The 10 commandments: your first year in a creative agency
Earlier this year I was asked to speak to a group of final year graphic design students at Edinburgh College and share some sage advice as they head off into a career in the creative industries.
The design team and I got our heads together, and came up with our 10 commandments – or helpful suggestions – based on our experiences. We share the abridged version below.
01 Make a plan, but be flexible.
Ask yourself some big questions: What am I good at? What sort of work do I want to do? What sort of agency do I want to work for? What size of agency do I want to work at? The answers to these questions will define the direction you head-off in. However, be flexible: along the way you’ll learn new things and maybe have some bumps in the road, so your plan may have to change as you go.
02 Don't wait for opportunities.
Most agencies aren’t advertising, so searching a job site is likely to prove unfruitful. Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs that don’t exist. Get out and meet agency people and make connections. That way when they need a new designer you’ll be a known quantity and one step ahead of the competition - of which there will be loads.
03 Be memorable.
We mentioned competition above. It should be obvious that you need to stand out amongst the many designers with similar skills and qualifications. And let’s assume they’ve all got great work to show off too. If you make a cold contact with an agency, figure out what you’re good at, show some personality and be relevant to the agency you’re trying to join. More than anything you must be memorable. I recall that years ago I got a written application for a junior designer role that was made up of a nicely designed CV and a well executed illustration of the applicant standing in their y-fronts. He got an interview, and eventually a job.
04 Make the tea.
When you get that first job, as well as being brilliant, get stuck in : help out as much as you can, look for work to do when you're done, work hard and generally make yourself indispensable. Even if that means sometimes doing the less glamorous stuff - like making the tea.
05 Embrace feedback.
Feedback sometimes gets a bad rep but it is a vital and fundamental part of the design process. Embrace it, ask questions and then use it to make the project better so you can deliver for your client. We’ve written a useful piece on the subject here: https://emperor.works/insights/feedback-must-try-harder/
06 Remember it takes a team.
When you arrive on your first day and meet your fellow creatives you might ask yourself “what do all these other people do?” There will be a mix of account managers, finance people, planners, artworkers and administrators amongst others. The important thing is to remember you’re all there to deliver the same thing and need each other to do it. It’s rare that any one project is delivered by a single individual. It goes without saying… be nice to people.
07 Stay young.
The excitement of your first days in the industry is amazing. You’ll feel as if anything is possible. I can recall pitching an idea for a complex animation to a client in the first few months of my career. I had no idea how we were going to do it, but they loved the idea so we figured it out. Holding onto that sort of enthusiasm and creative energy is essential. As you grow you can balance that with your experience.
08 Be a sponge.
The creative industries, and the world around us, are in constant change. That means there are always new things to learn; software, technologies, strategies, media, clients. Knowledge should be a source of inspiration, so be a sponge and soak it up.
09 Beware of greener grass.
Once you’re a few years into your first job you might start looking around for something new. You might think “they’ve got better clients” or “they've got a slide” or “they look cooler” or generally that the grass is greener somewhere else. It might be, but make sure you look beyond the portfolio and the website. Get under the hood and find out about the culture, the people, the hours, the whole package.
10 You're on a rollercoaster.
Your journey in the creative industries will have many ups and a few downs along the way. When things are good they feel amazing but the downs can seem worse than they actually are. This is probably because we are often passionate people who are deeply and emotionally invested in our work. We’ve had a big idea and we’ve spent a load of time bringing it to life, so when something goes a little off track or it’s not quite as we’d envisaged, it can be difficult. Celebrate your successes, look at the positives and remember that you’re being paid to be creative every day, and you love being creative.