Preparing for Your Ad Agency Interview

Digiday ran a piece titled, “How to Not Blow it at Your Ad Agency Interview”. The article had top agency execs sharing their biggest pet peeves and red flags when it comes to interviewing prospective new employees.

While most of the entries were pretty helpful, there were two instances that were all too familiar to me, and not in a good way. I bet they’re familiar to some of you, too. Here’s the first, from a New York agency Managing Director:

We often set people a real brief to respond to and ask them to take a few days or a week to work on something and come back and present. It really helps see how people think about a client problem and act in a client situation Direct.

I wrote about this extensively in my post, “Everyone Needs to Get Paid”. Read it for my personal point of view on this type of we-just-want-to-see-how-you-think approach. Here’s the CliffsNotes synopsis: It’s morally and ethically wrong for someone to ask you to work for free, especially if you’re in a vulnerable position, financially or otherwise. Work product shouldn’t be free. Everyone needs to get paid. Run, don’t walk, from anyone at any brand or agency who uses this as a gate item to a gig.

The second entry that caught my attention was from a Boston agency Chief Innovation Officer:

Another thing to never ask is anything to do with how late do we have to work, or do we have to work weekends. You are instantly telegraphing that you’re not committed to do whatever it takes to get something done.

My feeling here is that the candidate is likely communicating that she’s looking for some work/life balance. She’s telegraphing that she’s not looking for a job with a firm that has such poor process that they demand their employees work crazy hours (i.e., nights, weekends, holidays, etc.) to deliver on promises that probably shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

I’d like to think that both the Managing Director and Chief Innovation Officer responsible for the comments above are well-intentioned and really fabulous managers.

Here’s a shocker – unfortunately, everyone you interview with won’t be so well-intentioned and may even be really, really bad managers. So do yourself a favor – don’t be a passive participant in the interview process.

Prepare yourself for each interview as if you were conducting the interview. Then, make sure you get your questions answered, which might include their position on work/life balance and how they feel about your thinking around not sharing intellectual property for free.

Leave a comment with your thoughts, questions, or ad agency/brand interview stories. I’d love to hear from you.


  1. says

    Coming from the content side, I can wholly relate to the work-for-free philosophy. I was once a budding journalist and had to “pay my dues” by writing the occasional free clip. That was in the late 90s. Eventually, and fortunately, that all came to an end. Fast forward to today and I can’t help but feel that everyone’s attitudes towards money have changed since the recession. It’s really not acceptable to work for free and from what I understand even large publishing houses such as Conde Nast have done away with unpaid internships and internships altogether. Today there’s nothing more off-putting than hearing about people not paying when everyone is working twice as hard, if not more. I do agree that IP should be respected but it’s easy to see why employers expect things for free or rather don’t recognize the value of original work when there’s so much one can find on the Web that’s free, if not cheap, and when there’s a glut of people desperate to be hired. That said, I’m with you on finding other ways to screen candidates and that employers also take into consideration personality a lot more than they let on. Per the second entry, there’s a fairly pervasive stereotype that Millennials are lazy, self-entitled and have a bad attitude in the workplace. I’m wondering whether that was on the mind of the agency’s CIO. Perhaps the issue is for candidates to just be a little more tactful when asking. As for preparing yourself for each interview as if you were conducting the interview? Priceless!

    • says

      Thanks for sharing, Tim. I think you’re right on with your comments. That overwhelming pool of talent makes it easy for some to take advantage. As I’ve seen more than once, the work product you produce from a “special project to see how you think” can end up in the company’s marketing mix for free. Don’t do it!

  2. andrea says

    Do your background research on the company and its culture – its never been easier to find this stuff out so really no excuses not to be well informed – and be clear about the position you are applying for and why you would like to fill that position – I think if you can answer that question truthfully and honestly and still want to work there then aside from the homework and research it probably means you will have a genuine spark and passion for that role which will come across in the interview.

    But yes you need to be focused, inquisitive and all the rest but of course should never tip over into self-centeredness – a huge turn off Im sure.

    But employers who expect work for free, spec or unrealistic work/time percentages are not an interest to me. I’d move on in a city minute.

  3. Carlo DeMaio says

    I’ve been in involved both structured and unstructured interviews from both sides of the desk and have found structured interviews to be the best way to get to know a person (on either side of the desk), find out about performance related to specific tasks or understand what’s “in between” the lines of the actual written job description.

    In a structured interview with pre-designed questions an interviewer can assess a candidate compared to other candidates and a candidate is asked guided questions so that he or she can showcase talents that are specific to the job. The question and response is structured into a STAR format: the interviewer asks the candidate to give a Situation, the Task associated with the situation, the Action(s) taken to resolve the situation and the result. This is a very specific and concrete way to convey the needs of the company and the strategic and tactical abilities of the interviewee.

    Additionally, I guess that if a company wants to see work product from a candidate, they could just request that the candidate bring previous work with them to the interview. I have recently started to make myself a digital portfolio of my work so that if I want to share it, it would be a click away. I haven’t yet decided if I will really move forward with this, but it seems if I did have such a portfolio, it could set me apart from others.

    • says

      Thanks for sharing your POV, Carlo. The STAR format is similar to the SOARA format (Situation, Objective, Action, Results, Aftermath) and Both can be very helpful when getting to know a potential candidate.

  4. says

    In my roles as a website editor for national magazines and now interviewing for digital content strategy jobs, I am almost always asked to complete a writing assignment, typically ranging from 3 to 12 hours of my time. Typically the assignment is given after an interview, but recently a company asked me to complete one before being considered for an interview. They were clear on their website that this would be their interview process, and claim that it also helps the candidate see if they’d like the role (both of which I appreciate), so I’m torn between that and resenting the free labor. Any thoughts on this?

    • says

      I’m not a fan of this approach. I’d rather see the company pay you for the 3-12 hours it takes to create the work product. That way, expectations are managed, the company owns the output, and both you and company know exactly what to expect. My position is not to do any work for free. If the prospective employer is adamant about getting a project done and won’t pay the freight, look elsewhere. Hope that helps.

  5. Nicki says

    While I do not think it is fair for a company to expect someone to not have a work/life balance (because I believe it is extremely important to have and results in better work), I think the way a person approaches a question in an interview is key. There are other ways to ask questions about the overall culture of the agency rather than honing in on the hours of work. For me, it is a given that this industry requires a lot of hours at times and some late nights, but most people know that going into it. The bottom line for me is that I completely agree an interview should be a two-way street – everyone getting their questions answered is the best way to determine if the potential hire is a fit for the company AND if the company is a fit for the potential hire.

    • says

      You’re right on, Nicki. It’s important for the interview process to be open, honest, and two-way. And I’m not sure that organizations reject the idea of work/life balance. Instead, I think it’s a matter of losing sight of what’s important in our quest for success. Having great leaders and putting people first helps fix that.

  6. Estefania says

    We seem to forget that life has two main sides, the personal one that is too short and the professional that is too long. Sacrificing one for the other is a mistake, we need balance to give the best of ourselves in both sides. I believe working commitment is not a question of the number of hours spent, it would be so easy then, just be around 12 hours a day and results will come out?, sorry not that simple.

    • says

      How great would it be if we could blend our personal and professional sides so there was less sacrifice and more love for what we do? I do agree with you – sometimes the balance isn’t quite what it could or should be (too short/too long). Thanks for your comment.

  7. nk says

    I agree with both your comments about “free work” and “work-life balance”. However, I generally try to find out about the company culture, including work-life balance by networking within the company, outside of the interview process. If I know that their culture is to work late every night, then I can decide if it is a gig I want. I have hired people before and my group’s culture was very respectful of people’s need to have a personal life. Even so, as a hiring manager it would have turned me off if some candidate was too focused on that.

    • says

      I like your approach, where you do some proactive, positive “social engineering” outside of the interview process to gather intelligence about company culture and maybe even the people you’ll be interviewing with. I do hear what you’re saying about a candidate that’s too focused on work hours. For me, that’s an opportunity to explore not only the candidate’s POV on work/life balance, but my own organization’s culture. Have we lost sight of what’s important to our staff? Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  8. says

    I appreciate this message of the importance of practical self respect in job interviews. The strongest interviews I’ve conducted always involve someone who has done their research and is willing to ask questions on what the organizational environment is like. We all know that the job market has been tough in the past few years, but employers who expect work on spec and show disdain for work/life balance put their own red flags on display.

    • says

      Well said, Genevieve. I especially liked your characterization of the post as a “…message of the importance of practical self respect in job interviews.” There are lots of opportunities out there. A little self respect, confidence, and research can go a long way before you even sit down for the interview. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Brian Hoffman says

    As someone actively looking for a job this blog hits close to home. I have yet to be asked to give “sample work” but will be on the look out for it. However, I have recently had interviews where the managers seemed annoyed I did not present much enthusiasm at the idea of working 60 hour weeks. I’d love to show my dedication to the team but I would like a chance to have a social life outside of work.

    • says

      Hi Brian. Thanks for your comment. Dedication has nothing to do with how many hours you put in. There’s too much old school thinking around measuring the value an employee brings to a company based on how much time they park their ass in an office chair.

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