Breaking Into Advertising As An International Student


I met Cherish Lee, Assistant Media Planner at Wieden + Kennedy, when she was a student at the University of Oregon. She's whipsmart, effortlessly cool, and volunteered to write this Guest Pro email based on her own experience as an international student. While written for those abroad wanting to work in the States, this email's packed with applicable advice for anyone trying to break into the industry. Let's throw it to Cherish—

College is a stressful phase in life with many uncertainties, and a pressure to feel like you have to have it all figured out. Finding an open door or the right fit is not easy. Having to go through this in a foreign country, where resources specific to your needs are limited, can be even harder. Whilst there are postgrad resources for international students, there is not much familiarity with the advertising field, and it can be discouraging and stressful when you can’t find the answers you need. 

Image from  NBC

Image from NBC

I’ll fast forward to the good news: the road you take is similar to anyone else looking for a job in this industry. There's just a thing or two more you have to keep in mind as you look for open doors. Let’s dive right into it:

First, do tons of informational interviews and make the most of them. Informationals are the gateway to a wealth of incredibly useful information just waiting to be accessed. Because there’s less pressure on both you and the person you are speaking with, it’s an opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can. This is important because:

A) The industry is so dynamic. Many in school don’t realize how industry roles can differ depending on each agency. For example, media planning within a creative agency can look very different from media planning within a media agency. Knowing these differences and combining them with an understanding of your passions can make a world of a difference in the job hunt, and open up more doors to what you knew existed! 

Image from  G  iphy

Image from Giphy

B) Culture is key. I often heard people say that as much as the agency was interviewing me, I should be interviewing them to get a sense of agency culture. For international students, this is a chance for you to learn about the company’s take on foreign nationals. Do they value an international workforce or do they shy away from it? How likely are they to sponsor a visa for entry level employees? Knowing these things will be vital in your search and help you focus your efforts on places that inherently value people like you.

C) Create a strong impression. Fostering a relationship with someone in the agency will go a long way in helping you stand out. If you're an international student, this is even more important as agencies often filter out online applicants who state they aren’t permanent residents. Having someone who's able to pull your application out of the pile and vouch for you can make the world of a difference, and can be the stepping stone in securing actual interviews.

Image from  Tipsy Elves

Image from Tipsy Elves

Now you’ve gone through the informationals and snagged some interviews—what next? Here are a few pointers on prepping for your interviews:

Know what you are interested in and have a pointed perspective on it. 
In my senior year I felt lots of pressure to figure out what I wanted to do, but for the longest time I couldn't make up my mind. Did I want to be a brand strategist? A communication strategist? A media planner?

I created a list of things that were important for me in my career and things I did not want as part of my day-to-day. I wanted to stay away from a process that was removed from strategy and creative insights, mindless number crunching and straight up sales negotiations—that was just not my jam. I zeroed in on the things I love, like strategy development, audience research, understanding the communication landscape. Also as an international student, I knew that what I did had to be applicable if I moved back home. I voraciously did research, read up about these topics, and developed a perspective on it.

Make your own list, and during your interviews, bring up the topics you've developed a perspective on. How are you able to learn more about these and practice them in this new role? What is the team’s take on these topics? This is a chance to learn how you align and if this opportunity is a good fit or not.

Image from  S  NL

Image from SNL

Know your strengths and understand how it matches up with the agency.
Doing your research on the agency and details on the role you are vying for will also allow you to articulate why you are the right fit. As an international student, this process is even more important as you have to sell the agency on why you are worth than a local applicant. Use your experiences and draw out lessons that might be applicable to the job. Is it your global perspective? Communication skills? Resourceful spirit? I like to think that the interview process is an opportunity for you to tell a story of why you fit well into the storyline that they're trying to create.

It is okay to turn down an opportunity. At the end of the process it's okay to pass on an opportunity if you feel like it's not aligning with what you want or doesn't seem like the best fit. This might be completely contrary to the plight of an international student, where the struggle to get any job with a visa sponsorship is very real. I understand how terrifying and uncertain this time might be with the prospect of having to return home prematurely looming over you. However, it's important to not lose sight of the vision you have. You will have to make compromises, but if you find yourself taking a job you don’t see yourself excelling in, being taken advantage of or don’t feel passionate about, it might be good to hold off. That said, make sure that you're doing your due diligence to search out other opportunities available to you. 

For the international students reading, you might be thinking, okay this is all great, but when do I ask about the visas? When do I let them know I’m an international student? Should I not bring up my status until I go through a couple rounds of interview? How will I ever get my foot in the door?

Image from  reddit

Image from reddit

These were just some of the questions that raced in my mind. There isn’t a hard and fast answer to navigate this complex situation, but making genuine connections in places that you know are open and welcoming to people like us, and using the tips above will be incredibly helpful in opening doors. Remember, you have traits that highly differentiate you from the next candidate, so hone in on those and find a place that appreciates that

You’ll soon realize that if you do get hired, it's only the start of the journey. When you’re living in a different country, the learning really will never end! And the more you learn, the more prepared you will be to navigate. Lastly, remember you don’t have to do it alone! There are many out there who are on the same journey and we're always willing to help, so feel free to reach out and ask for a hand when needed! 

In solidarity,

Connect with Cherish on LinkedIn and Twitter.