Breaking into the professional creative industry

Advertising agency designer creative start-up team discussing ideas in office.

You’ve been excited by — and good at — creative ventures all your life. You’ve received praise for work well done, or even won awards. And you’re serious enough about your creative pursuit that you’d like to work in a creative industry full-time. But making the leap from hobbyist or student can be daunting, and it feels like there’s a lot to learn and navigate.

For starters, what exactly is the “creative industry?” It’s widespread. It includes professions that fall into arts or entertainment categories — acting, photography, graphic design, visual arts, music, film, photojournalism, and other creative fields. You can be in the creative industry working on television shows, and yet you can also be in the creative industry working on the design team of a big pharmaceutical company!

Creative industry jobs play a big role in the economic success of the nation: as of 2019, arts and cultural production generated almost a trillion dollars — that’s an impressive 4.3 percent of the U.S. economy.

There’s a lot of opportunity out there, and putting your best foot forward will pay off. Here are a few tips and some sage advice from creative industry professionals to help you land that first gig and launch your career.

Always be prepared

Preparation can make a big impact on job interviewers. Whenever you go to an interview, make sure you’re ready with these basics.

Create an attractive, clean, well-organized resume by finding or creating an engaging template in a layout that is standard to your industry. Include relevant industry experience, as well as experience that points to your character (especially if you’re just starting out). Photos also make important first impressions and immediate impact. If you are including photos of your work, take the time to get high-quality images that reflect your unique style and personality, and keep them current.

Do your homework about the industry, company and job you are applying for. Arrive at interviews, and in general conversations with industry professionals, ready to talk about what they’re doing — and how you see yourself contributing.

Benjamin Moffat, partner and CEO of Gantry media studio in Salt Lake City, is impressed when he’s approached by enthusiastic, informed designers. “When an artist says, ‘I’m here to push myself creatively. I’m here to meet you because you guys seem to always be pushing’ — I’m really happy when I hear that,” he says.

Before your interview or other industry gathering, create and rehearse a few elevator pitches about yourself, the industry, and who’s doing what in the scene.

Have a professional website

A professional website is a home for your portfolio, projects, and personal brand. It acts as a first impression, increases engagement, and helps you build your business in a competitive market. Your site should be engaging, attractive, and well-organized.

A simple site is relatively easy to build on your own without any coding know-how. Low-cost options like Wix and Squarespace have drag-and-drop features that make layouts a breeze, and they offer templates specifically designed for creative professionals.

Musician and poet Patti Smith was given great advice at the beginning of her creative career: “Build a good name. Be concerned with doing good work. And if you can build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.”

Keep your work fresh and recent. Be deliberate about making a great first impression — make it easy for visitors to see your best and newest work first. Take time to regularly curate your collection, and keep storage and management simple so you always have easy access to your best work.

Be mindful of your digital footprint

Anyone in a public-facing role needs to watch their digital footprint — old social media or blog posts made in bad taste can damage your job prospects. Review all online accounts you’ve created, and make sure your content is positive, professional, and aligns with the brand you’re building.

Network meaningfully

Networking will give you connections that will help you keep your skill set sharp and stay on top of industry trends, as well as potentially provide job opportunities. Meaningful networking means connecting in authentic ways with people in your industry — not just potential employers. Building a reputation for honesty, friendliness, helpfulness, and good work will pay long-term dividends.

If you’re starting from scratch and don’t have many connections, start a list of the people and projects you’d like to work with. Search online for relevant companies, workshops, conferences, events, and competitions in your area. Add names and projects that interest you to your list. Faculty of local universities can connect you with former students of theirs who may be working in the kind of entry-level positions you’re looking for.

Making first contact in person is ideal. Go to events where you expect there will be people you want to talk with. “If you’re at a networking event, be candid about why you’re there,” says Moffat. “Introduce yourself, tell the person you’re talking with what you like about their work and what you’re looking for.”

Join professional communities

Take part in professional communities locally and online, and commit time to participating regularly. “I think it’s super important to just be there,” Moffat says of networking and events. “Because then you have talking points of tribal knowledge — references to shared experiences that help you become a part of the tribe of the people that you want to be associating with.”

Consider further education

Moffat is a strong advocate of getting a degree. “I think education is paramount to being successful in the creative arts, especially professionally,” he says. “A college education sets people up for the work ethic it takes to really be in this industry.”

Other creative professionals believe that a DIY approach, coupled with an entrepreneurial mindset is best. (Artists are 3.6 times more likely to be self-employed.) If you’re thinking about getting a degree, look for advice that’s specific to your ideal job profile.

Stay positive!

Rejection is part of the job when you’re working in a creative field. Adopting new ideas — and new people — can take time. Cultivate the ability to keep your chin up after rejection, and it will help you throughout your career.

Rejection is a normal part of searching for new opportunities, and it can help to recognize that it happens to everyone.

Do what it takes to give yourself positive reinforcement while you’re putting yourself out there. Ask friends and family what strengths they see in you, and make a list. Practice positive self-talk. Take care of your body, get enough sleep, and listen to uplifting books and podcasts to help train your positive mindset.

If you’re seeing a pattern of rejection, get some feedback from someone you trust. Adjust your resume, social media profile, or presentation approach.

Becoming a creative professional is an ambitious but realistic goal if you build a solid skillset and a supportive community. Put the quality of your work first and lean into learning the tricks of the trade, and you’ll find yourself in a creative environment in no time — and you won’t look back.