The creative interview: No suits required

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Greg Hahn, CCO of BBDO New York
Greg Hahn, CCO of BBDO New York

Forget common wisdom about job interviews. When it comes to these gigs, leading creatives welcome square pegs.

Everyone who's read general career advice has a pretty good idea of what's expected during a job interview: You suit up; get to the office early; arrive prepared with questions about the business and the position; and take pains to avoid seeming too quirky for your new employer.

But when it comes to interviewing for a creative position, the rules are very different—and a couple of those old standbys are dead wrong.

By all means, arrive at the interview prompt and prepped. But after that, senior creatives agree, it's your portfolio and personality that will carry the day.

Any creative position you pursue will be judged against your work. According to Traci Calabrese, director of creative services at Droga5, "Your portfolio is table stakes but once we've seen your work, we want to know, 'What are you?'

"Be yourself," Calabrese said. "Don't dress differently; don't present differently. Come in with a point of view. Show what your interests are—show us that you understand the culture here, but also that you understand what you want and what you need. You don't need to be loudest person or the funniest person, but we expect our creatives to have a point of view."

Greg Hahn, CCO of BBDO New York, agrees that in a creative interview your quirks are a strength, not a deficiency. "Forget everything you've read in the business books," he declares. "Don't show up in a suit; don't bring your resume." Like Calabrese, Hahn says the interview is an opportunity for self-expression.

"The goal in any interview is to 'want the job,' not 'get the job,'" adds David Girandola, a recruiter at 72andSunny. "This means ask questions about the culture, how work is made and if the process is collaborative. Think about what's missing in your book or in your experience and find out if that job will provide you with a chance to grow and get better. I think that finding out if you 'want the job' removes the pressure to answer every question perfectly and allows you to be yourself."

Remember: Your portfolio got you this far
If you've made it to the interview stage, rest assured that something in your portfolio interested the hiring manager and the team. "You follow your book," Hahn says. "You don't get in the door unless they already want you. They bring you in because they want to like you!

"At this stage, the interview is more of a rapport check and an attitude check than a capabilities check," Hahn says. "There's not only room to show your personality, it's encouraged. I want to know you have interests outside advertising—anything you can show that reflect your passions and interests in something unique.

"If you're going for an agency job, you should be who you are. You're not going to be happy there if you pretend to be something you're not."

In fact, Hahn says, you should stand by the integrity of your book, too, even if a potential employer challenges it. "If people tell you they don't like something in your book, don't take it out. By the time it gets to me, it's been viewed and liked by somebody!" Instead, be prepared to articulate how you arrived at that solution and what it reflects about your own problem-solving.

Kate Daggett is CCO at Rauxa, which stakes a claim as the largest, woman-owned advertising agency in the United States. She extends Hahn's advice about weathering criticism to include self-criticism.

"One question that I ask in interviews: When I meet with people, I want to see work they're most proud of," Daggett says, "but I also want them to show me a piece of work that could have been better and why.

"I want them to talk honestly and frankly about making something that fell a little shy of what it could have been. That's a really good way to dive into their brains and how they think. It reveals how humble the person is and how objective they are as well."

What's the story?
"Interviewing for a creative role at an ad agency is different, in part, because your work is the focal point of the conversation," Girandola says. "Of course it's important to have smart, well-executed work, but it's imperative that you're able to talk about that work.

"What was the strategy? What was your role? Why did you choose very little copy, or why did you shoot the film the way you did?"

Girandola says that the best portfolio presentations span media. "They say print is a dying medium, but I say it's the biggest challenge. Sometimes a song or an actor can carry a commercial, but with print you have to nail the copy as well as the imagery because the consumer will turn a page much faster than change a channel.  

"With that said, you should always strive to have integrated work," he says.

Daggett offers some additional guidelines for how a creative job seeker should expand on their work during an interview: "You need to show that you can translate a brand through different mediums and different ideas. Bring exceptional work, and show you have some empathy.

"In general, I think the best ideas are often the simplest," she says. "You don't need a ton of explanation or a massive preamble. However, I want to hear what the business challenge was, the creative idea behind it, how that's reflected in everything from art to typography to overall experience and the emotional experience you take away.

"It's really important that there's a narrative tied back to that business challenge. Tell me how you took that challenge and spun it into a solution that's remarkable in whatever way."

What does Daggett look for in candidates? She credits a SXSW session from Harvard Business Review with articulating three core values she expects from her team:

  • Smart: Show me your creative chops
  • Driven: Show me your passion for the work
  • Likeable: More and more, we hire people who are extensions of our families—people who complement us.

Like Hahn, Daggett embraces unusual personalities. "Creatives are weird," she says. "We're all a little bit offbeat, quirky and slightly bizarro. We're wired slightly differently and driven by our right brains. Some of the most wildly successful creatives are people who are uncompromising in a good way. I gravitate toward peculiar, interesting, multifaceted people."