Monday, November 19, 2012

The Myth That 'It Helps To Have Contacts'

Young creatives are always worrying about how they can 'get in front of' an ECD.

If only they had 'a contact' at Droga5, or 'knew someone' at Saatchi & Saatchi, they could get in there, and get a job.

They view the agency world as some kind of closed society, which if only they could become a member of, they would be set.

This thinking is wrong, and could lead to a dangerous lack of focus on what's really important - doing great work.

I say this even though part of what helped me get an interview for my new job (one week in - and loving it) was a recommendation from a well-known figure in the agency world. But the reason he recommended me was that he liked the work I had done when I spent some time in his agency.

The first job I ever got was via a headhunter calling in books on behalf of a young art director looking for a writer at Saatchi's in London. I didn't know anyone there. My second job, at a small 'youth-focused' agency, was actually advertised in Campaign. The ad read: 'Wanted: Creative Team. No Wankers.' Admittedly, that should have been a warning sign. But nevertheless, the job didn't come through contacts. Next job, at Ogilvy, was again via headhunters collecting books for a CD. Next job, at DDB London, came after my partner and I won something called the Cannes Young Creatives competition, where we represented the UK (failing miserably) at Cannes. One of the judges was the ECD of DDB, and he liked our work. Thereafter, we started winning a few awards and so any job offers came via people knowing our work.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, everything came via doing work that people liked, and not by contacts. 

There's an analogous situation in Hollywood. There, young writers are always trying to get an agent, believing that if only they could get in front of one, their career would take off. But agents themselves have an amusing piece of advice for young writers. The advice is: First, write a great screenplay. Then, dig a hole in your garden, bury the screenplay in the hole, and go to bed. When you wake up in the morning, there will be thirty agents waiting outside your house.

In other words, it's all about doing great work.


Anonymous said...

But it sure helps to get an initial foot in the door. I'm currently looking for work overseas. I've got a good book and a big bag full of awards. I'm not getting any responses from the agencies I'm contacting and have resorted to going through a recruiter. Which is all good. But I just can't help but to think if it were my home town, where I have contacts in just about every agency, I would have been able to meet any CD I want by now.

Mo said...

Maybe it's because you don't have the work visa and they would need to sponsor you? I faced the same problem before... sometimes no matter how good you are, they just want to find a local talent first (no legal hassle for them).

Anonymous said...


I have a dual passport and I always state this. I think it's just the initial contact thing. Emailing HR links on websites or if I'm lucky enough to have the address, a CD directly just isn't getting a response. Who the hell knows who's reading these emails? I think I'll be right now I'm with a headhunter - but I reckon if I new someone it'd be easier.

I did know someone at a top US agency and was able to get meetings straight away. Although it will never get you a job, I believe it is easier to get a foot in the door.

Anonymous said...

Recruiters didn't want to know me until I mentioned a well known figure in the industry told me to get in touch with them.

Then they looked at my book.

That got me my first placement. Placement won me some awards. Ironically it was an English headhunter living in Australia that called me up and pushed for me to get my next job. All the Aussie ones, you either went to school with, played footy with, even rented your flat to them (true story) to get pushed for the good jobs. Either that or your Dad did all of the above in the 80s and 90s.

It may be more open in England, but in Australia it's very closed, and you see the same types of people doing the same kind of work placed by the same recruiters everywhere. There's a 'look' most of them go for, and it's not about the work or ideas.

A real shame for the quieter, more talented few.

Anne Miles said...

I agree that you don't need to have contacts to make it work but it sure helps! I personally, don't rely on contacts as much as I could because I do believe that if you have something people want and you are out there with integrity (creative integrity too), then you'll be found.

When you don't have the contacts then it is about becoming a brand yourself, having a profile and giving something of value out there that makes people want to come to you. Being clever about getting in front of people in an engaging way in our market surely has to be part of the consideration for young creatives if they're to be considered to do the same for paying clients.

I was at a marketing event called 'Stump The Strategist' put on by Step Change Marketing and a young, enthusiastic young guy put his hand up at question time and proposed to the General Manager to be given a job - in front of a big crowd. His enthusiasm, unique and ballsy approach got him the gig. If you are good and clever I believe you'll find a way to be heard but sitting back and doing nothing certainly wont get you in.

Scamp said...

Maybe I need to make an extra distinction here - the difference between contacts and recommendations. If you just know people, that doesn't necessarily help. But if you know people, and they think you're good, and they're nice enough to recommend you to someone who's hiring, then that helps a lot.

George said...

It's similar for directors trying to break into commercials - well, certainly from where I've come from anyway. We get sent bundles of reels by directors - the directors probably don't think that we watch the reels, but we always do. Always.

If we see one that we like, we will get in touch and potentially, we could sign the director. Thing is, some people think that they have made it once they are signed by a half decent production company. The truth is, that's when the real work starts.

I would imagine that it's much the same for a young creative team.....

Scamp said...

George, you've got it bang-on. I think a lot of creatives believe that no one looks at their books. Because the alternative (that people ARE looking at them, but just don't rate them) is too difficult to deal with.

Anonymous said...

The reason creative teams believe that no one is looking at their books because sometimes, they never ever get any feedback at all. Not even a "we've received it, thanks". The uncertainty is what goes to their head, not a rejection.

Anonymous said...

Agree with the feedback – the best feedback I've ever had was 'You have one good idea in your book. Come back when you have ten better than that.'

Despite the fact I thought he was an arrogant ponce and vowed never to work for him, it made me rework my entire book, which was a great thing to do.

Funnily enough, he approached me at the gutter bar in Cannes a few years back and asked why I never got back to him. I told him I thought he was a little harsh, but I was surprised he remembered me and my book – to which he said, I had the best book he'd seen, he just wanted to know how keen I really was to work there.

Tenacity beats talent, and pride never wins – I now work for the canny bastard :-)

Anonymous said...

I think it's about having good connections and having good work.
Doing good work gets you noticed and liked by people.
Those people move on to pastures new.
You want a job at their shop, and you're up against someone with equally good work.
But you have that contact, they know you and will vouch.
Chances are you're going to get the gig.
Same with getting in front of CD's. You've done good work and he/she doesn't know you from Adam, chances are you're not going to get a meeting without the help of a recruiter.
But if you can put on your email 'my mate Johnny X said I should contact you' and CD knows and rates Johnny X, chances are you'll get 15 minutes.
Yes, it's about good work AND contacts.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of contacts – Scamp, what are the good recruiters in London?

Talking about pure creative roles, not digital designer or promo art director – above-the-line creative.

What's a good salary for an award winning creative (few Cannes, One Show and D&aD in past few years) with roughly 7 years experience?

Scamp said...

The best recruiters in London for ATL creative are The Talent Business and Liz H. But there are other players too - I would see all of them. Why leave a stone unturned?

Not sure I'd be able to give you an accurate figure on your salary question - ask one of the recruiters.

And by the way, congratulations on the awards!

Bryce. said...

As a kiwi in London I haven't found the UK particularly open at all. I got my first (and only) permanent job here through a recruiter, then after going freelance this year I've found 100% of my work has come from previous contacts, and friends of friends.

I have signed on with at least 10 recruiters and although The Talent Business stands out as the best, they all suffer from 'we love you, talk soon' hot air, followed by never hearing from them again, and them never returning e mails or messages.

Attempts at door-knocking have been greeted by snooty PAs who say 'well leave us your book for a month, if I like it I might show someone who might show someone'. Or the usual 'send me an e mail'.

A couple of years ago when getting an award, the convenor of judges, an owner of a prominent agency, whispered to me on stage 'I fucking love this' and said to be in touch. Result? Default 'thank but we have no positions at this time' HR template e mail.

So my conclusion has been that I am utterly on my own. Contacts are everything.