From Agency Intern To Brand Strategist: How To Build A Career In Advertising

Cheryl Faux and Matt Collins on Fox 32 Chicago, 2013

In 2013, I made my one and only appearance on network television. It happened on Fox 32 Chicago during the station’s midday news program. They invited me to appear with Cheryl Faux, who at the time was a student at Columbia College. She had landed an internship using a mobile app called Internships Lens, which used augmented reality to help users “see” job opportunities in the buildings and neighborhoods around them. I was responsible for product marketing the app for Nokia, which is why Fox wanted me on the program.

Cheryl was the star, though. She had embraced a new technology to give her career a boost, and her story was instantly relatable to every other college student and their parents, so many of whom want to know how to land a plum internship.

After all these years, I wanted to reconnect with Cheryl. I had received notifications from LinkedIn whenever she switched jobs and could see that she had done very well. I wondered how much of her success she attributes to her internships and what advice she gives today’s internship seekers. Not surprisingly, she has thought about this topic a lot. Read on to learn how intern candidates should navigate their search for opportunities during Covid-19, what companies can do to offer rich, remote internship experiences, how to determine if a company’s culture is a good fit for you, and the importance of diversity up, down, and across the company org chart. Her advice isn’t just good for internship seekers. It applies just as much for job seekers, too.

Matt Collins (MC): It’s hard to believe it has been seven years since we appeared on Fox 32 together to talk about your experience using an app to find an internship. What do you do professionally now?

Cheryl Faux (CF): It’s crazy how quickly time flies! Back then I was so eager and “thirsty” for any type of opportunity to put my name out there. Currently, I work (from home) at Anomaly LA, an advertising agency, where I am a Brand Strategist for Diet Coke, Lucky Charms, Minute Maid, United States of Women, and more. To put it in layman’s terms, a Brand Strategist uses knowledge and data to help their clients better connect with their consumers and target audiences. We work alongside creatives to make sure whatever we create (e.g. TV ad, social content, event pop-up) is relevant and authentic to people’s everyday lives, whilst being punchy and differentiated enough to stand out amongst the thousands of ads and experiences we see every day. Ultimately, it’s my job to stay connected to all things people and culture to help our teams get to the most insightful and interesting creative ideas. Each day is different and I could be doing anything from reviewing creative work in meetings, to looking up Tik Tok trends, to googling images of women protesting to add to a presentation.

MC: Looking back, what role did internships play in developing your career? Are you doing the same kind of work today that you did in your internships?

CF: Keep in mind that everyone’s path to success is different, but for me, I would not be where I am today if I did not have internships. In advertising specifically, most recruiters want to see that you have a solid understanding of how an agency operates and that you have portfolio work from collaborating with a team of people, which you can get from schoolwork, side projects, and internships. 

Going into college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life (what 17 to 18 year old does?!) so I moved in the directions that excited me. After realizing that traditional business was too rigid and analytical, I turned my attention to advertising, which was portrayed to me as the laid-back, artistic cousin to marketing. Once I finally picked my major and industry, I realized that there’s a wide variety of job functions within it. You can be a producer, you can be an art director, you can be an account assistant, you can be a strategist, and so on. Internships were integral to helping me figure out which path was best suited for my skills and curiosity. 

Unlike most people who say, “I knew someone to get my internship,” I googled and found a list of all the advertising agencies in Chicago and I literally went through every single website and examined each company. It was a lot of work and time, but I learned about the types of agencies I liked and the ones I didn’t like, which agencies seemed friendly and which ones looked cold, and more importantly, I learned which ones offered opportunities and internships. 

As I mentioned before, most advertising recruiters want to see that you have experience and portfolio work, so after I landed my first internship at a smaller and unknown agency, I made a website of all the things I did for them, which helped me get my second internship, which then helped me get another internship, and so forth until I finally landed an internship at a top-tier agency working on Jack Daniels and Carnival Cruise Lines. I say all that to say, don’t fear having to work at a smaller, local shop for your first or second internship. Relevant experience is experience and it will all add up eventually. Just be patient, your dream gig will happen before you know it.

To answer the second half of your question, no. 

As much as internships try to prepare you for the real world, it’s nearly impossible to learn everything you need to be a junior brand strategist in a few short weeks – especially since just learning about your client’s business could up that entire time. 

However, I believe internships are most useful to students so they can learn about something that is very rarely taught or spoken about in school – work culture. A company’s culture is a bit like an unspoken rule. You can’t really describe it, but you can feel it all around you. Here are some questions that’ll help you determine the type of culture your internship may have: Do your coworkers hang outside of work? Do they talk about their non-work related interests and passions? Does your company host special events for employees? Does it feel like a collaborative environment? Do you feel inspired and motivated by the leaders around you? 

As an intern, you’re so caught up in gaining work experience you don’t really care about these things, but once your job becomes a 40-hour commitment, these things do matter. Instagram and a company’s website will give you a hint of a company’s culture, but you can never really know for sure until you’re actually working side-by-side with your teammates.

MC: Internship candidates these days face a tough job market and the challenge in many instances of having to interview and work remotely. What advice would you give young people who are trying to get an internship during the Covid pandemic?

CF: Thinking back to my days of internship hunting, I could not imagine doing it all under the stress and panic of the Covid-19 pandemic. Regardless of a potentially-lethal virus, finding an internship to help you determine your future life and career is scary enough! 

My advice to those currently on the hunt:

  • Learn Your Non-Negotiables: Pre-Covid, most interns get so caught up in the rush of interviewing and finding an internship that they’d accept the first offer they get immediately. They’re just so happy to have finally been picked, they don’t ask any questions to properly determine if the company is right for THEM. While you may be entry-level (and desperate for a gig), know your worth! That company picked you for a reason and now you have to figure out if the job has the right work environment for you. You can do this by determining what your non-negotiables are – the things needed for you to thrive. These things can be small, like having a manager that’s open to mentoring you, or they can be big, like wanting to attend a virtual conference on a relevant work topic. Either way, it’s important to think about all the things you want to accomplish as an intern and beyond and ask for help from your company to get you there.
  • Know When To Rest: These are unprecedented times and the added anxieties of finding a job should not override your wellbeing and mental and emotional health. You’re not doing yourself any favors if you’re burnt out at home. If you need to spend the week relaxing and not thinking about landing a job, DO IT! You don’t need to update your website, network with people, and then email every recruiter on LinkedIn all in one day. Spread out the hunting work in manageable segments so you actually have time to recoup and enjoy yourself without feeling stressed all day.
  • Don’t Stop Connecting: With career fairs being a thing of the past, we now have to find new ways to connect and maintain with recruiters, potential mentors, and those whose brains you wish to pick. Thankfully, we have Zoom and Google Meet to make that Covid transition a little easier than the others. With extra time at home, you should put a lot of time and energy into finding the right people and organizations that will give you more insight into the career you want to head towards. Whether you’re just cold-messaging people on LinkedIn or using a website like We Are Next to meet industry people, it’s imperative to put yourself out there. Jobs and internships may be on pause right now, but things will get better and it’ll be time for companies to fill some roles. At the least, you’ll learn something new about something you’re interested in, and at the very best, you’ll walk away with a new confidant who you can lean on. 
  • Network Across, Not Just Up: As important as it is to branch out and make new connections during this time, NEVER underestimate the power of peer-to-peer networking. As an extroverted introvert, I shock my friends when I admit that I typically clam up and hate traditional networking. Schmoozing or pretending to be someone I’m not doesn’t interest me. Instead, I would spend my time at career fairs meeting the interesting students around me, who were often just as nervous and ambitious as I am. When you network across, you develop genuine connections with those who are in the same boat as you. While they may be a student who can’t “offer you anything tangible,” as the years pass and those relationships strengthen, you could be making a connection to your future job referral, roommate, business partner, manager, etc. Take the time to reconnect and touch base with your old classmates, fellow students, and recent grads. You’ll have someone who immediately understands your situation and maybe even collaborate on a portfolio piece together.

MC: What should companies be doing to recruit, hire and engage interns during the pandemic so that both they and the interns they on-board get the most out of the experience?

CF: Any company that wants to have a successful pandemic internship needs to immediately put themselves in the shoes of potential interns. Reach out to niblings, nieces and nephews, your mentees, or an influencer online and ask them about their goals and struggles. Empathize and learn how your company can truly uplift and support them. With their routines and futures disrupted, potential interns need programs that will foster real-world skills that will benefit them in the future. 

After your learnings, it’s time to rethink your entire intern program. It may seem daunting, but don’t be afraid to shift and eliminate processes that no longer serve your company or future interns. With limited resources, you’ll have to be efficient with your time and completely intentional with every decision that you make. If you have to scale back from 50 to 10 interns to ensure those 10 interns get the most worthwhile internship, do it! 

MC: 2020 will be remembered for the pandemic, as well as a widespread awakening to racial inequality and pledges by companies to do something about it. Having a more racially diverse workforce can require a different approach to recruiting and delivering the job experience itself. What advice would you give companies that are committed to a more racially diverse workforce but may not know the best way to start?

CF: My advice to companies that aspire to be more diverse is not new nor innovative –– the only way to retain and maintain a diverse workforce is to hire diverse talent AT ALL LEVELS. 

Most companies hire people of color to fill in their intern, entry-level, and junior positions, but fail to recognize that there are no senior-level people of color to help inspire and motivate the junior talent. How can a young executive of color feel excited and optimistic about their future at a company if there is literally no one who looks like them in a leadership role? 

Another problem most companies have is they focus so much on diversity, they completely forget about inclusion. They are not the same. Diversity is getting invited to the party. Inclusion is having someone grab you a drink and ask you to dance. After you hire diverse talent, are you creating an inclusive environment where they feel welcomed? Are you offering them support and learning opportunities that are unique to them? If a problem arises, would they feel comfortable speaking out against your white leadership team to your other white leaders? 

When people say representation matters they’re not just talking about movies and TV, it matters in the workplace – the space where people spend the majority of their time and pour out their passion.

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