Life. Then Strategy

Moving to a New York advertising agency: a beginner’s guide

Have you ever bought a car and then found yourself seeing the same car on every street corner? Or, have you ever booked a trip somewhere to then find out that everyone has a story about their own trip there?

Well, right now, I’m telling you: every single person in Sydney is wearing a New York or Brooklyn t-shirt. It’s incredible.

As Mumbrella politely mentioned last week, my family and I are moving to New York – and me into a New York advertising agency. We still have a few hoops to jump through but it’s happening. I promise.

As much as it’s not cool to kiss and tell, I wanted to pen some thoughts for people who are also considering the move. I’ll undermine the entire post right here by reminding you there are no rules and everything I say is as an outsider to the New York advertising industry. Thing is, that’s the point.

At the start of February 2011, I visited about 15 advertising agencies in New York. This was my experience.

Why move to New York?

Be clear on your reasons. I’m moving for two:

1. Scale

I love Sydney but I’ve had many moments (especially when I was publishing my magazine) where I’ve found the scale here frustrating. I feel that a lot of the projects I’m interested in and ideas I’m keen to make happen need to find a home in a bigger place.

2. The future of my relationship and family

One of the great advantages of being an account planner is you get to read a lot research. Lately, I’ve started nerd-ing out and actually trying to apply the research to myself (hence the recent health kick – by the way, I’ve dropped 8kg since Xmas).

The New York Times has covered a lot of relationship research over the past year and I’ve been gouging on behavioural economics books that examine happiness, motivation and so on (An example: Do Your Relationships ‘Expand’ You?). One of the key points many relate is that new experiences are key to healthy relationships over the long term. Having been with my wife for 14 years now, I think the move will do us good. The kids will adapt and get exposed to different ways of being and thinking too.

Why not a New York advertising agency?

I spent about 6 months researching and talking to people before I went. A lot of planners outside of New York don’t believe much good work comes out of advertising agencies there. Others wanted a less hectic lifestyle (for themselves or their families). They choose places like San Francisco, Portland, Boulder, Boston, and Minneapolis where there are incredible agencies. Some are in Los Angeles – although many people say they couldn’t live there. And there are many other hubs around. In fact, flying back from New York to LA for the first time, I was amazed at how many towns there are spread across the country. Very different to here.

Planning your move to a New York advertising agency

1. Be clear on what you want and where

I was pretty clear on what I was looking for and what I was not looking for. It sat atop my CV helping focus my thinking and conversations. I did meet people about digital strategy director roles even though I don’t believe in the digital strategist role any longer. There’s so much change happening in the industry that it is worth not being shy about exactly what you want to do because a company may be able to create it for you (precedent, success and recommendations from other people will help you make this happen). I also decided to focus in on a New York advertising agency rather than other cities a few months before. Having said that, it may be easier to get jobs in other cities at times.

2. Get your assets ready

Your CV

I designed a 4-pager. On the first page I had:

  • my current title
  • a headline for what I could offer, what I was looking for and where
  • the dates of my visit to New York
  • 5 key achievements (1 sentence each)
  • my skill set
  • 3 of my aims
  • my contact details.

With the work history, for my most recent jobs, I wrote 1-2 sentences about the role, listed key achievements and brands (sometimes with the industry if the brand was Australian). I also listed 8 other things I was proud of, talking points to show the diversity (big word in the advertising industry in the States right now) of my background. On the 4th page, I put some quotes from LinkedIn and some references people had given me (clients, MDs, creative directors, bosses). I asked Anibal Casso to run his eye over the whole thing and he did mention the quotes were a bit wanky but I kept them in – social proof and all.

A portfolio

I designed an 8-pager. I included a diverse range of work: brand planning, information architecture, user experience, community. If you have done a diverse range of stuff but don’t want that sort of role any more then consider not showing it. Feel free to show thinking that didn’t happen if it represents the style of stuff you want to do more of.

The template:

  • One big image and 1-2 smaller images (of the end creative, a sitemap)
  • A sharp, one-sentence synopsis of the project, my role and the result
  • Brand, project name, agency, year, my role/s on the project
  • Problem
  • Strategy
  • Creative idea
  • Results

I think getting your CV and portfolio together are really good to help you remember yourself and focus you on what you want from the future. I’m not sure how much they helped generate interest in meeting me or wanting to hire me (a lot of people just had a print out of my LinkedIn profile).

Your online presence

People will search your name if they’re serious about you. Update your LinkedIn profile, your blog and re-visit your online presence. Google yourself so you see what they may see (what you see in Australia will be different to what they see in New York though – use Proxify to vanity-search yourself from overseas). Consider updating your photos. Clean up your Facebook presence and double-check what’s private and what’s public.

Hopefully you haven’t tweeted or blogged about a crap experience at a previous company – this is a real turn off (for me, at least). Delete that stuff if you have.

If you don’t have much of an online presence or you’ve copped flack on a website that appears up high on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP), consider setting up a proper online presence (ie in lots of places), preferably with your actual name in the account name. is useful for this. The only way to push a website that has criticism of you down the SERPs is to create a lot of good, popular content. This takes time. Do it before you need it.

If you want to be tricky, you could buy Google Adwords for your name and for the names of people you’re meeting. It’s a bit gimmicky so it’s up to you how ‘marketing’ you get with this. Obviously, if you ‘get marketing’ with yourself, there are a lot of other things you can do.

3. Contact the advertising recruiters

For strategists, all roads lead to two recruiting companies: Tangerine and The Talent Business. Everyone I spoke to recommended them.

Kimberly Aguilera was my tipping point for moving to America. She’s at Tangerine. Stephanie Redlener from the Talent Business was also great to work with. They’re plugged in to which advertising agencies are leaking great people and which agencies may be a good cultural fit. I’d recommend working with both of them.

Now, as great as they are, I wanted to give you a few thoughts about working with recruiters. Obviously, be clear about what you want. This will help them work out who would be your best fit. They may still throw a curveball at you – it’s always worth listening to, however, remember that recruiters work for and are paid by the agency. They do not pay for your trip, they do not share your risk – except in their time investment and reputation. Having said that, value the personal effort they will put into you. Sometimes they work on retainer for an agency; sometimes it’s on a project basis. Be as upfront about your plans and desires as possible. If you find one that you love working with, feel free to work exclusively with them – sometimes they may ask this of you but unless they’re sharing the risk it doesn’t make sense to me.

4. Find the talent people

We don’t have many talent officers in Australia. Most large US agencies have them. My experience with these guys was very mixed. I found the younger people flaky – no or slow responses to email, unclear about who I’d be meeting, sometimes not briefing the people I was to meet about my background. The more experienced people are dynamic, have a clearer curiosity (not always a clearer direction) about the future of the industry and their agency. You can find them on LinkedIn.

5. Tune into the advertising agencies you’re interested in

If you have a clear hit list, try to find out as much as you can about the company and the key people there. I set up a few Google Alerts, followed a bunch of people on Twitter, looked at company Facebook presences, did some keyword research via Google Adwords and Google Insights (eg to compare search traffic between agencies as an indicator of their momentum and presence). Most have decent websites too.

AgencySpy keeps tabs on industry movements.

Once I’d met with agencies and found out the brands I may work on I also applied the above to the brands and the chief marketing officers (I need to believe in the brands and clients I’ll work with).

6. Research their work and thinking

Creativity, Slideshare, conferences, employee blogs, employee LinkedIn profiles. Tune into all of this months before you leave.

7. Stay up to date with the job listings

LinkedIn is useful enough. There are other sites – Google them. Keep an eye on the different job titles and descriptions. You may need to add these words to your CV, LinkedIn Profile, website (for SEO).

8. If you want to make a hitlist

Scour the award show websites and find lists such as Adage’s A-List and Best Places to Work. Keep an open mind though because not everyone plays that game.

9. Book your trip

You may get hired straight out of Australia but if you’re serious about making the best move you can, get over there. I went for 2 weeks. People will take you more seriously and act with more urgency if you’re in town. You could probably do it in a week if you only want to meet 3 agencies but keep in mind that you may meet a talent officer then they may get you back to meet the team, the MD/CEO, the creative director, the chief creative officer and so on. It will depend on the level you’re going in at.

Time of year: I went in February. I figured it was long enough after Xmas for people to be around. Don’t go when big conferences like SxSW are on unless you intend to go to the conferences.

I stayed at The Roosevelt, a great old hotel in mid-town. I got an excellent deal too (US$119). I considered AirBnb but the hotel deal was pretty good. Fortunately, the flight was free (frequent flyer points). I realise that US$119 per night is a lot of money for 2 weeks – I just decided to make a call on what would be easiest and most comfortable so I could focus on the job at hand.

You can eat at delis or Wholefoods for $5-$10 a meal. If you have a kitchen then you may save more. The subway will cost $5-10 per day depending on how much you use it.

10. The E3 Visa

From what I understand, the E3 Visa (Australians only) is the most straight-forward visa you can get. You need to have done a degree and have a claim for specialisation. The company then needs to lodge a Labor Condition Application, you fill in forms and go for an interview at a consulate outside America. A wife/husband can work on your E3 Visa. More information here.

Advertising agencies in New York: some observations

1. How I’d categorise them

Based on my little experience but a whole lot of research I’d break New York advertising agencies into these 3 groups:

i. Old school and in dire need of change: I don’t want to name names here but I’d actually put a couple of the big, award-dominating agencies in this category.

ii. Large yet progressive: The 2 that people talked about most were Grey and JWT. Grey has grown from about 400 people to 700 people in a few years. They have awesome offices and are winning a lot of new business. JWT’s CEO is a digital guy – David Eastman. Their offices are also very cool and they have strong digital capabilities.

R/GA is also huge but has obvious digital strengths.

iii. Innovator fighting for a bigger stage: Places like Big Spaceship, Anomaly (recently acquired by MDC), Droga5, Strawberry Frog, kbs+p and Huge. All of these places have great, unique points of view on the world and all are making a play for a bigger piece of the action.

2. They’re all trying to work it out

Everyone’s trying to work out what sorts of skills, structures, people they need to get ahead. As I said up top, give them a point of view and many will be interested in exploring it with you.

3. Everyone has an opinion

Whoever you talk to will have a point of view on which advertising agencies suck, who’s about to explode and who’s doing great work. Listen to it all but find out for yourself.

4. Keep an open mind

I went over deliberately keeping an open mind for the first week, when most first-round interviews happened. Be careful about focusing in on cool agency brands. Stay open-minded and meet the odd company you think you’d have nothing in common with. If the first meeting and your research don’t bode well, call it as you see it and focus your time elsewhere.

5. Everyone is doing boring stuff

Some agencies are great at managing their own brands but nearly every agency I met is doing un-exciting work – templated brand approaches (eg beauty, FMCG), getting LINK-tested, and so on. Don’t believe the hype – well, not all of it.

6. Few people asked to see my work

This was weird. I’m just saying.

7. Take notes of your thoughts as soon as you leave

I kept a little file. I paid attention to things like the office design, the body language of the place, if people were talking, if people seemed angry and manic. I also wrote a mini letter to myself every few days – the hotel room got lonely!

8. Keep an eye on bad signals

Moving meetings, meetings without direction, people who don’t know why they’re meeting you and tell you so, frowns around the agency. Pay attention to it.

9. Have a few big questions

Mine were:

i. Does the CEO have a clear, non-financial vision? Economists have shown this is key to the success of a business (instead of ‘our goal is to maximise shareholder value’ via Obliquity and Drive)

ii. Does the work that excites the creative director excite me? The work you see is usually a year or more old. Ask to see some work in progress or new work and ask the person to talk you through it. That way you’ll get to hear which things they’re excited about and whether you share that excitement.

iii. Is there proof of new revenue models? A lot of agencies have a bit of proof – but most are in the project or retainer model based on head hours, sometimes because they believe it’s best, sometimes just because.

iv. Are planners respected? I’d rather go where I’m wanted.

v. Do they have momentum? Whichever role you go into, you’ll be helping that agency become the future. It’s nice to do it with a bit of rhythm behind you though.

Everywhere has its pros and cons. There is no utopia, which brings me to the most important thing:

10. Buy into the pocket of people you will be working with

Bosses, creatives, clients. As I said, everywhere is doing work that won’t excite you but most places have pockets of great-ness (some have many of them). Everywhere has good and challenging clients. Find your sweet spot.

Got something to add or correct?

If you have tips about how to move to a New York advertising agency from overseas, fire away below. The Internet will thank you for it.

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