Changing Things Up: Advice From 4 Career Shifters


Hawley Smyth, Senior Admissions Counselor for VCU Brandcenter, works with both students coming out of undergrad and those a few years in to get them where they want to go in their careers. This week, she brings us advice from four career shifters who used their time at Brandcenter to switch into advertising from another career (and prove that you can come from any industry) or to change teams. Here's Hawley—

What do a comedian, media planner, medical scribe, and financial sales manager have in common? They are all examples of career shifters that navigated into the advertising industry (with a little help from the VCU Brandcenter’s graduate advertising program).  

As Senior Admissions Counselor, I get to know each applicant—their interests, aspirations, life experiences. Some are sure of their path right after undergrad. But many (it seems more and more) are career shifters seeking our program after several years of work experience. I spend a lot of my day talking with individuals navigating transition (what an exciting headspace to be in!). Career shifters are fun to talk to because there are so many layers to their journey—their when, why, and how? 

We asked four Brandcenter alum to share their career shift when, why, and how, to inspire anyone looking to make a change.


Claire Wyckoff
From Comedian to Senior Copywriter at 72andSunny

Why did you make the shift?
I was a theatre major and found my way into an improv group. I loved it because it was scary and weird and creative. Doing improv satiated my desire for a creative life, until I could find my way into a creative career. After years of doing improv and being unsure of my path, I found advertising and I was like, FINALLY. A career where I can be creative and use my weird comedy chops.  

Do you still do comedy?
Yes. The thing that's been remarkable is that I've gotten better at comedy because I realize WHY certain jokes are funny. They’re conceptual. I became a funnier comic because I learned it’s ok to throw out an idea that isn't working. Find a new one. A better one. Improv helped me learn to come up with a bunch of ideas at the drop of a hat. This is an industry where thinking quickly on your feet helps.  


Johnny Roelofs
From Media Planner to Associate Strategy Director at Johannes Leonardo

When did you know you wanted to switch departments?
I started in the media planning department of a full-service agency. While watching football with friends, one of the agency’s ads came on. My friends asked how the ad was concepted—I had no idea. While I was part of the process, I hadn’t worked directly with creative teams. I liked analyzing behavior and data, and being strategic, but longed to jam with Art Directors and Copywriters. Brand Strategy was a great opportunity to use analytical skills, while applying them to the ad's creative. 

Has your background translated?
I understand how media can lead a creative idea. Geico's "Unskippable" ads are creative thinking applied to a media problem on YouTube. Cole Haan's "Don't Go Home" campaign was built on owning media spaces that only came out at night. Each have brilliant creative thinking that lives on top of brilliant media thinking. If either the creative or media thinking goes away, it's just another 30 second spot or billboard.

Frank Guzzone
From Medical Scribe to Design Director at Cityblock Health (A Sidewalk Labs Health Initiative) 

How’d you go from science to art? 
I was pre-med in undergrad and worked as a medical scribe at a Trauma I Hospital. I often helped physicians/residents with creative projects outside the ER (like illustrating a procedure for a resident’s journal submission). I realized I could utilize my "artistic" abilities to solve problems. Through mentors, I discovered an industry dedicated to solving company problems using creative methods—advertising. Since shifting careers, I've worked at two healthcare-related startups (Oscar and Cityblock) as a product designer, developing new software to provide care to patients. Having utilized existing/older medical software, I am able to help inform/improve the user experience of the new tools we develop.

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Devin Altman
From Mortgage Finance to Writer at BBH and AKQA

How’d you make your move?
Sometimes you fall into a job, a life, a routine that you feel is just wrong—you burn several years doing it because it's pragmatic, logical, the "right thing to do".

I had the desire to do something creative, but it took me a while to hatch and execute my escape plan. I thought about it for years. One day I did a Google search for ‘creative career change’ and saw a link to a website called Creative + Talent + Partners, a company owned by Cecilia Gorman. I sat on Cecilia’s information for a year before reaching out. She asked for writing samples, I sent them to her. She told me to make ads. I made ads. 

She mentioned Brandcenter. I wanted to apply in 2013, but I threw my application in the trash at the post office before sending it. The following year I sent my application in and was accepted. Two years later I was sitting on the rooftop of BBH LA, where I started my first advertising gig.

Advice to others wanting to do the same?
Want it. No, need it. 
Prepare to work hard, be humbled.  
Pursue it brazenly, passionately, unapologetically. 

While there are various avenues one can take, our program was designed to aid with the transition into the world of advertising, branding, and business. Our students are pushed by full-time faculty to use creative thinking skills to solve business problems. They gain practical experience creating campaigns for national/global brands. They not only refine a specific area of focus in one of five tracks (Art Direction, Copywriting, Creative Brand Management, Experience Design, or Strategy), but also understand how all these disciplines work together.

Whatever route you take, I hope these career shifter stories will help you pursue the steps towards a career you'll love in advertising.

You got this,

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