Do you need a degree to work in advertising?

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Freelancer or not, the dream of working in advertising is real for many creative professionals out there. It gives us a career prospect and a much concrete way to give shape to our dreams. As much as it would be lovely to live off prints and short stories, the truth is that only a select handful are able to make a consistent living out of those. Many resort to advertising as a career that has a purpose, feels like a great fit and just makes sensewith everything we’ve always wanted to achieve in life.

But then comes the barrier of the job descriptions asking for experience or a degree, and some aspiring creative professionals will be left wondering about their life choices. Often, it’s not even a matter of dropping out of university – you’ve just been doing a slightly irrelevant degree. So how do you pivot and find your place in the advertising industry?

Do you really need a degree to work in advertising? The short answer is that it depends. You have to understand in which department you’re looking to work – and funnily enough, the creative department is possibly the one with the least problems. So long as you have passion, some client experience and a focused, comprehensive portfolio of work, it will be much easier to get your foot in the door and find a way to start.

The short answer is that it depends, but there are arguments in support of either path

Things get slightly more difficult the more specialised you become. Account teams will often need a qualification in marketing or sales experience, or a blend of both. Tech is closely tied to IT, and if you don’t have a degree in computer sciences, you may find it challenging to get someone to give you a chance. Admin jobs usually require an associate degree at best, but if you are planning to work in the legal department or in finance, well… I think you already know what you need to do, right?

Since this is Creativepool, I will focus on the realm of creativity for this time. The first thing you need to work out, however, is what agencies and in-house teams are looking for in new hires. You probably won’t be able to work for Disney or Ogilvy straight away, but you can work your way up the ladder until you have enough experience to aim for the big names. At a very entry level, agencies will mostly look for a basic understanding of the industry, a lot of passion and commitment, and also a certain amount of talent. You will probably have to do some research to understand the market and how it works, how you can solve a brand challenge, or anything related to meeting a brand’s needs. This requires time, practice, and occasionally a bit of mentorship. You will be required to network and be proactive. But one thing at a time.


Image credit: Iñaki Bonel

Why you don’t need a degree to work in advertising

It is now a rather known fact that even tremendously successful people in the likes of Steve Jobs did not go to college at all. Some were dropouts, some never even started. Some had a completely unrelated degree. Even Sir Alec Guinness, the actor who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy (which is still the best one of course) started as a junior copywriter in London when he was only 18. No way he could have ever had a degree at that age. Then he moved on to do something entirely different, but that’s another story.

They were different times of course. Now it is common practice for most professionals to get a degree before they start their careers. But still, there’s a good deal of aspiring creative professionals out there who maybe found creativity at a later time in life, when most of their early life choices had already been made. And what do we say to them?

We tell them there are courses, of course. You can always enrol into some short professional course to deepen your knowledge of the industry and learn some new skills. I am personally a huge advocate of the power of learning to keep yourself in constant movement. The moment you rest on your laurels and stop learning, you will stop growing as well. Sure, it may be expensive; some of the best courses from the best associations/organisations will be £1,000 and above, here in the UK. But you can be certain it will pay off.

You will always leave a course with more skills or knowledge that you can put into practice. Over time, you will build some confidence and you will be able to go for graduate schemes and internships. But you have to be pro-active, to some extent even more than graduates. You will have to network, strengthen your connections, perhaps reach out to people in the industry for mentorship. You’d be surprised by how many professionals are willing to mentor you into becoming a fully-fledged advertising pro.

Most importantly, you have to do the work. You have to do a lot of that. Build a portfolio of the things you love the most, develop a number of personal projects, and sooner or later people will start to notice you. The more experience you can gather before you go for a creative role, the better. It will show your motivation, energy and drive to succeed in what you’re doing.


Image credit: Alex Samsonov

Why you need a degree to work in advertising

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny the power of higher education to develop your career. Most people see a university as a place of relentless study, but there’s always much more at play than that. You will, certainly, develop a body of knowledge – but that won’t be the only thing. The most valuable thing is that, as a creative person, you will build a skillset, a toolset and a portfolio of work, often counting on professional guidance to polish them to perfection. Student work isn’t always regarded as a game-changer in the hiring process – everybody can do assignments, after all. But those projects are an excellent start for your own portfolio, which could include them and more.

You will also develop a network of contacts. Your teachers for sure, but other students as well, and certainly one or two potential mentors along the line. One day all of that may pay off. Additionally, most universities nowadays push specifically to help their students gain an internship, and having an educational institution to support you may help you get your foot in doors that you didn’t even know existed before.

That first internship may lead to your first job. That first job will inevitably lead to more. Degrees are crazy expensive (the best ones will start from £10,000 per year), but postgraduate courses are especially accessible, and sometimes only require some relevant experience in the area of your interest.

When in doubt, just do it!

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you are facing a very tough choice right now. Whatever your considerations will be after reading all this piece, the most important thing is that you just do it.

The truth in these cases, especially when it comes to our own career development, is that we know exactly what needs to be done. We just find ways to make sure we can avoid the necessary outcome, or we seek shortcuts to cut corners. In truth, life is much less forgiving than that, and things don’t always go according to our plans.

Sometimes you may have to step out of your comfort zone in order to achieve your goals. The only thing I can tell you is this: just do it. Don’t think twice, reach for that inner voice and follow it. It is usually right. If it isn’t, it will be a lesson learned for next time.

It won’t be easy, but you know that already. What matters is that it will all be worth every single drop of sweat and every single tear that you may shed in anxiety, anticipation or pressure. It will be worth it all.

There is a whole community here on Creativepool that can confirm that for you.

Header image: Laimutė Varkalaitė


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