The New Skills All Interns Need

If you’re well rounded, you’ll be well rewarded

By Graham Lee 

Making the transition from full-time creative student to full-time creative professional can be one of the most exhilarating moments in an advertising career. In the time it takes to shake hands with a CD, students go from sitting on the shore, managing their own creative assignments from the comfort of their classroom, to throwing themselves into the raging river of a real agency with real clients actual budgets and honest-to-goodness accountability

In 2016, I was honoured when I was asked to chair the Advertising Advisory Board for OCAD University. Lending a hand to help shape the future of our business through education is an opportunity that can’t be understated, and, as both a graduate and now huge supporter of what Sandy Kedey is doing as new chair of the ad program I jumped at the chance.

The group we assembled was comprised of top-tier industry talent of varying disciplines (including one client) who each shared my excitement for where our industry was going, or, perhaps more amazingly, where it might go. Our mandate was simple—provide real-time insight that will help shape future advertising curriculums and ensure graduate success—keeping in mind this is already a school with a pretty impressive placement track record.

Our first meeting included several lively discussions around a variety of topics, ranging from the current industry perception of the university and its ad program to the changes occurring in the business that would certainly affect future programs. But one topic in particular seemed to elicit a passionate energy above the others. 

What are we looking for in an entry-level creative candidate today, and what capabilities are we ideally bringing into our organizations?

Clearly identifying what skills make graduates most attractive means we help to ensure their futures are fulfilling and productive. Not to mention we help to fortify the university’s future as well.

We unanimously agreed that the new hiring criteria for graduates entering the workforce now goes far beyond an eager smile and a good book—that the best entry-level positions to be had would most surely be snatched up by the candidates with a broader base of skills that include a fundamental understanding of creative, brand and social strategy, a knowledge of latest trends and technology and a 360- degree approach to creative development.

But the wish list didn’t end there.

It goes without saying that a great attitude is still so much of this game. Without a thirst to be great, you’re pretty much guaranteeing you never will be. To that point, one agency owner said he’d rather hire the eager, high- concept candidate who was full of ideas over the technically savvy one—but then quickly caveated that, if this person didn’t have a good handle on a basic suite of software there’d be no place for that candidate in the shop.

A writer from a very hot shop in our group made a fascinating comment. She said that as clients look to their agencies to do more work with smaller budgets, especially for social, an expanded intern skill set is more important than ever. They’re looking for interns to not only develop a great idea, but then shoot and edit the video. Or retouch the photos. That means interns with photography sensibilities and even After Effects skills will be more and more in demand. And if they have some understanding of where to post it, and why, or when, even better.

Then there are the un-teachable qualifications. The side hustle. Employers are now looking harder than ever for candidates with interesting life experience outside of the standard package. All other things being equal, wouldn’t we all choose the candidate who’d spent 12 months traveling, or who writes the lifestyle blog with 15,000 followers?

Perhaps the best part of all this is that when a student feels sufficiently well rounded, they bring with them the confidence of knowing they’re special. A self-assurance that, while it might take a few interviews, they’re going to land that perfect job I can recall a specific meeting with a young team, when halfway through, I was pretty sure it was them interviewing me

So what does this mean to the hundreds of graduates released into the river every year? An art director intern we hired last May offered this great insight: “Your first job will test how much you love to work, and how dedicated you are to your craft. Be the first one in, and the last one home. Listen, and do anything. And remember, school’s over. Make sure you show up in your second best pair of pants.”

Graham Lee is the chief creative officer of T1 and creative director of T1 Motion (

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