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Dancing Beyond Your Abilities

Preparing for Agency Recruitment in a Perfectly Imperfect Way

Growing up as a dancer, I was told a story countless times that always stuck with me. It was about a prominent ballet company director who always cast dancers who fell in their auditions. To him, falling didn’t exhibit lack of skill or clumsiness – it showed that those dancers were willing to dance beyond their ability to leave everything on the floor. I kept that story with me during auditions for summer ballet professional workshops and The Nutcracker, but even after I hung up my point shoes (and eventual drill team boots) for the last time, the message still resonated. As I neared graduation from a standard university and prepared for my “audition” into the professional world, the story felt even more poignant.

Despite the advertising industry being a place where virtually every skill set is valued and necessary, it can feel daunting and unnavigable from the outside. Nearing graduation, I felt lost in trying to find a way into the industry. Not coming from an ad school, I wasn’t sure how to prepare, how different departments functioned, or what I was qualified to apply for. My strategy was to apply for everything, talk to everyone, and try to learn anything I could along the way. And in that process, I “fell” a lot. Though casting a wide net got me where I wanted to go, looking back, I can see which steps truly prepared me for the agency recruitment process and my first year in the industry.

Here, I’ve aggregated the words of wisdom, pieces of advice, and actions that I believe prepared me the most.

Full disclosure: I’m a 22-year-old brand manager in her first year at TRG. To anyone more established than me, I encourage you to add your wisdom in the comments section. Let’s do more to make our industry more accessible, less intimidating, and more diverse than ever.

  1. Find a mentor early.

I know everyone says it, but find a mentor. Connecting with someone who’s been where you are and who can understand your frustrations and see a path around them is imperative. I was lucky to meet someone at a college alumni advisory board meeting who worked at TRG in my preferred discipline, had attended my university, and had graduated with the same degree I was working on. Not everyone will find such a perfect fit, but what’s most important is finding someone you trust who can empathize and relate to your current situation and desired future.

How do you find someone like that? Get personally connected to the advisory board, job fair, or career office at your university or in your community. You’ll be shocked at how many people will want to help you find your way.

  1. View advertisements critically when watching TV or engaging with other types of media.

Advertisements are literally all around us. They line the highways we drive, are embedded in the social media feeds we obsess over, and take up a third of our favorite live television shows. Make use of that exposure. As you go about your day, examine the ads you come across, and ask yourself questions about them.

Why is this ad showing up here? Am I the target audience? If so, why? Do I feel how they want me to feel right now? Have I seen the same message from the same brand elsewhere? Will seeing this affect me in any way? How was this idea incepted? How might it have evolved to what I’m seeing now?

Asking these kinds of questions will not only make your life more enjoyable (we can’t avoid ads, so we might as well use them to our advantage) but also train your mind to be in a constantly critical state when consuming media. That and deducing the implications of the answers to your questions are the first steps in becoming effective in this industry regardless of job title. The more meaning you can make out of a social media post or radio spot, the more value you can add to your team and clients on your first day.

  1. Even if you don’t attend an ad school (I didn’t), take classes that will allow you to think about current events, the way people think, and how they make choices.

Take classes like social problems, rhetoric, organizational communications, culture-rich art classes, philosophy, and architecture. All of these will let you stretch your brain across cultures to understand common truths about people, what they like, and why they do what they do. I often sought classes that would force me to present, especially about difficult topics, knowing I wanted to go into brand management.

I’ll never forget an assignment during my junior year of college to write a one-page paper on why it’s unethical to eat meat and present it to my class to prompt a discussion. Though it was totally irrelevant to advertising, the exercise taught me how to legitimize an opposing view (I’m an avid meat eater – medium rare, thank you), and the discussion taught me to how adapt my view when I’d been shortsighted and to defend my thesis academically rather than emotionally when necessary. Knowing how to juggle all those needs, with mastery of topic but fluidity and openness of thought, has helped me exponentially in client meetings, brainstorms, and presentations today.

A professor told me that you must be intentional about and accountable for your own education. Make the most of your time at school (or in your spare time if you’re not a student) and find ways to be comfortable beyond the edges of your comfort zone. You’ll find yourself not only more confident but also more at ease when facing new challenges.

  1. Seek opportunities to learn about the industry and certify your knowledge.

Talk to an advisor to see if your degree plan offers additional certificates. At my alma mater, you could receive a certificate in strategic communication and countless other relevant topics with only an extra class or two a semester.

No such offering at your school or at your disposal? University isn’t the only place to take relevant classes. Use online resources like Coursera to get certified in your desired area of expertise for as little as $50. Browse through LinkedIn’s certificates to see if there’s one (or a few) relevant to your skillset and desired job. These certifications don’t just look great on your résumé – they’re proof of a lifelong-learner mentality and willingness to go above and beyond to be knowledgeable.

If that still doesn’t seem feasible, take advantage of Zoom culture. Right from your living room, now more than ever, you can reach people from any agency in any region with just the click of a button. Ask people who work in your desired agency or discipline if they’d be willing to chat with you for 20 to 30 minutes. By doing so, you’ll get your questions answered and build your network. Plus you’ll be surprised by how willing people are to help. Just make sure to pass it forward to the next generation once you get where you’re going.

  1. Showcase the skills needed in your desired role when interviewing.

Once I homed in on brand management as the best match for me, I asked my mentor about the skill set required to succeed. She mentioned running and managing meetings and timelines, providing structure to projects, and ensuring that the proper gears are always turning to provide the best possible service to clients.

I did everything I could to exhibit these traits in my interviews. I would open with what I was hoping to learn and share during my time. I never asked a question that I could have researched the answer to. I was always cognizant of time and made sure I reached a strong stopping point by the scheduled end of the interview. Then, if I was invited to stay longer, that was bonus time to ask an extra question or dive deeper into my experience. This might seem arduous, but I know it was noticed. And practicing those skills in context ensured that I felt confident to employ them on day one once I joined the team.

Although preparing for interviews and the recruitment process is certainly key, never lose sight of the authenticity that comes from imperfection. Use the same mentality as the dancers who fell as you prepare for your “audition.” Be so passionate and hungry that you stumble, proving the lengths you’ll go to in order to succeed. We at TRG will take the same perspective as the ballet company director – and I promise that being authentically you, with all the wonderful and all the imperfections included, will make a greater impact than playing it safe.