The Strategies Strategists Should Use When Interviewing

Job hunting season is upon us again. And whether you’re about to finish up school or you’ve been in the industry for years, finding that plum job as a strategist isn’t easy. I frequently get asked for advice on how to land a strategy job within leading agencies and consultancies. If that question has ever crossed your mind, here are some thoughts for you.

In my experience, there are five mistakes most strategists make that inadvertently lead to the job search brush off. Avoiding those and applying five counter-intuitive strategies can help anyone stand out from the pack.

MISTAKE #1: Sending a Resume

Say you were to jot down a list of your best characteristics and email it to a potential lover. How compelled do you think they would feel to call you? Not very. Agencies see a constant flow of bland, impersonal résumés, and you shouldn’t kid yourself about the ability of your past to speak for itself. No gold stars for effort here. The truth is, an impressive background is boring unless you can bring the details to life.

Pitching yourself requires color and depth. And that’s why you should send a creative portfolio — a three-dimensional story of who you are. With a creative portfolio, the key is proving your ability not only to generate good ideas, but more importantly to sell them. Lead an agency through your process in a way that showcases your personality, and you’re more likely to make an impression.

Here’s what to do instead: Use your digital presence to showcase the creative output your strategies inspired. Head to BehanceFormat or Squarespace and start compiling your online portfolio. These tools were designed for creatives but that doesn’t mean they won’t work for you. At the very least, accompany your incisive case studies with the associated creative outputs or visual artifacts of insights you uncovered along the way.

MISTAKE #2: Being a Master of Observations

Most of us have a digital footprint, but many of us still manage to produce very little original content. If you spend the majority of your energy merely curating and sharing a collection of links, you’re guilty of this sin. Observations do not add up to insights, and they certainly don’t demonstrate that you have a fresh and bold voice to add to the conversation. Fixing this problem can be as simple as the difference between tweeting about an interesting article and writing an entry on your own site about how that article relates to something you’ve done or an idea you have.

But the real mandate here is more holistic: re-conceptualize your digital self. Develop a unique outlook that others want to follow, and use that as a platform for engaging with the industry. After all, if you don’t think you have the capacity to add value, why should anyone else?

Here’s what to do instead: If you aren’t regularly publishing your thoughts to Medium or writing articles on LinkedIn, you should start. But first, head to your favorite search engine and type in, “How to write great content.” Decide what you want to write about and follow through. Tell the world.

“I think the most inspirational planners are the ones who give away their thoughts, knowledge, ideas for free. The people with prolific, well manicured blogs are considered aspirational.” –Piers Fawkes

MISTAKE #3: Describing Yourself as Curious

Emphasizing your curiosity during the application process can be tempting. After all, you want to show off your keen intellect. And you want to be flexible, a real team player. But let us fill you in on a secret: “curious” is a cliché. The word’s definition does include a thirst for knowledge, but it also implies indecisiveness. When convincing someone of the unique addition you would be to their agency, you don’t want to appear unfocused.

Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, commit to a point of view. Your perspective is your currency. When speaking with your would-be boss, communicating what you’re passionate about will help them envision where you would fit into the organization. Being confident in your approach does not make you closed off to others’ ideas, nor does it prevent you from evolving. It does serve as a starting point for how your new colleagues can imagine working with you.

Here’s what to do instead: Don’t describe yourself in vague, generic terms. Just as you would position a client’s brand, position yourself. Do research. Ask friends and colleagues to describe your best traits. Take a hard look at the kind of work you do and the kind of work you want to do. Read “Good to Great” and fill out the three circles of the Hedgehog Concept. Avoid describing yourself as curious and stick to sharing your unique POV.

“In what we do as an industry, our subjectivity is the value. Otherwise, we’re getting paid for something that can be replicated.” –Domenico Vitale

MISTAKE #4: Acting The Role Of The Interviewee

To expect only to answer questions during an interview is to appear both arrogant and insecure. On the one hand, you seem convinced that your interviewer desperately needs someone just like you. On the other hand, you come across as afraid of allowing the conversation to take unexpected paths. Above all, if you don’t give something back with your own ideas, you’ll end up selling yourself short, limiting the agency’s impression of you to the topics they happen to raise.

Give yourself more leverage by turning expectations upside-down and acting like a consultant. In short, come prepared to explain how your expertise can solve the agency’s problems. That might sound like a tall order, but it’s really just a matter of knowing how to convey your confidence effectively. Do this well and you will make yourself seem all but indispensable.

Here’s what to do instead: Do a little homework prior to speaking with your would-be employer. At any given time, most agencies are in the midst of a new business pitch. Find out what clients they are pitching and offer to lend a hand. Offer your services. Maybe it’s pulling together a trend report or turning a few man-on-the-street interviews into an insight film. Report back and be sure to wow them.

MISTAKE #5: Playing To The Job Description

Doing the bare minimum is no way to get ahead, especially when you’re still trying to get your foot in the door. So when it’s time to interview, don’t assume that an agency’s needs are restricted to the job description they’ve provided. Taking that tack will make you seem disinterested and short-sighted. What’s more, you’ll give the impression of being a one-trick pony, and there’s no room for that among tomorrow’s strategists.

To land the job, do your research and think of creative ways that you could address some of the agency’s unmet needs. By showing that you’ve already thought about how you would apply your strengths, you’ll call attention to your multiple talents as well as your ability to execute ideas. Arrive with a few tricks up your sleeve, and make people excited about what you can bring to the party.

Here’s what to do instead: What things of value can you provide that may fall outside the job description? Maybe you have video editing chops that might be an asset to the planning department. Your 1,000 Twitter followers may be 1,000 potential visitors to your new agency’s website. Perhaps you know someone at a desirable company that your potential agency might be interested in meeting. Or maybe you have built up relationships with progressive, new vendors that could modernize the way your future agency does research. Call attention to the little ways you can help move the agency forward that go beyond the job description.

“You have to have lots of hyphens in your title. The more hyphens, the more perspective.” –John Gerzema

Bottom line, approach your job search like you’d approach a planning assignment. Determine your desired outcomes and then work backwards to articulate how you want to position yourself and the strategies and tactics that will help you cut through the candidate clutter.

This approach will help you not only land a great job, it will provide the roadmap for building a long and successful career as a standout strategist. Good luck!