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Max Simmance on his journey into the creative industry

From showcasing his work at the New Blood Festival to landing his first real job, Max Simmance shares his experiences

The path to your dream job isn’t always easy or straight forward. Max Simmance, currently a creative at the independent creative agency Mr. President, knows this too well. We spoke to Simmance about his experience getting into the industry – from how he got himself noticed by agencies at the New Blood Festival, to turning a placement or internship into a job and why you should always trust your ideas.

What a year. Finished education forever. Got hired. Left home. Moved to Manchester.

12 months ago I was sitting at home having graduated from Falmouth Uni after the best three years of my life, thinking 'Now what am I going to do?’ Fast forward another trip around the sun, and I’m a proper adult, working at Havas Lynx as a Junior Creative.

For a while now I’ve wanted to write this piece about my experiences this past year, but I kept putting it off, thinking that no one would be interested in what a junior copywriter has to say about the ad industry. I thought, ‘actually, I would’ve loved to have known a year ago what I do now’.

So that’s exactly who this article is for; the graduates trying to get into the industry, whether you’re trying to land your first placement, or wanting to turn that placement into a job, or you’re just not sure if the industry is for you and you’d like some creative career insights from someone who’s just started.

This is the stuff I wish I knew before and wish someone had told me, managing expectations versus reality, debunking the myths you hear at Uni, and the tenacity and resilience required for a generation that (too often) expects instant results and gratification.

Competition is fierce

I know, obvious right? But I fell into the trap of thinking it was just the other 30 or so creative teams on my course I’d be coming up against. My eyes were opened to the stark reality at D&AD New Blood Festival last summer. There were thousands of other people, all with equally amazing portfolios vying for attention. And it’s not just your graduating year, there’s the year above you, and the year above them. I walked around with my jaw on the floor just thinking 'Shit'.

So, what do you do?

Think of something to make you and your partner stand out. And no, I’m not talking about having a standout portfolio blah blah blah, because you should do that anyway. I’m talking about making sure that everyone there knows you. Think of the environment you’re in, what’s going to be happening, how can you catch people’s attention amongst all the noise?
We took a hunch on the weather and printed 2,000 fans that doubled up as our business cards. We prayed to the ad gods for hot weather, and our prayers were answered. It was sweltering outside and sweaty, sticky, and stuffy inside, all week. Perfect. By the final day of the festival wherever you looked, our business card was being waved in the air, wafted in faces and being shared. To quote D&AD: “Max and Jake thought ahead with this gorgeous weather. Check out their personal fans". We got shout-outs on their social media platforms, as well as being approached by people in the industry who never even saw our actual portfolio, to meet for a book crit. 

The point is, not everyone is going to get around to seeing your Uni stand or your work, and even if they do, after a long day of seeing hundreds, the risk of being forgotten is relatively high, no matter how good your work. Our fans however made reappearances on days two, three, and four.

"We'd love to give you a placement... but you need some experience first"

Aaah that old chestnut. A classic line you’ll hear time and time again when you’re starting out on the book crit process. Everywhere you go, they want you to have experience before they give you any, so how are you meant to get experience?! It’s a vicious circle, and this is where that tenacity and resilience I mentioned is required.
How do you get around this? Start by using every contact you have; network with previous graduates, don’t be afraid to call in family or friends’ connections, however tenuous, anything to get some sort of experience under your post-grad belt. Point out to potential employers that someone needs to take a punt on you and don’t be afraid to ask. As soon as you’ve landed something, that’s your opportunity to get in contact with the next agency. “We’re currently working at _____ but are seeking out next steps” something like that.

Maybe they’re just not that into you

It’s important to realise that your work isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. What one creative director loves, another may hate. You can’t please all of them. Some didn’t like our favourite campaign and told us to take it out of our book. The temptation to take out a criticised piece of work was huge. But then the next one said it was the best campaign in our portfolio and told us to lead with it every time.

The point is, don’t get disheartened because of one lousy book crit, because you’ll have them. Show off the work you are most proud of, and if that means keeping in a campaign that one person didn’t like, so be it. (Obviously if everyone tells you it’s rubbish and to take it out, then you should probably listen.) Sometimes it’s simply a case of what you imagined was your dream agency isn’t the one for you in reality. The ‘click’ just isn’t there, and chances are you wouldn’t have been happy there.

Equally; not all criticism is necessarily negative. Someone who takes the time to seriously critique your work could be showing you a signal that they’re interested. In our experience, the people who spent the whole time saying "really lovely idea, oh that’s cool, let’s stay in touch'" are the people we never heard from again. Our harshest critique came from the man who ultimately ended up offering us a full-time job 2 months later. The feedback you’re getting is constructive. Take it on board and incorporate it into your work. Arrange a follow-up meeting and they’ll see you’ve listened and are serious about working there.

Trust in your ideas, but don’t be afraid to change them if it means improving them.

People buy people first

So, you’ve landed a placement and are trying to turn it into a job. Yes, the creative director will have the final decision. But I can guarantee you, they will ask the rest of the team what they think of you. Make friends with other creatives, designers, the accounts team, planners, strategists, get involved in the banter, go for drinks with them after work or on a Friday lunchtime. If for some weird reason they don’t already do that (they will), then suggest it.

You could do brilliant work on your placement and your ideas get chosen by the client, but if you’re an idiot, or boringly unmemorable, then it’s not going to work out. Remember all those thousands of other people I talked about earlier?

Show an interest in what’s going on in the agency, be curious (you can never ask too many questions) and get involved. People love talking about themselves, so ask what they're working on. Have an opinion on the work – it shows hunger and passion, which is inspiring to see – but don’t be arrogant. Strike the right balance. You may be lacking in confidence and feel shy, but overcome this and put yourself out there. If you sit quietly in the corner for two weeks, no one will remember you. But they will remember the person who always asked questions, or who made the best coffee, or who just clicked with the team dynamic.

I should add, I’m not saying be the agency barista, just be nice, ya know?

Creative directors are busy people

I couldn’t understand why an industry with communications at the heart of it, was so bad at communicating. Few would reply to emails, call back, respond to applications, or follow up on their promises. Then I realised I was trying to speak to the wrong people.

Creative directors are busy, and they don’t have time to click on the link to your online portfolio in the email you’ve written. By 9am that email will have fallen to the bottom of their inbox and priorities for that day.

Find out who else works there and speak to them instead. Twitter is littered with creative team accounts. Message them! Lots of agencies even have a referral fee system, so people will have a vested interest in getting you in for a book crit at their agency. They will also have more time to reply to your email, check out your work and they’re a direct line to the decision makers. Impress them, and they’ll speak highly of you. All it takes is a simple: 'You got half an hour at lunch to look at this creative team, they’re pretty good' to their creative director, and you’re in! That’s way easier than hoping the creative director will take the time to read your email, look at your portfolio online, reply and arrange to get you in to look at the same work they’ve just seen.

But all the cool agencies are in London

Contrary to what everyone seems to think, London is not the be all and end all. I’ll be the first to admit I had my heart set on London. And looking back now, I could not have been more blinkered.

I was so resistant to working in Manchester yet I knew nothing about it, except 'it's not London'. What a naïve approach. Spread your wings. There’s a whole world of agencies out there. Look at it this way, the creative pool in London is far larger, so there’s far more choice for agencies to pick creatives from. Whereas outside of London, or even outside England, you’re more likely to stand out.

Creative advertising isn’t limited to consumer goods

This was my main misconception. After all, those are the brands everyone knows and what I predominantly worked on at Uni. I for example, and rather narrow-mindedly, thought that the world of healthcare and pharma advertising was boring and not 'proper' advertising.

It was probably on my 2nd or 3rd day on placement that I realised I was wrong, and every day since I’ve had my eyes opened even more and been reminded of that. Yes, it’s very restricted and highly regulated, which is why you need to think of even more clever and creative solutions; a real test of creative thinking.

People talk about restrictions in alcohol, gambling and smoking, but at least with those you’re allowed to mention the bookie’s name, or show the beer, or tell people smoking is bad. Now imagine trying to sell the new VW Polo without being allowed to say the word VW Polo, show the VW Polo, or even talk about driving. Pretty tough right? Then try doing that for the common flu. Yet on a daily basis healthcare agencies are coming up with creative and award-winning ideas. You don’t have to follow everyone at uni into the consumer world.

Know your worth

Finally, unpaid placements. Do not do them. No matter how desperate you’re getting for money and that vicious you-need-experience circle is tightening, just know that you’re better than unpaid placements, and it’s only a matter of time before something lands. "Easy for you to say, you've got a job". Well then, send me a message, and I’ll get you in for a book crit. Promise.

Take a look at more tips and inspiration to help you kick start your creative career or with your New Bloods entry.

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