Best Advice: How to handle an interview

—”Best Advice” is a recurring column on The Message, in which industry veterans Jack Neary and Kevin Spreekmeester—and some of their colleagues—dispense practical advice for people who are just entering the industry. This instalment examines one of the most important, and stressful, elements of professional life: the job interview. We are also including photos and artwork from the two men with each column. The art for this particular column is a photo by Neary entitled “On the Road.”—

Kevin Spreekmeester: Funnily enough, I don’t remember the successful interviews. I only recall the ones where I bombed.

Out of university I was foolishly trying to become a sportscaster. I had a great interview with Dick Irvin at CFCF TV Montreal. He really liked my work, but didn’t have a position, so he put in a good word for me at CFTO TV in Toronto. I went in to see their head of sports, who asked me all the usual questions. But then he pulled out this big book filled with headshots and said, “Everyone in here thinks he or she should be the next sportscaster at CFTO. Why you?”

That’s a heavy question, and I was ill-prepared for it. I hadn’t considered the most basic thing, which is what do I bring to the table? I looked at him and said, “You know what, I’m not sure, but when I figure it out I’ll call you.”

Obviously, I never got the job. The lesson I took away was: you do have value, and make sure you know what your value is. If you don’t know the value you bring to the table, why would anyone else try to figure it out on your behalf?

Jack Neary: I was also terribly underprepared and went into my first interviews with the view that I could just get by with a bit of charm and humour, which has always stood me in good stead in life. I have noticed over the years how new graduates—and even more experienced candidates—will come in for interviews with these incredibly slick portfolios, but then they don’t say anything.

They just sit there and watch me read their work. They’re missing a key opportunity to impress me. You’ve got one chance. Don’t just sit there: impress me with your story. It’s okay to be nervous. Everyone gets nervous, and the interviewer will know this. But you don’t need to tell me over and over how nervous you are. I empathize.

KS: One thing I’d do differently is I would understand that I really know less than I think. I can’t tell you how many times people starting out have come in to talk to me and have tried to talk to me like a peer. They try to appear overly together, and sometimes that works. But most of the time what I wanted to hear was, “Hey, I’ve got some great foundational stuff here, but I’m new and eager. I don’t know what I don’t know, but I’m somebody who’s going to go through walls to make this work.”

JN: Prepare. Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the agency or company you’re going to see, as well as the person or people you’ll be meeting. You should know who their clients are, what campaigns they’ve created for them. There’s no excuse for not putting in the time and doing this prep work. The internet makes it easy.

KS: The other thing to remember is that this is less about you, and more about who you’re meeting with. Your job, if you are a successful applicant, will be to make everyone around you more successful. It will not be about advancing your career in the next five minutes. Your career advancement will be because you made everybody around you look better, and you’ve done the right things for the company. But if you just focus on you, the interview probably won’t go well. Are you prepared to do what it takes, not solely to advance your career, but to make the people and the company you’re joining stronger? Believe me, your career will be just fine if you follow that philosophy.

JN: Never think the interview is over when it’s over. A creative director might see three or four other people you are competing with in a given day. You’ve got to find ways to stay top of mind after you leave an interview. I always appreciated a thoughtful, well-written letter on actual paper from people I’d met with. If something funny or interesting happened in your interview, use that as the basis for your letter. Use props where appropriate. Stay memorable.

KS: This might sound simplistic, but if you get to do an interview over a meal, know your manners. You are being judged, like it or not. Do not talk with your mouth full. Do pause to put down your utensils to discuss a point. Do not order the most expensive item on the menu. It will all be noted.

JN: It’s funny, any time I was in that situation, I always thought what’s the easiest thing I can order so I didn’t make a mess. Pick something small like a sandwich; something tidy, rather than a big bowl of spaghetti.

KS: And if someone asks if you’d like something [alcoholic] to drink, it’s okay to say I’d just like a pop or water. You need to use your judgment on a case by case basis, but it’s worth asking yourself, what’s the risk-reward for taking an alcoholic drink? In short, be smart.

Kevin Spreekmeester is a photo-journalist and former CMO of Canada Goose. Jack Neary is the former CCO of BBDO, Cossette, Chiat/Day and TBWA.