Get a job in advertising: becoming a Creative at AKQA

After recently starting a series of focused posts on “how to get in to Marketing,” I decided it would also be worth taking a look at what some of the top ad agencies look for from future talent too. In this post we’ll be focusing on Creatives. So after a bit of research I spoke to Matt Longstaff, who is the Senior Concept Copywriter for AKQA, over at their newest office over in Berlin.

With offices dotted all round the world, AKQA are one of the biggest and best creative agencies around right now, producing high level creative work, with the client list to match. Below are Matt’s detailed responses to each of my questions, covering how he managed to make his first step in to the industry, to what he looks for when hiring others who are following in his footsteps; including some helpful tips to increase your chances along the way. If you love AKQA and you’re still day dreaming about how to get a job in advertising, then read on.

Could you describe your role and your average day at AKQA?

I’m a Senior Concept Copywriter at AKQA. It sounds like a complex job description, but the Copywriter part is what I produce creatively. The ‘concept’ part means I also generate ideas, rather than just copywriting and the ‘senior’ part is just because I have been doing this a while – I’ve been at AKQA for around seven-and-a-half years now.

My average day is usually 9am – 9pm and my days vary from working with Planners to write briefs for projects, working with others to produce ideas for briefs, writing short and long copy for ideas we’ve sold, (or will be selling) to clients, proofreading, working with the tech department to ensure what we’ve sold the client is in fact possible, attending shoots and playing some Ping Pong.

I work on a wide variety of clients, often at once, such as Nike, Montblanc, MTV and Volkswagen.

Get a job in advertising

How did you get to where you are now?

I studied Graphic Design & Advertising at Bucks New University for three years, where I got my BA Honors certificate, but rather than write my autobiography here, I’ll offer some tips which helped me get a job in advertising.

1. Pick a University that encourages you to think.
I chose Bucks because of their legacy of producing graduates who went to places like Mother, BBH and W+K. They did this by teaching you how to think and not what to think. You will be employed for your ability to communicate clearly, but you will mostly be employed for your ideas. So make sure you find a course that blends the two together and isn’t too theory based, or too heavy at teaching the University “house style.”

2. Treat University like a job.
A lot of us were in the working rooms 9 -5, Monday – Friday for three years. The people who just turned up for the lectures were quickly out paced by the rest of us.

3. Keep your energy high and your output regular.
For me it was the knowledge that there were maybe 10 good jobs available every year at London agencies, yet there were 35 of us on the course. There were also 30 in the Watford course, 70 at Central St. Martins and up to a million from overseas who all wanted jobs at those top agencies. If there was one thing keeping me scamping into the night, it was the faintly ridiculous ambition of beating them all.

People always say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, but in reality it’s both.

4. Find what it is you actually want to do…
and you will enjoy making a career out of it. For myself and my Creative Partner, who I met at Uni, this was digital creativity. Unfortunately for us (this being almost eight years ago now), our lecturers didn’t know or care much about microsites, digital installations or MySpace (Facebook had yet to arrive). For them it was a fad, so we started doing our own research to learn about it, which brings me on to my next point.

5. Take advantage of as many opportunities as you can.
You never know how useful they’ll be later. In my second year of Uni, an ex client from BMW came in to give a talk on how to present to clients. Following on from this, there was a challenge to put together a pitch-style presentation for one of the ideas we were working on and present it back to him a week later. We loved this and had a lot of fun doing it. The client also liked it and we ended up talking to him after the presentation.

As it turned out, he had worked for BMW when AKQA was their agency and he still had a lot of contacts there and was happy to email them telling them about us. A month later we were sat in front of the Creative Director at AKQA showing him our portfolio. People always say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, but in reality it’s both. If you meet someone with connections, you have to impress them, otherwise they won’t share who they know with you.

6. Once you’ve found a place you like, don’t let it go.
My Creative Partner and I went to see AKQA every two weeks for about eight months before we were offered a placement. We would show work, get feedback, go away, address the feedback, come up with new work, show it and the cycle would begin again.

We did this all through our third year at Uni and by the time we came to hand in our graduate portfolio for grading it had already co-edited by three Creative Directors at AKQA, so it looked pretty sweet! It also meant that when we went to see the Executive Creative Director about a job, we already knew a lot of people at AKQA on a first name basis and the ECD had already heard of us before we got there. This got us a three month placement, which we turned into a job. The rest if history.

View from London AKQA

What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting to where you are now?

I would say a definite issue for Digital Creatives is simply keeping up with the digital world. When I started thinking digital advertising would be a good idea for a career, Facebook didn’t even exist and iPhones certainly didn’t. Now I make my living by coming up with ideas for a lot of platforms that have just come out.

Being able to adapt to new platforms and technological updates as a Creative is essential. Overcoming that problem requires you to understand what makes each format work and then working with it. Knowing what your audience wants on every platform and how they want to be treated there is the key difference between a Creative who can make a varied media base sing and one who just tries to make one execution work across the board.

What would you say AKQA look for from future Copywriters?

The reason I love AKQA is that they value a perfect balance between innovation and storytelling. This means that there is no point being technologically focused if what you produce isn’t going to interest anyone and it goes without saying that if you have something cool to say, saying it how everyone else is saying it is unlikely to get it the attention it deserves.

We look for people who understand this and have a passion for building worlds around brands that invite interaction, but stay true to a brand’s values. We tackle a problem a client has and produce work that will improve the lives of our clients.

What do you look for in a Copywriters book?

I would expect an aspiring Creative Copywriter to have a portfolio of 5 – 7 campaigns that span a wide range of brands and media. I’d expect to see a page of strategic set-up for the main insight that the campaign was built on (in no more than three lines) and then a creative solution that captured my attention and made me buy into the proposition.

Personally I would also like to see at least one campaign which showed off their ability to craft a perfect headline and I would like to see examples of work they have done outside of advertising, such as articles or reviews written, Kickstarter projects, photos, app ideas, anything to show they are a well balanced Creative. Everything also has to be spelt correctly.

What advice would you give to future budding Copywriters? 

I guess the main thing you need when you’re starting out is energy. Getting into an agency is like starting University all over again, only this time it’s not grades you’re getting, it’s a wage and that wage is dependant on you learning quick, producing even quicker and not messing up. No pressure.

In all seriousness though, energy beats talent 90% of the time at the start of your career. Energy gives you the ability to start again when your Creative Director has ripped your work apart in front of you. Energy gets you into the office early and out late so you produce more work than anyone else, get your idea picked and go off to the shoot to see how it’s made. Energy keeps you up past your bedtime devouring scripts, magazines, TV shows, films, websites, podcasts and books to improve and inspire you. People notice energy and energy is attractive, so keep a positive outlook and keep your energy high.

If your bookcase isn’t crammed to bursting with books, then I don’t have a lot of time for you.

For those leaving University this summer, are there any steps you’d recommend to becoming a Copywriter?

You have to love talking to people. When writers are enjoying themselves you can tell, their writing is a joy and a pleasure to read. But if you write, you need to be reading. If your student ‘IKEA Billy Bookcase’ isn’t crammed to bursting with second hand books you got for a penny on Amazon’s New & Used page, then I don’t have a lot of time for you. If you’re in an interview and I ask you who your top three most influential authors are, I will expect a decent answer.

My favourite description of a professional writer is “an amateur writer who didn’t stop.” I think it’s very important you never stop writing. I’ve got almost 300 notes on my phone of one-liners, plot ideas and things I’ve overheard other people saying. One day they will find their way into something and it’s always interesting to find out where and how.

Even if you’re not sure if writing is your thing, or you’re going through a bit of a dry spell placement-wise, get a blog, get a notebook or use your phone. Never stop writing and you’ll always be a match-fit when that perfect opportunity does come around.

What has been your career highlight so far?

I did once get a crying girl to tip a bucket of burned human remains on to a table, before she was eaten by a pack of CGI gremlins. That was a pretty good day.

Key points to take away

First point should definitely be, as Matt put it, “treat University like a job”. When I went to Uni the vast majority of people only seemed to be there “for the experience / the student life”. Attending lectures was a chore, let alone doing work out of class time. As long as the bare minimum was covered, that was enough. But in reality it is far, far less than enough.

As covered earlier, competition in this industry is fierce, jobs are far and few between, but people after those rare jobs are high. You should never get too comfortable, or ever forget that there could always be somebody better than you out there. You need to do everything in your power to be the favourite during an interview, which brings me on to my next point.

It’s important to be the best in all that you do and show it. Show you’re passionate and show you’re creative. Do something interesting with your spare time – socialising doesn’t count – write blogs, take interesting photos or start projects. Find a creative outlet and embrace it. Whatever it is that makes you different from the competition.

Finally, as Matt covered so well, advertising is a tough industry to crack. You need energy, a thick skin and lots of  determination. You won’t be given a placement after your first portfolio viewing with a Creative Director. Keep at and show you’re serious. As Matt said, “people notice energy and energy is attractive.” When I was at Uni, my lecturers never stopped mentioning how important it was to always carry a notebook and pen around, because you never know when inspiration will strike, or when you might see or hear something you like, so never stop thinking.

If you’ve got any thoughts on the interview, or your own key points you’ve taken away from this, then please add them to the comments section below, or feel free to give me a shout on Twitter.

Image sources:
Get a job in advertising header here
AKQA Nike here
London office here
AKQA here