From Intern to CEO: How To Make The Most Of Your Placement

By Chris Daniels

Judy John says she wouldn’t be where she is today as CEO of Leo Burnett Canada and CCO of Leo Burnett North America had it not been for her internship at TBWA/Chiat/Day (formely Chiat/Day). “I just worked like crazy for those three months, built a book and made relationships,” reflects John. “And then I got hired." 

And so she says it’s a shame when she sees interns who may have terrific potential fail to maximize their opportunity.

“One of the things I always say to interns is that you have control over how we think of you and consider you. Sometimes we get in students who have a sense of entitlement; they are too good to do certain things and say, ‘That is not why I came here.’ That kind of attitude doesn’t do well in an agency, because what you really came here for is to be part of a team,” says John. “We all do things that are not part of our job descriptions; when it’s super busy I’ve gone to get people coffee. It is not demeaning; you’re being helpful.”

In an interview with Annick Desy, head of talent, and Peggy Boustany, lead talent recruiter at Sid Lee, they spoke about the people they are looking to place. They say creative directors expect interns to be “resourceful, proactive, hungry for knowledge and positive.”

Desy and Boustany also say interns shouldn’t be scared to mess up or hold back on ideas because they fear they won’t be well received. (Especially since the opposite could be the case.) “There is no bad mistake,” says Boustany. “Making mistakes is the best way to learn.”

Senior leaders repeated many of the same answers when asked how a student can make the most of their placement. You’ve been asked to deliver five print ads? Do 15 on the side that may be a little different but still on brief. Don’t be the last one in and the first one to leave. Ask questions. Listen.

But making a good impression also boils down to just being professional. “Don’t forget about the common-sense basics,” says Claire Dawson, co-founder and creative director at Toronto-based graphic design firm Underline Studio. “Arrive on time, be friendly, ask people if they need help with anything. You may feel invisible, but you are not—how you behave and work on even the smallest tasks can be the predictor of the kind of work you’ll be given.”

“Work hard; it will be noticed,” she says.

“It comes down to, you only get out what you put in,” summarizes Daryl Gardiner, associate creative director at DDB Canada in Vancouver. “You do see interns who put so much energy and drive and proactive behaviour into their internships, and they get a lot out of it. Others squander it. Realize you have access to really smart people. Realize you can improve your portfolio. Realize relationships you create can also open doors at other agencies.”

“I think an internship provides so many possibilities. The intern just has to realize it,” he says. 

Chris Daniels is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Applied Arts, Maclean’s, and Marketing.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Applied Arts magazine.