Getting the Most Out of Your Internship

By colinpearse / / Giving students a jump-start to their career, college programs provide many aspiring creatives an opportunity to get some real-life experience through an ad agency internship. This is when young creatives learn fast that working in the biz is nothing like the textbook or bubble test said. It’s actually much more interesting and fun. But knowing what it takes to make the leap from unpaid (or poorly paid) volunteer to a junior level employee who earns a paycheck starts by knowing what to soak up during that two-three month adventure.

Here are the seven things I think are most important for interns learn:

1. If You Don’t Ask, No One Will Help You. 
Not the last thing a creative will do, but low on the list is checking on an intern. Many professional creatives are wrapped up in their own world of “make the logo bigger” crises. Don’t be afraid to bug someone or ask them to get coffee, lunch or an after-work beer just to talk shop. They’ll probably welcome the break. The result is that creative pro will label you as a driven individual. Should a higher-up ask about you, he/she will now have something positive to say. During your chat, put your ideas on the chopping block, ask “why” and milk his or her mind for all it’s worth.

2. Go To Meetings That Have Nothing To Do With You.
Meetings … boring, yes. Valuable for an intern, definitely. You’ll pick up lingo and understand the DNA of the agency. You’ll also discover why certain people are stressed and why so many agency workers drink moderate to heavily. There will be presentation documents, creative briefs, short brainstorms and client feedback. These are all things you’ll never see in a classroom setting.

3. Your A+ Thesis Paper Has Nothing To Do With Creative Copywriting.
My first creative director told me: “Clients don’t pay you to write or for me to design. They pay us for our minds.” It’s true. Think about it this way: everyone thinks they can write and/or design (until they actually have to). But thinking creatively on a highly strategic level is a skill few possess. It’s what separates us from our clients and their brand team – we are their brand’s thought leaders. It’s not about writing a clever headline with a pretty photo, rather it’s about writing a clever headline and designing an ad that meets six brand objectives while still clearly communicating to a human being. Forget writing essays and designing your cousin’s band poster, the creative side of the biz is based on intelligently communicating with people in creative ways. Learn that or at least show a spark, and you’ll be valuable.

4. Jump In On A Pitch.
Many ad students get to participate in the AAF competition through “Campaigns” class. They have four months to come up with a large creative presentation for a national client, where they’ll compete against other college student teams. In the agency world, that same process happens in about 10-14 days (sometimes less) instead of 120 days. You’re guaranteed to hear the word “RFP” (request for proposal) while interning. When you do, do what you can to get involved. Even if it’s just gathering photos, proofing or binding. Pay attention to how the team brainstorms. Study how the copywriter writes up the ideas to be sold. How the art directors design comps to communicate the idea. Figure out why the creative director and account director wanted it in certain order. It may not be a flawless process and final product. But this is your chance to finally see how the sausage is made. “Just Do It” wasn’t sold as just a clever line – the agency went through a pitch process, creating a strategic deck book that made the idea of that famous line shine.

5. Keep Building Your Book, Even If It’s Not “Real” Work.
In some situations, it can be difficult as an intern to truly own a project. If you have that chance, save every PDF and file, and make it the showpiece of your book. Unfortunately for many, you’ll dabble here and there, but may feel uncomfortable claiming a finished piece as your own. Don’t let that stop you — now that you understand a brand better than ever, go ahead and design your own campaign. Show what you can do with total creative control. Have a reason for everything you do and say in the campaign. In your upcoming interviews, creative directors are going to be looking to see that you can think and execute creatively and strategically. The ad doesn’t have to be printed in Time Magazine. Good creative is good creative.

6. Be Digital Or Be Left Behind.
You know the vehicles: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Now get active and learn everything you can about them. Pay attention to what brands and marketers are doing with them. Connect with others in the industry through it. Know how to talk about social media in simple terms. Need practice? Try explaining Twitter to your grandparents or crazy uncle. While interning, ask if you can participate in speaking for the agency through their social media channels. Contribute to the agency blog. Be seen, be heard and know what you’re talking about.

7. Be A Writer Or Designer. Never Both.
If you say you can do it all, no one will believe you. If you really can excel at both writing and designing, more power to you. But for most, it’s crucial to pick one path and become as great as you can be at it. Creative directors and agency heads want to know that you’re “our writer guy” or “our design gal.” Don’t get me wrong, having cross-over skills is great — just don’t sell yourself as such. At least until you reach the level of Creative Director.

With the ultimate goal is landing that first job shortly after the internship, remember the process is all about luck, timing, skills, your book, drive, resiliency and intangibles… plus a bunch of other things.

Good luck and let me know what you think. Like the Dude says, everything in this post is just, like my opinion, man. — Eammon is a copywriter who’s worked over eleven years in the ad agency business. He’s won a few ADDYs, judged a few shows and worked on a variety of national clients. Find out all about him on his LinkedIn profile and feel free to follow him on Twitter. Linkedin link: Twitter link: