How to land your first job at a digital or branding agency

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As of next month, art and design graduate degree shows will start taking place across the UK, including national shows such as D&AD New Blood and New Designers. If you’re finishing up university studies and looking to land your first job in graphic, UX or digital design at a digital or branding agency, then it's worth reading the following advice from leading agencies. You may be eagerly searching online job boards for your dream role already. But landing a job doesn’t always start there. You’ll need to consider reaching out to agencies on your own accord, applying for paid internships and seeking professional advice on your portfolio as well. 

Stepping into the real world of work can be daunting, but if you know how to be confident and back up your design processes then exciting opportunities will soon present themselves. This feature provides in-depth industry insight and advice on how to land your first job at an agency.

We asked designers, managers and founders of leading brand, advertising, design and digital agencies Wolff Olins, Anomaly London, SomeOne and Studio Output to share what they’re looking for when hiring a graduate. You'll learn how to ace your grad show, where you should be looking for job openings, what to expect from the recruiting process, how to prepare for interviews and presenting your portfolio, if internships are worth your time and and what not to do.

Senior designer at Wolff Olins Alison Haigh, founder of SomeOne Simon Manchipp, visual director at Anomaly Clara Mulligan, managing and design directors Dan Moore, Stewart McMillan and Johanna Drewe of Studio Output and foundation manager at D&AD Hilary Chittenden all discuss what they expect from an aspiring creative.

If you wish to jump down to a particular topic, click below:

What makes a great portfolio?
How to prepare for an interview
Is an internship worth your time?
How to impress an agency at your graduate show
Here's what not to do
Don't panic if you don't land your dream job right away

How to find a job

Before applying for any job, make sure you have a taster of your work already prepared online – a dedicated website or a profile on Behance or The Dots is a good place to start.

There are a number of online job boards you should be checking for potential openings, as suggested by agencies. We’ve listed these below. It’s also important to follow agencies you’d love to work for on social media, as vacancies are usually advertised there as well.

But largely, it’s on you to take initiative and put yourself out there – the best jobs are rarely advertised, says Simon Manchipp, founder and executive strategic creative director at London design agency SomeOne.

Send out your portfolio and CV to agencies you admire. Cold call them, send an email out of the blue, offer to take a designer for coffee, and don’t be afraid to turn up in person to deliver a physical copy of your work.

“If you can demonstrate a can do attitude and tread the line well between being super keen and being super annoying you'll very likely get the chance to work with the company of your choice,” says Simon.

“Choose wisely. Those first few jobs are quite possibly the most important as they will begin to guide your future choices.”

Online job boards:

Don’t expect to receive feedback after applying for a job

As painful as it is, you may never hear back from an agency after applying for a position. But don’t take this personally – you need to learn to grow a thick skin. Design is a desirable sector, and the number of jobs available against the number of people who want to work in an agency don’t quite match. Most agencies will try to reply to as many applications as possible, but it’s not always possible.

“I think recruiters always mean well, and would love to be able to give feedback to everyone who applies for roles, but the reality of a crowded job market doesn't always allow for this,” says foundation manager at D&AD, Hilary Chittenden.

“I would, therefore, always recommend following up with an email. It's important to understand where you need to develop, but also it's worth asking if they are aware of any other opportunities that might suit you better. It's a small industry and people have lots of connections.”

It’s worth sending a follow up email if you haven’t heard back after a week, in case your CV and portfolio slipped through the cracks. But don’t be shocked if no one replies to that one either.

Alternatively, if you’ve managed to get through to the interview stage, then Studio Output managing director Dan Moore says you should expect feedback.

What makes a great portfolio?

When presenting your portfolio, make sure you’re offering something different. Include examples of self-initiated projects and a range of original ideas. Ultimately you can be taught technical skills on the job but agencies want to see your ideas. If you’ve entered industry awards or worked on competition briefs, definitely include this too.

“I want to see people who are pushing the boundaries of design, not copying every pretty thing on the internet,” says visual director at advertising agency Anomaly, Clara Mulligan.

“Show me thinking. Show me that there was a problem to solve outside of just aesthetics. Show me ideas. Don’t show me gimmicks or trends.”

Visual director at Anomaly London, Clara Mulligan

It’s important to put across a strong sense of who you are – your personality. Also show an agency that you have some understanding of the direction you want to go in.

“If you want to go in to branding, make sure you have some strong examples of this. If you want to be a digital product designer, make sure your work reflects this. It sounds obvious, but is often overlooked,” says Hilary.

Most importantly, tailor your portfolio to match the agency you’re applying to work at.

“Your folio needs to align with your studio’s folio – a folio with niche arts and culture projects doesn’t fit with a studio who create big entertainment brands,” says Studio Output design director Johanna Drewe.

If you wish to get your portfolio looked over by a creative professional, you can at this year's D&AD Festival. Receive honest advice and feedback on your work by the industry's leading figures if you bring your portfolio to the Truman Brewery over the festival days.

How to prepare for an interview

There’s no fixed process after you make it through to the interview stage. Often agencies prefer to take you for a coffee (or a pint, even) and a chat, other times it’s a more formal situation. But the most important way to prepare for a face-to-face meeting is to research the agency. Have a look at projects on their website, know what they’re about, and why you want to be part of it. Make sure your portfolio is up to date, and tailor it to the company you’re meeting with. Also have a few questions prepared so you sound keen and interested in the agency.

Leave your ego at the door, says Clara. Think about why you design, your career ambitions and what you're interested in outside of work. You’re a multi-faceted person so don’t be afraid to show other passions.

“Come to present your work. Come with an agenda around what you want me to see, rather than have me sift around your website until I see something interesting. It's your interview, design the way you want me to interact with the work,” she says.

Equally, Hilary says to start with a strong project and end with a strong project.

“Keep it concise. Explain the problem, your solution and your execution. Remember, no one knows your work better than you, so have confidence in this.”

At SomeOne, Simon says they take a casual approach.

“We want to drop the nonsense and tricks normally associated with formal interviews and get to know people, ideally as quickly as possible. Then we have a better idea of how things might work out.”

SomeOne designed the first visual identity for UK Parliament

Similarly at Studio Output, the first round of interviews generally invovle talking through your portfolio and your background. However, in the second stage they ask more specific questions to learn about how you’d respond in particular situations.

“Think carefully about what projects you want to share and talk through and make sure there is a point to each slide. You’ve made design decisions for a reason – tell us what they are and ensure the projects are relevant to the studio and job you are applying for,” says managing director Dan Moore.

Design director at Studio Output, Johanna Drewe, offers some practical advice for the day of an interview.

“On the day, get to the interview slightly early to ease yourself into surroundings. Dress according to your style, but also to the weather and the journey in – and get to know what nerves do to you and how they manifest themselves physically (for example do you sweat, drinks loads of water, speak quickly, look down, mumble).”

Is an internship worth your time?

Essentially an internship is always worth your time, but they’re not compulsory. Not all internships are paid (unfortunately), so be realistic about your financial position. If it’s impossible for you to afford unpaid work, then don’t be afraid to start applying for full time roles straight away.

The main benefit of interning is the ‘try before you buy’ experience – it gives you a chance to understand the types of roles available and the culture of an agency before completely committing to one. Internships are basically about forming relationships and gaining real work experience, and the agencies you’re wanting to work for should offer paid internships, such as Wolff Olins and SomeOne do.

“Studio experiences are invaluable to understand the environment and culture and how a graduate would fit in, whether they would like the atmosphere, respond well to direction and feedback as well as the different project processes and team sizes a studio will have,” says Studio Output design director, Stewart McMillan.

Studio Output designed the branding identity for BBC Sport

But it can be tricky – some internships end up turning into extended placements when in fact the agency should be recruiting junior roles. So it’s important to make sure you have a list of exactly what you want to experience as an intern, for example, shadowing a pitch, improving your skills on certain software or understanding a different role.

If you’re not gaining experience or meeting people that inspire you, then it’s time to leave, says Clara. Internships are designed to stretch you, so be conscious of the difference between feeling uncomfortable because you’re learning, and feeling uncomfortable because it’s not a good fit.

“We love the Poverty Pledge and believe that you should be paid for your work - at least the London Living Wage,” says Hilary. Find out more about the Real Living Wage Pledge here.

How to impress an agency at your graduate show

The common theme of expectation surrounding your grad show is: to show passion. Have a clear creative curiosity which can be seen through your work and personality.

“Have a hunger to push the boundaries of graphic design and commercially driven communication,” says Clara.

It’s also important that you’re available – recruiters or art directors from agencies will want to meet you; it’s hard for your work to stand out on its own.

“Hearing you personally explain your work is way more valuable than reading about it online,” says Alison. “Don’t be afraid to stand near your display and chat to the people looking at your work.”

Alison Haigh worked with Brian Boylan to build a brand strategy for Fortnum & Mason

Try not to compare yourself with others at your degree show.

“Focus your energy on what you need to do to get the job that is right for you,” says Alison.

“You don’t have to spend your savings getting over the top business cards produced. I remember repurposing old screen print tests to create some budget friendly cards for my show.”

What not to do

Have an open mind when it comes to opportunities and job variations, don’t miss a job opening because it’s not at your 'dream' agency.

“My first job was working at at a 'no name' agency in my home town. Because it was a no name agency, I had to dig myself out that no name hole, but equally as an intern I was doing all the illustration for an animated commercial. As an intern you'd never get that exposure by going to a big agency,” says Clara. “I learned a lot from that. Getting experience is key - even if you can't get that big name straight away.”

Always send in your portfolio as well as your CV, and give your application care and attention.

“A designer who makes it hard work for us to look at the work is frustrating and time consuming – stay away from a folio site with passwords, or sending loads of individual pdfs or files,” says Stewart.

“Don’t just send a dropbox link, or a generic email with other studios on the list.”

Bring something that’s tailored specifically for the interview, such as something to leave behind. Don’t expect the agency to have already seen your work, even if you’ve sent it as email. Show up on time and assume you’re being introduced for the first time.

“I want to know that you want this job and that our agency isn’t just another name on the list. Tailor something just for us, bring a leave behind, do something that shows that you care about this interview,” says Clara.

Expect to guide the interview, don’t ask the agency what it wants to see. You tell the stories you want them to hear.

“Your folio needs to align with your studio’s folio – a folio with niche arts and culture projects doesn’t fit with a studio who create big entertainment brands,” says Stewart.

Don’t panic if you don’t land your dream job straight away

“Don’t panic or get disheartened if you don’t land your dream job straight away,” says Johanna. “You are at the beginning of your career and it’s a super exciting time. Embrace any opportunity that comes your way and learn from it.”

You might be wondering if a job is a good fit for you. Ultimately, it’s worth giving all opportunities a chance because you’ll learn what you like and don’t like pretty quickly that way – and you don’t have to stay in one job forever. This is probably the time in your life where you have the most freedom to move around, so make the most of that.

“Some people like a 'heads down, headphones on' workspace, other people prefer the hustle and bustle of a busy studio,” says Hilary. “You might like the idea of working on just one client, or maybe you enjoy the challenge of pitches. Try and make a check-list of what you think you're looking for, and don't be afraid to ask questions.”

If you’re worried about it, try interning at a few different types of studio – from a big agency to a smaller design studio – you’ll be clearer of how you will fit and what’s expected of you.

“What kind of work do you want to be making? What kind of projects do you want exposure to? What kind of environment do you want to enter into everyday? What kind of people do you want to surround yourself with?” says Clara.

“Pick one o​r​ two things that you definitely want and find an opportunity that will let you do that and let everything else go. You can’t be too picky, you just have to roll with the best thing you can get.”

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