I first met Bart, creative director at BBDO, in Amsterdam when we were both on the jury team for the Art Directors Club. We immediately got along and have since stayed in touch. So when I started the How to Get a Job at X series, I just had to ask Bart and BBDO to be part of it.
BBDO's perspective is a new one in this series, as we haven’t talked to a massive creative advertising agency yet. And besides being one of the largest, BBDO is also one of the oldest agencies in the world, founded in 1891.
I’m honored Bart and BBDO's head of design, Simon, took time out of their day to answer all our questions about landing a job at BBDO. Let’s do it!
Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?
SIMON: I would say that around 70% came through referrals and headhunting. We have an amazing director of talent, Amy Starkman, here at BBDO who is a real asset in finding great people and talent.
Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?
SIMON: If the email is short and to the point it will be read and replied to quickly.
BART: I’ve seen many people, especially juniors, approach me in elaborate ways, from personalized goodie bags to hand-drawn record sleeves. To me this is the equivalent to a well-practiced pick-up line: meaningless the moment you look one step further. Just show me the real person I should hire as concisely and convincing as possible, no bells needed.
SIMON: Some things are better to save for an interview rather than putting your whole life story in the introduction email. Let your work speak for itself so you can speak about yourself in person. I heard it said once at IBM design, “Your talent will get you the interview. Your culture will get you the job.” I think that makes perfect sense. You need to be nice AND talented.
“You can be versatile while maintaining a clear identity; it’s what makes you stand out.”
How important is a complete portfolio for you? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at BBDO?
SIMON: In most cases design is visual. Even if it’s about experience design, design process and design thinking. The portfolio doesn’t need to be complete but there needs to be something that sparks a discussion. Your work should reflect your thinking and that’s what I want to know more about in the end.
Then you can decide to focus more or less on the portfolio during the interview. I usually view the portfolio thoroughly before the interview so we can spend the time talking about your ambitions and the work you really want to do in the future, preferably as a member of our team.
BART: As far as how “complete” a portfolio should be, I tend to prefer books that show a strong vision rather than a weak mix of things for the sake of making it complete. You can be versatile while maintaining a clear identity; it’s what makes you stand out.
“I would like to see more personal projects in portfolios. The work that you did in the best of conditions and with full artistic freedom.”
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
SIMON: I don’t want to see every piece of work that you have ever done. Pick your favorite pieces. It doesn’t need to be for the most famous or biggest clients as long as you are proud of it and want to talk about it.
I would like to see more personal projects in portfolios. The work that you did in the best of conditions and with full artistic freedom.
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests? For example being active bloggers or otherwise outspoken in their community?
SIMON: Yes, absolutely. I would be a bit suspicious of someone who doesn’t have any interests or hobbies outside work. It doesn’t need to be highly artistic or creative stuff, but it tells a lot about who you are as a person.
BART: Wherever you work, you’ll always have to stay within certain constraints. And one of the most dangerous traps is to stop thinking outside of those constraints. The best work is inspired by culture, not by a marketing bubble. And having your own interests — out there in the real world — is a great way to avoid getting trapped.
What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at BBDO? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:
SIMON: Not asking enough questions. Ask, ask, ask. There are really no stupid questions and I will only be more interested in you if you show genuine interested in us.
Do you have a favorite story of an application that really stuck with you?
SIMON: The weird ones seems to stick the most. In one of my first application interviews I had as an junior AD, I met a copywriter who put all her work on notes hung on strings inside an umbrella and asked me to step inside where she whispered the notes to me. It was cozy and freaky.
BART: Another one might be my very first application. Still in school, I interviewed for an intern position. A day before the interview I lost the folder with all my hand-drawn work, my complete portfolio. All I had left was a CD-ROM with animation work. In the interview I handed it over, only to find out they were all .exe files which didn’t work on their mac computer. I had pretty much given up hope, but miraculously I started the next day because they were so slammed. I stayed there for many years after.
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
SIMON: If your work is good enough for you to get an interview I would say you are halfway there. I don’t believe in having you do a bunch of interviews with a bunch of different people. You will most likely meet a small group of people from our team for 30-60 minutes and then have a short talk with our talent director. It will mostly be focused on cultural fit at this point.
“For junior people we need to trust our instincts more and be able to see the potential; for senior people the work should speak for itself.”
Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
SIMON: Yes. But I’m looking for someone who has both.
BART: Yes, the cultural fit is a must. The experience and hard skills depend on the level we’re hiring. For junior people we need to trust our instincts more and be able to see the potential; for senior people the work should speak for itself.
What are the secondary skills you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example, do you prefer business skills over coding skills? Video skills over coding?
SIMON: I love working with people who have hybrid talents. I would say everyone in our team now is doing multiple types of work: code, design, UX, 3D, editing, creative tech. And if you are currently not doing it there will be a lot of opportunities to learn and develop it here at BBDO.
BART: Many secondary skills are very obvious, but I love it when someone has a secondary skill that you would never put on a job form. For instance, we once hired a designer who turned out to have an in-depth understanding of musical theory, which largely defined the design of a music visualization project we did. It’s great when you run into surprises like that.
How do you think BBDO is different when hiring new talent compared to other tech companies or design studios?
SIMON: I love working at big agencies. Every day is different and there is so much variation and diversity. I believe we can offer a large palette of opportunities and chances to grow your skills and talents. We have a somewhat unique creative freedom and mandate, and we move fast despite our size. If you want to work at a modern agency with a plethora of projects and clients, I think BBDO is one of a handful of agencies that truly delivers.
Thanks so much, Bart and Simon! I loved getting a glimpse into how your agency works, and appreciate all the insightful takeaways.
For those looking to get a job at BBDO, keep these tips in mind:
Nr. 1 - Let your work speak for itself.
Don’t try to impress with gimmicks or long-winded emails during the application process. BBDO just wants a clear look at who you are and what you can do. Be genuine, be concise and focus on making your work shine. Keep in mind you're one of hundreds, so your first email has to make an impression.
Nr. 2 - Ask your burning questions.
Your work will get your foot in the door during the application process, but the interview process is your time to talk. BBDO wants you to be engaged and ask questions in your interview. Do your research and be prepared with smart questions that will show your interest in the agency. Don't just answer BBDO's questions, prepare your own.
Nr. 3 - Focus on quality over quantity in your portfolio.
This is great advice for everyone, but especially junior designers. Personal projects show how you work without constraints, and they’re a smart way to build your portfolio when you have less client work to show.