Getting a graduate job in advertising

Advertising is a fast-paced and exciting industry where confidence and tenacity is just as important as creativity.
Ivy Simon
Editorial Writer
Advertising is a fast-paced and exciting industry where confidence and tenacity is just as important as creativity.

What is advertising?

The most and prominent and publicly-visible aspect of the marketing process, advertising is all about convincing an audience to use or consume a company’s products and services. This line of work is all about putting marketing messages and experiences in front of potential customers through print and digital media as well as events.

Unlike general marketing and public relations (PR) work, companies typically outsource advertising work to dedicated advertising agencies instead of doing it in-house. This is because advertising usually runs on a campaign-by-campaign basis. Advertising professionals thus work very closely with companies’ marketing departments  ̶  the latter provides the broader strategy and marketing goals, while the former translates those ideas into campaigns and executes them.   

Advertising is a highly competitive industry, and entry-level positions for graduates are often in high demand. This is especially true after the COVID-19 pandemic, with client spending cuts and economic instability in other sectors having a significant and sustained impact on ad agencies’ revenues. As a result, advertising businesses now have to make big changes to the way they work – which may continue to affect their graduate recruitment plans in the years to come. 

What is it like to work in advertising?

Advertising roles usually fall into two broad categories, known within the industry as either “creatives” or “suits”.

“Creatives” are – as the name implies – those who come up with the text, visuals, and storytelling that brings advertising ideas to life. This includes copywriters, designers, and art directors; and in some cases, UI and UX specialists. When agencies need to shoot or edit video, they typically subcontract such work to external videographers, though larger agencies may also maintain dedicated in-house video creatives.

“Suits” on the other hand, generally refer to staff who do account management and media planning roles. Suit work involves tasks like pitching an ad agency’s services to potential clients, liaising with clients on projects, managing client relationships, strategy planning for ad campaigns, or buying ad space from media providers to run advertising content in.

Regardless of which side of the house you end up on, in every advertising role you will be expected to be passionate and creative, possess excellent people skills, and solid commercial awareness. Digital skills are in hot demand, as more and more advertising experiences shift to mobile and online platforms.

This is an industry with infamously long and irregular hours. Expect to work odd hours and weekends chasing deadlines for client campaigns, tightening up creative work, directing video shoots, or standing by on-call in case the client suddenly changes their mind or something doesn’t go according to plan. Work-life balance is often non-existent in this industry, and staff turnover can be quite high as a result.

With that said, creative-minded individuals who thrive in a fast-paced, competitive, and less-structured environment tend to do very well in this line of work. The nature of advertising work means that you’ll often find out very quickly whether you’re the right fit for this industry or not.

What degrees are preferred for advertising jobs?

Depending on whether you are aiming for a creative or suit role, advertising employers may have different requirements. 

For creative roles, what degree you have doesn’t matter as much as whether you can show an attractive portfolio of creative work. Still, those with degrees in writing- and design-heavy majors like journalism, graphic design, communication, or dedicated advertising degrees may have an advantage in that regard.

For suit roles, candidates with degrees in marketing, public relations, or other business-related degrees may have an advantage. However, what’s more important is being able to demonstrate a working understanding of marketing principles and media platforms, and how they can contribute to the growth of a company’s brand and sales.

There are also conversion courses available for those who wish to transition to advertising from another degree programme, or if you simply wish to sharpen your advertising skill set. If you do take such courses, make sure to prioritise those with actual industry attachments, or which give you the opportunity to collate a solid portfolio of work.     

How to get a graduate advertising job

Though entry-level advertising roles are listed online on job portals or agencies’ sites, the more established ad agencies typically don’t publicise their roles as openly. You’ll need to do a fair amount of legwork to land your desired role.  

Step 1: Build Your skills and portfolio
As previously mentioned, having an established portfolio of advertising/marketing work is crucial if you want to break into this industry. Be on the lookout for every opportunity to build and add to your portfolio – whether through course projects, work experience, or other extra-curricular or volunteer activities.

Aside from having a body of past work, your communication skills and confidence should be top-notch too. As you may expect from an industry built on persuading others, you will need to be an incredibly persuasive and convincing person yourself. Pitching ideas to clients and colleagues is a crucial part of working as an ad professional. So work on your presentation skills so that you can convincingly pitch yourself to recruiters.  
Step 2: Gain experience through internships
Advertising agencies highly value candidates with relevant experience. You can gain experience by taking up internships or part-time placements in advertising agencies, marketing departments, or similarly-related fields. This will give you the opportunity to learn about the industry, develop your skills, and build your network.

Be warned, however, that not all work experience placements may allow you to build your portfolio. For example, some ad agencies may place interns under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) about what they’ve worked on in order to protect client confidentiality. You can still list the experience in your CV and talk about it in future interviews, but you won’t get any portfolio clippings out of it. 

In addition, because of how in-demand advertising work experience generally is, plenty of advertising employers exploit this by offering unpaid internships only. Make sure you carefully evaluate what you can afford and whether it is truly worth it before you accept such work experience opportunities. 

Step 3: Build your network
The local advertising industry is fairly close-knit. As such, networking is an important part of breaking into this line of work. Use platforms like LinkedIn to connect with ad professionals and companies, tap on your co-workers’ networks if you land an advertising internship, attend industry events, or take part in relevant competitions run by agencies.

Many jobs in advertising are ironically often unadvertised and usually filled by word-of-mouth. The wider your professional network, the higher your chances of being referred for a suitable role if one pops up. 

Are there other advertising jobs aside from those with agencies?

Though advertising work is usually contracted out to agencies, a small number of large companies may maintain dedicated in-house advertising divisions. 

For example, some fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies may prefer to keep their advertising in-house because of the vast number of brands to promote and products to sell each year. Be on the lookout for advertising work opportunities with such companies as well – whether through direct positions, or as part of a larger graduate programme rotation.

An ongoing trend in the local advertising industry now is a sharp increase in smaller boutique advertising agencies or cooperative partnerships among freelance advertising creatives. These are a response by experienced advertising professionals to ongoing cuts in clients’ marketing budgets. The idea is that striking out on their own and forming smaller, more agile operations allows them to offer clients more bespoke and cost-effective advertising solutions in a way that larger ad agencies can’t. 

Though such small operations may not hire many graduates (if they even do at all!), keep an eye out for potential work experience opportunities with them. You never know if those might lead to being converted to a full-time role eventually. Even if they don’t, you might at least walk away with ideas about alternative career pathways available to you further on in your advertising career.