Guest Post: Nate Stroot

From time to time, we like to invite guests to post on Makin’ Ads. Today’s guest poster is a former student of mine, Nate Stroot. We recently exchanged emails about how his first gig out of school made him reconsider what he was looking for. I asked him to write about what he learned from his first experience and about having the courage to set a new course when his “dream job” didn’t live up to his expectations.


I am a huge fan of this blog and am honored to be able to contribute to a space that I hold in such high regard. It was my bible when I was at Miami Ad School.

I recently finished school and even more recently was juniored. I won’t be dispelling any advice on the creative process, partially because I am not qualified but mostly because I am still trying to figure it out for myself. What I can confidently speak to is my transition from paying to make ads to getting paid to make them.

I was slated to finish at MAS in the summer so in the spring I started sending my unfinished book to several shops trying to secure an internship for the summer. There was one shop in my hometown I that I loved and adored because, not to long ago, they were considered a premier shop in the industry. Since I didn’t actually know anyone there, I found one of their recruiters on LinkedIn and found an email address. I emailed her and she informed me that they weren’t looking for creative interns at that moment. Although I knew that, I still went ahead and filled out one of their general applications for interns. About a month later she emailed me back and said that they changed their mind. She set up phone interviews and eventually they offered me a 3-month internship with the option to extend another 3-months if both parties were feeling it. If everything went well, at 6 months there would be discussions of a permanent job.

I was excited and relieved that I knew what I was going to be doing after I finished. I finished school on a Friday and started the following Monday. The first 3 weeks were great. About a month in, the shop lost a client, and the current roster was pulling back spending. It hit the creative department and the media departments the hardest. I understood that this was nature of the beast, but it really affected the agency. One whole floor was vacant, and the creative department became a ghost town. Everyone was stretched pretty thin, and I felt that there was a shift in the culture.

Despite that I still signed on for another month, hoping things would turn around quickly. The agency was at an interesting fork where a lot of decisions needed to be made at the top to gain a clearer direction, which led to an unstable environment. At the time, I had no interest of extending, even if they offered, because I felt like I wanted to be in a place that had a clear cut direction of where they wanted to be. That being said, they may have had no intention of ever bringing me on, I am not sure where they were at.

In hindsight, I think the biggest mistake I made was that I went there for the name on the door and they were my dream agency for no reason other than the name on the door. However, I am grateful that they let me in their building where I was able to draw my own conclusions, and I had exposure to some extremely talented people. Perhaps the best thing one of the guys there told me after I left: “The thing about jobs is sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.” From my short experience, that is definitely true.

After that, I decided it was time to take a break and embark on a new existential journey. I made the conscious decision to not be a contributing member of society. I don’t mean to brag, but I was really good at waking up after 2:00 pm. It was rewarding with the additional bonus of being quite unchallenging. However, around the New Year I found myself nearly out of cash. I started blindly sending my book to recruiters I found on LinkedIn, this time without luck. However, the great thing about MAS is that they host portfolio reviews which is really speed dating for a job. I attended one and was able to meet with a handful of recruiters. After I went home I emailed those I was interested in, and two of them put legitimate offers on the table after a few interviews. It was a really good problem to have.

There were things from the last internship that I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to go into another unstable environment. I felt like as juniors, we have a lot to prove and a lot to learn which is already difficult. Being at a shop that doesn’t have a clear direction makes it that much harder to thrive. I had no interest in taking that challenge.

Another thing that was important to me was to have a partner. At the last place, it was kind of an assembly line mentality where I would do my portion, send it to a project manager, and then would have no idea what happened to it. I wanted to avoid that too.

The most important thing though was that I wanted to have a lot of contact with whomever I reported to. At the first place, I reported to the ECD running the account. I consider him an ad legend and have a lot of respect for him. However, I quickly found that he was the most overworked man in the agency, so I didn’t get a lot of exposure to him. For me, the best way to learn is to listen what they have to say, in meetings and with feedback and then take that into account on the next assignment. My math is simple. The more time around them, the more one picks up.

I made it a point to look at the books of the CD’s I would potentially report to. At this time, I feel like it is paramount that the CD does the kind of work you want to do. I think you can tell a lot about a CD by their book. It shows their taste, and later down the line, what they will try to sell to the client, which will directly impact the work you’re doing. If it works out right, your book and your CD’s book will mirror each other, at least at that stint. This may sound odd but I didn’t care about the clients I was going to be working on. I have no “dream client”. I was much more concerned about who I was going to be working for.

Ultimately, I ended up accepting an offer from Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis. I had the chance to talk to the CCO and I really dug his vision and the direction he wanted to take the agency. It seemed like he was really focused on breathing new life into the shop and was going to do everything he could to get the shop to doing great work again. Also, when I talked to the GCD I was going to work under, I got the impression that he was going to do some serious blocking and tackling for me, which is invaluable.

At the time when I was trying to decide between the two offers I reached out to a CD I had a lot of respect for at the place I interned at, and asked him to weigh in. He wrote, “Make sure it looks like it’s going to give you the greatest opportunity to do the best work of your life. Don’t take a job this early in your career where you get stuck on one client. You need variety. You need to work for creative directors that share your passion and eye for producing great work.” It was and still is solid advice, and I wish I would have thought about when I was finishing portfolio school. At least I would have had the opportunity to take that advice or blindly reject it, but sometimes we have to learn as we go.


Job Search Plan of Attack

Agencies don’t hire between Thanksgiving and New Years. That’s a fact that holds so true that I tell my students who graduate in early December to just chill, get their portfolio together, enjoy the holidays, refresh, and plan to hit the ground running in January.

Over the years, we’ve written quite a bit about various aspects of the job search. I thought it might be helpful to compile some of those posts here in some sort of order. So, as you get ready to jump into the job search, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Portfolio. Obvious, right? But just because you’ve graduated doesn’t mean your portfolio is finished. Your portfolio is NEVER finished. Get your work together. Get your website polished. And get ready to keep working on it until you retire. Here are some questions you can ask about your portfolio.

1b) Presentation. Your website speaks for itself. The moment it loads in my browser window, it says something about you. There are plenty of very simple portfolio-hosting sites that are easy enough my mother could set up a professional-looking portfolio in a day. DO NOT let your site’s appearance kill your chances before anyone sees your book. This goes for real-world opportunities too. If you have someone coming into school to look at portfolios or are going to a portfolio review of any kind, be professional about it. It’s an opportunity to make an impression. Don’t bring a stack of foam-core boards in a plastic grocery bag (I’ve had it happen before).

2) Contacting agencies. Have your list. Use your connections (friends, alumni, LinkedIn). Start sending out emails or making calls. Here’s a post about writing down your five criteria to help you narrow down your agency search, a few examples of emails and followups, and another on what not to say in your email.

3) The interview. Know what you’re looking for. When someone comes in to show their book to me, I always ask first: “What are you looking for?” As in, do you want me to comment on everything in your book? Are you looking for “what to keep in my book and what to take out?” Do you want our agency to hire you? It might seem obvious if you’re sitting in someone’s office showing your book, but it’s not. Be clear about what you’re looking for. And have an opinion on work in your book. I ask questions about pieces I like. I often ask the person I’m interviewing what they like best, because I want to know what kind of work they like to do most. And know what questions you want to ask about the agency. Here’s a good starter list.

4) The followup. When you’re interviewing, write down the names of the people you talk to. Ask them each for a business card. And then send a thank-you note afterward. It can be a card, which is nice, or simply an email. It shows the person appreciation for the time they spent with you and, more importantly, is another opportunity to connect with them.

5) The negotiation. If you’re a student, there shouldn’t be much negotiation, really. Getting into a good agency where you can learn and grow and do good work is invaluable coming out of school. So whether you making $40k or $50k a year isn’t as important as the kind of work you’ll be doing. I know that $10k sounds like a ton when you have school loans, etc., but going to a place where you make less but have the opportunity to build a great book will pay off multiple times over in the long run.

Finally, here’s a post Greg did about the timeline of the whole process.

Good luck in your search.

Here’s something to keep in mind as you’re looking for work. It was originally posted by a friend of a friend on the Proximity BBDO blog, here.

You know you’ve landed a job at the right company, with the right people when…


– you can spend 2 hours standing around talking with your coworkers after work, about everything but work and feel like it was only 2 minutes
– you’re work family is a REAL family
– you share personal details about your life with your coworkers, without fear
– you would consider taking a vacation with your coworkers
– you invite your coworkers to your kids birthday parties
– you invite your coworkers to your home
– even after the worst day, you still get a warm and fuzzy feeling about your job and coworkers
– you tout your team’s accomplishments to everyone you know, every chance you get
– your non work friends start to wonder if you like your work friends better
– after a week of vacation, you actually start to miss being at work
I’m about to go on a week vacation and while I’m really looking forward to the time off, I have to honestly say I’m glad I’ll be coming back to the most awesome work family I’ve ever had. See you all in a week.

More Experienced Partners

When I started my career, I was fortunate to be partnered with an art director who had a couple years’ experience. My first assignment was tv spot, and about a month into my first job, I was on a shoot. I would have been completely lost had it not been for the help of my partner.

The learning curve is pretty steep when you start at your first agency, but it will be steeper if you work with more experienced people. If you have an opportunity to partner with a seasoned vet, take it. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to look foolish.

Agencies often pair juniors with juniors. This, I think, is a mistake. Juniors will grow much faster if they have someone to show them the ropes.

Creative directors vs. creative engines

Don’t confuse being the creative director of an agency with being the creative engine of an agency. Sometimes, they’re one and the same. But not always.

I’ve worked at agencies where the creative director, however well-respected, was not the creative engine. Those who came up with the best work, the killer lines and fresh layouts were not always the ECD, the CCO, or even the CD. They were the people who loved their jobs and worked like crazy to make sure their ideas were as good as they could be. They never settled.

It may take you a few years to be a creative director. But you can be an agency’s creative engine whenever you decide to be.

Career Warehouse

Your career is a warehouse. It’s got an inventory. And you decide what comes in, and what you keep in storage. Unless, of course, you stop paying attention.
That’s when crates of 20-second legal copy start to show up in the shipping office. That’s when the forklifts bring in palates of “ACT NOW!” starbursts. You sign for these deliveries because the client or your creative director promises “just this once.” Or maybe you let them pile up because you’re “just paying your dues.”
But then the shipment for the One Show has to go out. And you look around your warehouse and realize you’re out of creative stock. There’s nothing good on the shelf. All you have are some moldy cardboard boxes marked “CONCEPT STILL IN TESTING” and “POLISHED TURDS.”
The easiest way to keep your warehouse from being cluttered is to keep an inventory. I recommend monthly. Quarterly at the very least. Figure out what you need more of and find a way to go get it. It’s the end of the month. Why not take inventory right now? It sounds like a Stephen Covey aphorism, but a little self-evaluation is better than hoping you catch a break on the next assignment.
Going a whole year without getting into the One Show isn’t so bad. Going a whole year without having anything to enter into the One Show is.

Taking Yourself Out of the Game?

Every year I speak with a student or two who’s offered a job somewhere and then begins wondering whether or not they should take it. Often, it’s because it’s their first offer, and they feel like they might be taking themselves out of the game too soon.

I recently exchanged some emails with a really talented student who was contemplating a job. She said she was getting mild interest from a lot of places and didn’t want to make herself unavailable.

I told her interest isn’t good enough. At this stage of the game, only offers matter. A few years ago, one agency showed interest in me for a long time, waiting for a hiring freeze to thaw. In the meantime I lost interest. That was a luxury for me because I already had a job. But if you’re a student waiting for interest to mature into a solid offer, the delay only gives the agency time to find someone they like more or who will work for less.

The same student said she was afraid that if she took the offer she’d be taking herself out of the game too soon. She forgot that taking yourself out of the game to take a great job is called “winning the game.” You’ve got to put yourself in a position to start doing great creative as soon as possible.

It’s a fantasy every portfolio school graduate has to be courted by multiple agencies who get in a bidding war over them offering more and more lucrative opportunities. But the reality is it’s incredibly tough to get a job at a top-tier agency. The best thing you can do is have your 5 Criteria for choosing an agency and stick to it.

That art director, by the way, took the job. And I’m very excited to see the work she starts turning out.

Go. Fight. Win.

Start Working On Your Other Portfolio

Here’s another thing you won’t learn in portfolio school:

As soon as you land your first job, begin investing immediately in your 401(k).

This is a big enough deal that I think it’s worth breaking format to mention on a blog about advertising and putting your book together. At the risk of sounding like a banker, here’s a brief explanation (don’t wade through Wikipedia on this one):

  • A 401(k) is a retirement plan held by your company. Usually through someone like Fidelity or Vanguard.
  • You choose a certain amount from your paycheck to be deposited into your 401(k).
  • That money is invested into a collection of stocks, bonds and mutual funds of your choosing from a list of options within the company’s plan.
  • Most companies will match your contribution to a certain extent (usually 5%).
  • That means if you’re making $30,000, and putting 5% ($1500) in your 401(k), you’re getting an extra $1500 a year from your company. Free money!

So when you’re filling out the ream of paperwork HR will give you on your first day, indicate that you’d like to contribute to a 401(k). Find out how much the company will match and have at least that much of your paycheck put into the account. (And I recommend anytime you receive a raise, increase your contributions by at least 1%.)

Yes, paying off debt and student loans is important. Yes, the economy is awful right now. But you absolutely need to do this. Just because you’re a creative type doesn’t mean you can’t be smart about your own future.

I recommend the following books to anyone starting out on a career who knows absolutely nothing about money:

Personal Finance for Dummies by Eric Tyson

Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach

You may also want to check out this, this, and this.

Words of Ernie, Part IV: Your First Job

When I was in portfolio school, I was lucky enough to have Ernie Schenck as my mentor. (If you’re new to the blog, you can read some of his sage advice here, here and here.)

When I took my first job out of school, I wrote him about it. I’m posting his response, because it’s going to apply to you, too:

Greg– That’s great. Good for you. It sounds like a real good opportunity to get your career off the ground. Just remember to stay vigilant. Protect your brand. Not that you have one yet, but pretend that you do:) If things are working out and you’re getting your needs met, and you know what those are at this point, then great. If not, though, don’t wait to jump ship. Trust me on this inertia thing. The longer people stay in one place the harder it is for them to leave. Just keep your wits about you. Be in touch. –Ernie Schenck