay), do it. Seize every opportunity you can. If no opportunity exists, call people up and make one for yourself. Help them see how you can help them. Learn how to make a mean cup of coffee, then go in and work your knuckles off. Because every once in awhile (more often than you might think) that summer internship turns into the season of "our newest employee."

VOLUNTEER We often meet super eager candidates who lack the practical experience to land the job they're applying for. (A common struggle and catch-22 for recent grads trying to break into the creative world.) Newsflash: there are tons of organizations and nonprofits that need help with everything from event planning to social media management, but don't have a budget to pay professionals for it. Go volunteer your time and talent. When we see that kind of thing on your resume, not only does it add cred to your work experience, it demonstrates that you care about something bigger than yourself. Bonus: you get to help make a positive change in the world. Go you.

FIND A MENTOR Job openings come and go, but the relationships you build in between are lasting. So you found the agency of your dreams? Do some digging (and Twitter stalking). Figure out who holds the position you want, then launch a carrier pigeon, shoot them an email or give them a ring. Introduce yourself. Ask if you can take them to coffee or lunch (we love coffee and lunch!) -- then do it. Show up with a list of questions. Learn all you can. Then rinse and repeat. Start building your own mentor. You never know when a job will come up and that relationship will come in handy.

Phase II: Acing the Interview So the unthinkable has finally happened. Your resume fought its way to the top of the stack. You've stood out as a stellar candidate. You've just received the call. We'd like you to come in for an interview. What should you expect? What should you wear? What should you do? (I'm so glad you asked.)

DO YOUR HOMEWORK My biggest piece of advice when it comes to creative agency interviews is a huge cliche: DO YOUR DANG HOMEWORK. And I'm not talking about a quick scroll through the website. If the agency has published books, find them and read them. Dig through their client roster and case studies so you're prepare to cite specifics. Explore their culture, manifesto, philosophy and beliefs, then think about how those align with your own. Research competitors in order to get a feel for how they differentiate themselves within the industry. It may seem overwhelming, but so few people take the time to do really thoughtful, thorough background research, and this is exactly the kind of thing that will set you apart and above.

DRESS THE PART There's an old tidbit of wisdom that advises "dress for the job you want, not the job you have." It's so old I'm not even sure it's still going around. That advice gets a little tricky in an industry where jeans are a wardrobe staple and going barefoot is often the norm. (Creativity can't happen when your feet are stuck in a restrictive vortex!!) My advice is err on the side of fancier, rather than more casual. Dress like us, but nicer. (You can stop wearing shoes once you have the job.) Also, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but leggings do not qualify as real pants.

KNOW WHO YOU'RE TALKING TO One of the most impressive things I have experienced was an applicant who called our Office Manager to get the names and titles of each person she would be meeting with prior to her interview. When she arrived, she was able to reference my "adorable dog" by name (instant way to win my heart) and shared an anecdote about a city we had both recently traveled to. You can learn a lot about a person by taking a quick scroll through their social channels. We humans all like to feel important and special. I can't recall one other person we interviewed that day, but years later I still remember that applicant because she took five minutes to get to know me before she met me.

Smart answers = a good interview. Speaking to the shared interests between yourself and the company/employees = great interview.

COME PREPARED TO ANSWER QUESTIONS Confession: I find it more painful to be on the interviewer side of the table than the interviewee side. Something about the sympathetic pain of knowing what the interviewee is going through makes me feel clammy.

Agency interviews can be really strange. Much of the time it's like the Wild West, but instead of shooting bullets, everyone is shooting questions. I've heard everything from "What's the last book you read?" to "How many tennis balls do you estimate can fit in a standard school bus?" Weirdos aside, here's a short list I would be prepared to answer in some form or another when you take the hot seat:

  1. Why do you want to work here?
  2. What do you think you can bring to our team?
  3. What do you want to be doing 5 years from now? 10 years? 25 years?
  4. Tell us how your past work experience makes you uniquely qualified for this position?
  5. What is your philosophy about design/marketing/advertising/programming?
  6. What are your three best qualities?
  7. What are you worst three qualities?
  8. Why should we hire you?
  9. What work are you most proud of?
  10. What do you do for fun?

COME PREPARED WITH QUESTIONS If the last section didn't fill you with panic and dread, hooray. The good news is that you can (and should) keep tossing the hot potato back to your interviewers. Answer questions, then follow with a question of your own. Come prepared to assault us with an exhaustive list of questions, keeping in mind that you're not just trying to convince us to hire you. An interview is an opportunity for both sides to feel each other out and try each other on for size. When you ask really thoughtful questions, that tells us you’re not just trying to sell yourself -- you're trying to determine if we're something you really want to buy into. Here are a handful of questions I've asked and answered over the years: 

  1. Who is/has been your favorite client and why?
  2. Who is your dream client?
  3. What kind of person thrives here? What type struggles?
  4. What made you decide to come work for X agency over all the others?
  5. If you had to boil the agency's core belief/mission down to a single statement, what would it be?
  6. What do you wish you had known about the agency/industry when you first started out?
  7. If your agency had three best friends, which brands would it hang out with?
  8. What has been the most meaningful day of your career at X?
  9. What has been the most challenging day of your career at X?
  10. How would you describe the X culture?
  11. Who are other brands and thought leaders that inspire X?
  12. Tell me about your favorite parts of living in CITY (if relocating)?
  13. How can I, in this role, most help you? (This is always a really interesting one as you'll likely get very different answers from an AE, Community Manager, Designer, Copywriter, Strategist and Admin.)

Phase III: Sealing the Deal Boom! You nailed it! Or at least you think you nailed it. Ohmygosh you really hope you nailed it. As the torturous decision-making wait begins, here are a few seal-the-deal moves you can sprinkle on the "PLEASE HIRE ME" cake... 

FOLLOW UP RIGHT AWAY Assuming things have gone well in your interview, follow up within 48 hours to express your continued interest in the position. The best follow-up contact is personal. That means no generic, cc-all thank you. Take the time to send an email (or -- SUPER IMPRESSIVE -- a handwritten note) to each person you interviewed with. Bonus points for calling out something specific you learned from them during the interview. Follow ups needn't be long or gushy, just enough to let everyone know you're in if they'll have you.

KEEP IT QUIET Please refrain from posting about job interviews on social media before or after. It makes us feel weird and you come off as an oversharer. (And yes, we totally look to see what, if anything, you have posted.)

NEVER SAY GOODBYE In the wise words of Kenny Rogers, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." With all due respect to Kenny, don't fold 'em. In the event you don't land the job, resist the urge to fold. There have been many instances when an applicant we loved was beat out by another candidate by just a hair. Don't fall off the map. Don't slink off with your tail between your legs. Keep a conversation going with us. Stay on our radar. When you stay top-of-mind, you stay top-of-list.

Have questions about creative interviewing that I didn't answer in the post? Reach out using my contact form.

Meet a Community Manager Monday: Betsy Decillis

betsy decillis Welcome back to Meet a Community Manager Monday! A few weeks ago we kicked off what a recurring series of interviews with community, social and interactive marketing managers from various fields. 

Today I have the pleasure of introducing Betsy Decillis, a fellow Columbus gal. I can't quite recall when or where Betsy and I met, but over the past several years our careers have taken unexpected and wonderful turns, and a friendhip has blossomed along the way. These days she's heading up her company, BAD Consulting, taking the occasional break to Facebook pictures of her beloved cat Cesare. 

Enjoy the read! 

Who are you? I'm a cat-obsessed, Yankees-loving dork. I'd say geek, but my inability to make at least one of my tech devices work on a daily basis speaks to me being more dork than geek.

What do you do? I own my own business (Betsy A. Decillis Consulting, aka BAD Consulting). I was told to come up with a title, so I started calling myself the Chief Content Officer.

Where do you do it? My couch, Panera, Starbucks, random offices, etc. The world is my office. My favorite is Panera, because I become totally focused on writing. Plus, there is always someone sitting near my "desk" that is unintentionally feeding me material. Being anti-social as a rule, it's necessary that I get out to listen to how other people talk.

What has been your most memorable moment as a community manager? I was about to fly out to Austin for the weekend. I'd only been working with my business's first client for about a month, and we were seeing some great results but nothing spectacular. The client took this photo of a "Last Call", which happens at a firefighter's funeral. It was two firetrucks with ladders up, each holding the end of a flag. The sky was the perfect shade of blue and the flag was flapping in the wind. I posted it with a quickie caption thought of on the spot and got on the plane. It was risky and not something I normally would do, but I knew the client was watching. I touched down in Dallas to her text messages freaking out about how the picture blew up. I can't really describe it, but it was part validation of my skills and part of reminding me of how much I love social and working with clients. I have amazing clients that know how to collaborate to make this stuff fun.

What was the hardest thing you have had to handle as a community manager? I was personally attacked on a client's Facebook page. Someone found out who I was and went to town on me and my client for using my services. My boyfriend calls me naive, and there's a bit of truth to that. I never see attacks coming, and to have it happen so openly made me crumple a bit. I want to believe everyone is deep down a nice person, and I hate to be proven wrong on that fact. It took awhile before I could open that client's pages without trepidation.

In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about community management? That you actually manage anything. It's best to take your cues from the audience. Get down and play with them. That's when the magic happens.

What are the top 3 personality traits a good community manager needs to have? Good listener, storyteller and fun. Nobody wants to follow a boring person.

What are the top 3 skills a good community manager brings to the table? Being able to hold a lot of information in their heads, love of learning new things and being able to teach.

What has community management taught you about people in general? That most people are good. It's hard, because we do have to put way too much energy into trolls. I always focus on the why of a troll, when there is usually no why. Putting more of my energy into the good always results in people being nice and supportive. Funny enough, that helps when those trolls pop up.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first got into community management? That it's okay to relinquish control. I want to take care of my audience at all times. But sometimes they need to take care of me and lead me to where we need to go. Whenever I need to be inspired, I simply ask why they love my client. I learn a lot from that. If I had known that at first, it would have helped a lot in the content creation.

Community Management is …the most all-encompassing job there is. You never know what you'll have to do or who you will have to talk to, and it requires that you have as broad a knowledge as possible.

Community Management is not …managing a community. If you try to do what the name implies, they are going to bite you. Let them lead.

In your opinion, what brands (besides your own, of course) are doing social really well? I love Visit Savannah and Travel Oregon. Both organizations are filled with nice, fun people, and their social reflects that. And with all the awesome pictures they post, I'm dying to get to both locations. Mission accomplished.

What are three tools that make your job easier? (Yes. I want you to share your secret weapons.) Buffer, Instagram and Facebook Groups. The last two aren't technically tools, but they are so useful. I use a hashtag to source content via Instagram that can be used on multiple networks. Facebook Groups are great for when you need a mental health break or advice. And Buffer helps me effectively feed the beast that is Twitter.

What one thing would you like to tell the world about community management? I don't just play on the Twitters all day, like my boyfriend likes to tell people. And it's actually the most demanding job I've ever had. That says a lot, since I used to work on political campaigns.

What is the biggest change you have seen in community management over the course of your career? People are getting smarter. That's both the companies dipping their toes in and the audience. Overall, companies are getting better, which makes everyone have to up their game. And audiences are getting better at seeing through crap, which, once again, makes everyone have to up their game. There is a much larger learning curve than when I started playing in this world.

Current clients aside, what is one community you would love to work with and why? I can't pick between these two, so feel free to get mad at me for putting two: the Pope and the Yankees. I think a lot of people think I'm kidding when I say that I want to tweet for the Pope, but I badly do. I think there is so much the Church can do to become relevant in the world of social and reach out to the younger parishioners. And there are a lot of misconceptions about being Catholic that can easily be cleared up by being active and engaging. With Pope Francis, I foresee that we will see a huge change in their use of social. The tweets from the @pontifex account show a lot of promise. It still needs to talk with the people, and I'd love to see what would happen if it went there. Also, Pope Francis told young people to dream big, so I'm totally following his advice here.

The Yankees have been a long time love of mine. I have two nephews that grew up as ballplayers (one is about to coach the other this summer!). I would have this job exactly one day, because I would totally only talk about one part of the game: How hot these guys look in pinstripes. I feel like that would get a ton of engagement and make a lot more people interested in what the Yankee accounts have to say.

If you could only have one social network, which one would it be? Facebook. Say what you will, it's still very useful. Facebook fans are more likely to tell me stories and Facebook Groups have saved me on more than one occasion.

What is your favorite part about your job? I love teaching. Watching the light go on in someone's eyes as they get something is just amazing. This is why when I write blog posts, it will tend to be towards the 101-200 audience. They need us the most, and they are the most grateful.

As a CM/SM, there is an expectation that you be constantly plugged in. How do you find work/life balance? For me as a solo business owner, yes. That is also a personality defect though. I've balanced it out with date nights with friends and the boyfriend where I'm not allowed to check client stuff. I just recently took a vacation that was made possible by my iPad. I could spend time with my family, but I could regularly post and/or check on posts. I literally watched my nephew make a key play in a ballgame while keeping watch on a post. I also try to make work as fun as possible. Working from home, I have a cat that requires play and attention. Best office environment for me, since he pulls me out of working 24/7. When on the road for a client, it's always a blast. Since I have a focus on tourism, my job is literally to have fun and then write about it. So the industry I have chosen is probably the biggest factor in maintaining that balance.

What one piece of advice would you give a young person who aspires to work in SM? Be helpful to the people and brands that interest you. Find the small to mid-level brands you want to work for and engage on their social (within reason). For every account I work on, I can easily list the top 5 engagers and/or content producers. I count on this core group of people for a variety of reasons. Should I ever decide to hire and one of their names happened to be in there, I would take notice. Don't expect it to happen overnight. It takes a long time to become a part of this core group on these accounts. So start the process long before you are even thinking of needing a job or an internship.

How do you spark conversations with your community? What kinds of things work? What have you found not to work? FOOD! People are hungry at certain times of the day. It's amazing what happens when you post a nice glossy picture of something yummy at those times. Also, historical photos. People love to tell their stories about these pictures.

If you had to distil all your CM/SM wisdom down into one guiding principle, what would it be? I used to work at Target, and they have a guiding principle for their employees that speaks true for social: Be fast, fun and friendly.

3 industry blogs you read regularly? Spin Sucks and anywhere that Lisa Barone or Amber Naslund write.


3 must-follow Tweeters

@KatieCook (If you make friends with her, I'm pretty sure she'd help you bury a dead body. She's that nice.) @prTini (The most supportive person I know.) @Shonali (HOLY SMART! She always replies back, and she obviously loves to teach. I've learned way too much from her. I could never repay her for all of the help she's given me. Same goes for @prTini.)

What do you do for fun? I run, dance like a fool in my kitchen, read, play with my cat, giggle with my boyfriend, watch Yankee games and drink wine.

A shout out to your favorite non-profit? Cat Welfare Association (I love how the cats are free to roam around the shelter) and Colony Cats (where I got my cat, Cesare.)

When you were little what did you think you were going to be when you grew up? A ballerina and Governor of New York. I was in love with Mario Cuomo and thought it would be a better job than president. Yes, these really were the thoughts of a 7 year old.

The Importance of Mentors

josh groban raise me up Last week I found myself sitting across the table from my first professional mentor, filling him in on the past few years of life. Though we've kept in touch (and have sent more than a few emails) over the years, it's hard to top a face-to-face conversation with an old friend over a bottle of wine. At the conclusion of our converastion, he looked at me and proudly declared, "You have really grown into yourself. You have really grown up."

In truth, I probably shouldn't have landed my first job. Years after being hired, I learned how my mentor had challenged the other two hiring managers at the conclusion of the interview process. While they pushed for the easy choice, he placed all his chips on Amy. For whatever reason, despite what I imagine were probably fairly standard interview responses, he recognized something (he calls it "something special") in me that afternoon from across the table. It compelled him to fight for me and take a risk. In doing so, he helped unlock a door that inevitably led to the opportunities and experience that have set the course of my career.

From time to time, I have had people ask me what is the best piece of advice I can offer newbies just stretching their wings in the industry. Invariably, my response is find a mentor.

When to find a mentor. Whether you're a college student or a high school student or a junior high student or an elementary school student, the time is now. Go job shadow. Pick up the phone. Send an email. Reach out to someone who works in a field you're even mildly interested in. Ask them if you can come spend an afternoon trying on their world. I'm willing to bet almost everyone will respond with an enthusiastic yes.

What to look for in a mentor. Though it's not necessary your mentor work in your field, it's definitely an added bonus to have access to an industry sensei. A mentor who has been in the trenches and in your shoes tends to come at things from a place of greater perspective. They can help you see (perhaps even appreciate) the forest rather than obsessing on the trees. They understand the quirks and joys, the ups and downs. They can talk you off the ledge when you're being unreasonable, and give you a push when it's time to get the hell out of Dodge.

More important than industry is integrity. A mentor shouldn't be a "yes man" (or a "yes woman"), they should be a guiding voice, a sounding board and a no-bullshitter. Look for a mentor who can and will be brutally honest, but also understands the value of nurturing. More importantly, look for a mentor who knows when the time is right to employ one or both of the two. My mentors have inspired me and encouraged me, but in many ways I think the fact that they have pushed and challenged me has been even more significant to my career development. They've asked me to do things that terrified me. They've insisted I do things again and again and again. They've pissed me off and made me cry. They've frustrated me and inspired me. And as a result, I've come out the other end better for it.

It's easy to be a buddy. It's less easy to strike a balance between love and tough love. When you find someone like that, you've found your mentor. Don't settle for the easy and obvious choice. Find someone who challenges you. Find someone who pushes you to grow.

Where to find a mentor. I have been extremely fortunate to find mentors down the hall (and at times, sitting at the desk beside me), but not everyone is so lucky. Social networking is a great way to establish first connections with prospective mentors. Engage in conversation. Get to know them. Feel them out and decide if this is someone you respect and feel can give you sound guidance. When you find that someone, all you have to do is ask.

I hold the belief that the creative industry is built upon a mentorship (or perhaps it's better said, apprenticeship) model. Generations of creatives have taken mentees under their wings, in order to pass on the tricks of the trade. They've refined, edited, torn up, red-penned and demanded do-overs, grooming the next generation to take the reins. I believe that most of us who have had the good fortune to be raised under a mentorship model cherish the knowledge it has afforded us and hope to pay it forward and pass that on to others when the time is right.

All you have to do is ask.