by Susan Adams
As my readers know, my son is in his first year at UCLA and hoping to land a summer internship in advertising. But he doesn’t know the first thing about what advertisers do day-to-day. Unfortunately neither do I. My husband worked as an art director at an ad agency in South Africa in the ‘80s, but that might as well have been in the Pleistocene Epoch, since there was no Internet or social media.
My generous colleague, Forbes CMO Network editor Jennifer Rooney, used to work at Advertising Age, and offered to give me a list of people at agencies where she has contacts. I passed the list onto my son. But what to do with it? He’s such a job search beginner, it struck me that he should try a series of informational interviews, rather than contacting these people and asking for a summer job. I want him to line these interviews up for late March when he’s home for spring break. But then he asked me a simple question: What should he ask in such an interview? I realized I’d never covered this aspect of the job search.
To find answers I called four people I consider excellent sources, vetern New York career coaches Eileen Wolkstein and Robert Hellmann, Katharine Brooks, executive director of the campus career development office at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, and author of You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career, and Jill Tipograph, who coaches college students and recent grads on internships and career launches. They each advised a slightly different approach but together I thought they had great ideas of how my son should approach the process.
“It’s an indirect way of selling yourself without saying, ‘Can I have an internship,’” says Wolkstein. That means you’re selling your personality, your sense of humor and the fact that you’re reliable, eager to learn and will do a good job. You want to communicate that you’ll do anything, and that, above all, you want to soak up what people do all day.
Brooks, by contrast, says you should stick to gathering information rather than doing what she calls a bait and switch and trying to turn it into a job interview. “It can turn people off because it looks like a sneaky way to look for a job.” An informational interview might become a job interview but should only change course if the interviewee steers it that way, she advises.
Do prepare. Read as much as you can about the company so you can avoid asking questions like, “who are your clients,” when the clients are listed on the company website. Find the interviewee’s bio on the company website or through LinkedIn. Check out Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
Tipograph says your preparation should go beyond researching the individual and the company. She has some pointed tips for my son. He shouldn’t squander his time with a high-power contact at an agency by asking questions he could answer by doing online homework. Example: The American Association of Advertising Agencies has a career information tab that describes jobs inside ad agencies, from account coordinator to strategic marketing director. He should read and digest those. He should also think about interviewing a fellow UCLA undergrad who is further down the line in pursuing an advertising career. The university has its own advertising team that turns out real campaigns. A student team member would be a great resource.
Once you’ve done all your homework, what do you ask? I’ve been focusing on candidates like my son who are just starting out. But most of these questions work for people who are further along in their careers, who are contemplating a change. Here are 30 questions, combining the wisdom of my four sources.
- Tell me about the career path that led you to your job. Caveat: Try to glean information from Linked in or the company website and ask a more specific question, like, I understand you’re from Des Moines and you worked in sales there. How did you wind up working in advertising in New York?
- Tell me about your job. What are the core components?
- What did you do yesterday?
- What experiences best prepared you for your job?
- Tell me what happens in various divisions of your agency, like the client side, the finance side, the media buying side, the creative side.
Though Brooks says you shouldn’t pivot and turn an informational interview into a bid for a job, she says you should always network by asking if the interviewee can recommend another contact. Tipograph agrees. “Every single person you meet is someone you want to add to your network,” she says.
Before you even get to the interview, Brooks says you should watch the way you ask for a person’s time. Too many students are overly casual, writing, “Hey Bill, I’d like to talk to you.” Better to err on the formal side, unless the person is close to you in age: “Dear Mr. Smith, I was wondering if you’d be able to give me 10 minutes of your time on the phone for an informational interview.” I’m 56 and personally I prefer an informal “Hi Susan,” but I take her point. She recommends the phone because it’s the least trouble for the interviewee and often the student is in school in another city.
A face-to-face meeting is always best. If I’m on the phone, I’m often thinking of ways to finish the call. If you’re in the same city, definitely offer to go to the person’s office or a nearby spot for coffee and keep your request to 10 or 20 minutes. Since people respond to specific suggestions, offer two or three different times, like Friday at 3pm or 4pm or Thursday at 5:30. Always add, “or any time that works best for you.” Obviously if you’re in another city, you’ll be doing a phone or Skype interview. Whatever you do, don’t resort to email unless the interviewee insists on it.
- Who depends on you?
- Whom do you depend on?
- What do the people who work for you do?
- What do you like most about your job?
- What’s the most challenging part of your job?
- What kind of problems do you face on a day-to-day basis?
- What’s it like to work for this particular company?
- What makes it distinct from the rest of the advertising world?
- How does the future look in your field?
- What are some of the long-term trends in your business?
- What’s a typical career path in this business?
- What city should I live in if I want to pursue this profession?
- What’s a typical entry-level title?
- In your organization when you’re getting ready to hire, in what position do people usually enter?
- What’s your hiring process like?
- Where do you see your career going from here?
- Where do you see this industry going?
- Do you hire interns?
- Whom would I talk to about the internship program?
- Who is the best person you’ve had in the internship program?
- What skill set is your business looking for?
- What would you recommend I study in college to best prepare me for this field?
- What would be good internship experiences I should consider? Should I try to work in a small or large agency?
- What type of work samples or portfolio should I be trying to develop as I try to move into this career?
- Who else would you recommend I talk to (mention who else you’ve talked to in the field)?
Forbes Staff Writer Susan Adams covers careers, jobs and every aspect of leadership.