How to be a Kickass Intern

April 5th, 2013

Experience comes in all shapes and sizes. My first exposure to advertising came in the form of a senior seminar at my University. We had the opportunity to partner with Leo Burnett and General Motors to create a Gen-Y-focused campaign for GM Goodwrench service centers. I immediately gravitated towards strategy and ideation (and of course wanted to do some of the copywriting because who doesn’t want to secretly be a copywriter?), and was able to learn what exactly went into creating a new voice for a brand, one that would resonate with a certain consumer, and ultimately drive results. I was so lucky that my University had a course like this, because internships in advertising are hard to come by. Like, really hard. Like, most people who work in the industry couldn’t have dreamed of getting the top internships, hard. And I’d say we’re all pretty good at what we do! So if you happen to get an internship, it’s absolutely crucial that you blow it out of the water.

I’ve worked at a few agencies in Chicago and New York, and a consistent theme in my short career has been an interest in helping other young folks break onto the advertising scene – mainly because I know how tough it can be. This ultimately manifested in me helping lead an the amazing BBH Barn. It was incredibly eye-opening, being on the other side of things. So here, I will help equip you with some tidbits on how to be a kickass intern.

1. Do whatever you’re asked to do.

Sometimes a single project can change the outcome of your career. In my first internship, I was asked to do a lot of number crunching. It was grueling, at the time, and I often left feeling creatively starved. But that experience gave me a skill set I would’ve never developed for myself. And it’s helped me get every job since.

2. And more.

People really do notice those who go above and beyond. If you’re asked to pull some survey data, take a bit to see if you can derive some insights out of it. Attach it to an email with a few of your learnings. Or, ask if you can sit with your strategist friend while he/she digs through it. In the outrageously overused words of Steve Jobs, “stay hungry…”

3. Humility is a virtue. We know you rock. We hired you. But you’re still here to learn.

Junior talent in this industry is really awe-inspiring. I’ve met account folks who can work in Dreamweaver, make films, and run a successful blog. But when you’re an intern, you need to wrap your head around advertising. Which is a lot more than reading AgencySpy and Creativity. We can help you understand the nuances of the business, navigate client relationships, manage their expectations, and deliver really great, hole-proof thinking. And we are excited to help! As long as you’re open to it.

4. Do some soul searching before you arrive. Do you want to be a Strategist? Account Gal/Guy? Art Director?

Each role in the ad industry is very different, and there’s usually one that will feel right for you. This may change as you grow in your career, but at the onset, go in with a solid stance. If you’re really unsure, talk to anyone you know in the industry. Chances are they’ll know where you belong right away. And if you don’t know anyone in the industry yet, reach out to me!

5. Do your research. Who are your dream clients at the agency?

This requires a bit of soul searching, too. What pieces of business would you love to work on? Are you obsessed with tech? Are you a whiskey connoisseur? A car buff? See what your agency’s roster looks like before you walk in on your first day, and have an idea of the brands that excite you.

6. Discuss what you want to accomplish.

Set some goals for yourself and share them with the people in charge of your program. Be honest! I promise, they will try their darndest to make you happy. Remember that this internship program is also very important for them. They want the world to see and hear that their interns are thrilled. This is how they get the best talent knocking on their door.

7. Find a mentor and try your darndest to become their best friend. Their cool best friend. Not the kind that chews their ear off.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Mentors are so incredibly important at every point in your career, but especially at this point. Spend a few weeks feeling people out, and then find someone you can trust. Ask them to step in as your confidante and protector. This person will save you from working 20 hour days, make sure you get on the right projects, and introduce you to all the right people.

8. Be the kindest version of yourself.

Apologize if you make a mistake. Everyone makes them, and a heartfelt apology deflects more negativity than you know. Smile, say good morning, introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met. People respond splendidly to nice people.

9. Arrive early, stay late.

Even if you don’t have a ton to do, or you were out late (drinking?) with colleagues, it shows you’re committed and not afraid of crazy ad-hours. Of course, there are boundaries. Most times, there’s no reason to work all night. But always check in with you team before you leave, and make sure your loose ends are tied.

10. Curiosity is a huge indicator of success.

In advertising, specifically. Dig through old files, ask questions, sit in meetings, be a fly on the wall, and listen. Leave your phone and computer at your desk and go old-school. Take notes, write down any questions you have, and make sure you get answers later.

What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned from being an intern? Did I miss anything?


Ambika Gautam is a strategist at Mother New York. She in a social media enthusiast, literature fanatic, and a lover of sweet treats. Catch up with her on Twitter at @ambika_g


Photo Credit: Practical Owl

One Comment:

  1. Put yourself into it – During my internship I was asked to work on a big project where one aspect of it was J.Bieber. People laughed and made fun of having to deal with this whereas I choose to own it. Though I never stated I disliked him I dove right in and became the Bieber expert the senior planners knew nothing of. I put myself in a postion where I was irreplaceable and though it was a huge project I put myself on the map as being an “expert” in something. It opened doors to meetings, higher up people and most importantly gave me a confidence to share my thinking.

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