You’ve sent your resume off with a link to your portfolio. Now you get an email or call asking to set up an interview. What should you expect from an interview and how do you prepare for it?
This is being written in early 2021, so an assumption will be made that your first interview will be done via a web call (Zoom, Google Meet, Windows GoToMeeting, etc.) This may change over time where in-person interviews will become normal again, but as businesses realize the ease that an online interview can be performed, the common thought is the first interview will be made online even after the Covid pandemic is controlled.
So if the interview is online, there are actually two parts of the interview that you need to prepare for:
1) How to set up an online interview
2) How to perform in that interview
An Online Interview
An online interview means having the equipment (computer, tablet or phone with a camera and microphone), the software, and the internet connection. The equipment typically is a laptop with a built-in camera, the software can be downloaded from the appropriate source (go to Zoom.us; meet.google.com; gotomeeting.com.) Most meetings require an app or software download or using the appropriate web browser. For instance, gotomeeting.com can connect directly if using a Chrome browser.
A few helpful hints on setting up your video camera…
1) Camera Angle – if you just set up a laptop (or tablet or smart phone) in front of you, the camera lens will probably be below your chin. This is an unattractive angle. Try to bring the angle more to eye level. Literally take your laptop and place it on a box to bring it up higher. The camera lens on your laptop should be at eye level, or at the very least, be pointing at the middle of your face.
Set up your camera close enough that you are the main focal point, but far enough away that people can see your shoulders (at the very least.) When people get too close to the camera it creates an uncomfortable feeling. (Think of someone getting right up into your face in real life. We don’t like people invading our private space and, on a subconscious level, being too close to the camera creates this same type of anxiety.) Plus most these camera lenses are designed to be a wide angle, and as you get closer to the lens it will distort your face making it wider.
2) Lighting – make sure you have some light on you, typically not just a light from above. Even if it is just setting up a lamp behind the laptop, that will help. Experiment with how far away the light should be, if it is too close, it may make you look like a ghost (if you are light skinned.) Positioning of the lamp is important too, don’t let your laptop block the light.
Natural light from a window can be a solution if it is in the right place. However, try to avoid having a window behind you. Your laptop typically has a hard time adjusting for this and often if you move slightly the computer’s camera will try to adjust on the fly and mess up the settings. (Casting you in a backlit shadow for example.)
3) Make the background neutral, avoiding distractions. A bookshelf, a plant, etc., create a non-cluttered background. (Absolutely pick up anything laying around: soda cans, plates, shoes on the floor, etc.) You want the attention on you, not on what is in the background. If there is something in the background, be prepared to comment on it if asked. (“What books are on the bookshelf?”)
Although it may be tempting, it is recommended not to use a virtual background. (Where the computer determines where your face is and then places a different background in place of the real background.) The technology is getting better, but for most software and apps, is not quite good enough yet. Having part of your face (especially your hair) turn into the background for a few seconds here and there can be extremely distracting for the viewer.
4) Do a test. Find someone that can help and go online with them. Let them see and hear you talk. It’s always easier doing something a second time, make your first time setting up your call not be the one that is most important.
How to Dress
Knowing something about the culture of the company you are applying with is always a good thing. Does the boss show up in blue jeans and t-shirts, or does she dress a little nicer? A good rule of thumb is to always dress up nicer than you think you should for your interview.
Jeans, t-shirts, etc., are almost always a bad idea for an interview. Even if that is the way people dress at their day-to-day job for the position you are interviewing for. There are some established protocols in business and one is that you show respect to the person and company that is interviewing you by the way you dress.
There are exceptions to this rule. Our advice is to err on the side of dressing nicer.
The bigger the company, the more formal and ritualized the interview process can become. If you are being interviewed by someone from an Human Resources department, the questions may be different than if you are being interviewed from someone in Creative Services. Depending on the company you are interviewing with, you may be interviewed multiple times from different people.
We like to categorize questions as typically exploring how you answer and show and tell.
Now it is our position that questions like “tell us one time that you excelled in a work situation” or “what would you say are your weakest attributes” are just plain stupid questions and designed to see if you have figured out the game of how to answer these questions. Unfortunately, depending on who you are interviewing with, you may have to answer those questions. (And replying that your weakest attribute is that you are “too honest and get annoyed by stupid questions” doesn’t really go over well if you actually want the job.)
If you are being interviewed by someone that actually has intelligent questions, pay attention closely to the question and answer to the best of your ability. A good questioner isn’t trying to “trip you up”, they are trying to learn about you. It’s okay to pause and think before you form your answer. It is also okay to not have an answer. Explain why it is difficult to answer.
The show and tell part is you talking about yourself. Typically in a creative field, this is you talking about the work you’ve done, the experience you have, where your passions are. We highly recommend that you have a way to present and talk about your work. Either you need to send over a file in advance with items clearly labelled (“the item labelled no. 1 on the page I sent is a logo that I created for a non-profit organization. Their goal was to…”)
Or, another approach is simply to show the work through the program that you are using, most online programs have a button to share your screen. Have this figured out in advance! Clean up your desktop. Have a file ready to open. (Pdf, powerpoint, etc.)
The Next Level
Of course you need to be ready to answer the questions that are asked of you in the interview. But to excel in the interview, you should be willing to go the next step.
You need to prepare some of your own questions. Ask questions about the position open (if you are interviewing for a specific position), ask questions about the work environment, ask about the road to advancement, ask about company goals. An astute question from you often is more important to the interviewer than the answers you give to their questions.
And then there are some questions that you definitely do not want to ask. Salary, time off, etc., are seldom appropriate in the first interview. (More on salary later in this article.) Often this will turn off the interviewer as you are labelled as someone who is only interested in the money, not in the job itself.
It’s Not About You , It’s About How You Can Help
During recent years, jobs were plentiful and the people to fill some positions were in short supply. It was a employee’s market and employer’s had to offer more to attract and retain good employees.
Now after Covid, this probably will be flipped for some time. Jobs will probably be in shorter supply and concessions from employees may be in the future.
A recent employer survey listed the idea of “entitlement” as a key turn-off for employers. Simply put, if you feel that you have the rights to something in the work place, you may need to rethink that thought process.
The question of training and advancement may come into play in this new scenario. For a number of years prior to Covid, there was an expection for employers to supply their employees with training so they could elevate their positions and stature. Complaints by employers included that they would train their employees only to see them go work somewhere else. The could possibly be a backlash now that we perceive that there will be more job applicants available than positions.
With this, it may be advised to tread lightly on the question of “training” in the workplace. A better question to ask the employer may be what can you do to advance in your career if hired with their company. This shows that you are willing to be the impetus of your advancement and don’t have expections of the employer to do this for you.
In the end, how you can address the needs of the employer is what will get you hired. This is tougher to do for someone without a few years of experience. You can make up for that with enthusiasm and a willingness to work hard and prove yourself.
Before you get to an interview, consider practicing. FInd someone you trust that can roll-play with you. Have them ask typical interview questions. (They are easy to find online.) Do it online using your computer set-up. Like everything else in life, the first time you do something is easier than the first and it just gets increasingly easier the more you do it. It may seem silly, but it will prepare you for interview success.
After The Interview
Send a thank you note. Yes, you can email one if you want to take the easy way out. But it makes a much better impression to find something appropriate (perhaps something that you designed?), hand-write a well written note, and drop it in the mail. Don’t wait, do it right away. (The same day as the interview.) Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference.
The Question of Negotiating Salary
If the interview process goes well, you may be getting a job offer.
Often, the salary that someone receives is something that is negotiated. The potential employee wanting the job typically wants to get the highest salary they can imagine for the position, while the employer would rather pay less. And each wants the other to name their number first.
With any negotiation, you have to weigh in a lot of factors beyond just the amount in the paycheck. Are their benefits? Healthcare benefits are a big selling point. If it includes things like dental or optical, that is pretty rare. Matching 401K benefits are really nice if you can start socking money away. (Not always easy to do for someone right out of school that might be paying back student loans.) Where the job is located can play into negotiating. A job downtown Chicago is more expensive for commuting and living than in a small town like Sycamore.
And the prestige of the company is important. Let’s face it, most employees are not looking to land their first job and stay there until retirement. The first job you land may help you get the second one that will be even better. Working for a top brand or top agency does have some cachet.
If you feel like you need to name a salary expection, you might consider giving a two-step number. Name a number that fits what you are willing to work for to start, to prove yourself, but then also name a number where you expect to be once you prove yourself.
“I want to prove myself in the position, so I would be willing to start out at $100,000. But, once I prove myself, and I would expect to do that within my first year, I would expect a more competitive salary would be at $150,000.” (Obviously these are numbers that are simply made up for illustration purposes and relate to a senior position, not an entry level one. But the idea is there.) You would then go on to state that together with your boss you would lay out the expectations to meet that higher salary.
This creates a win-win scenario where the employer can take a chance on you, but at the same time a more competitive salary is established in the near future. (You can get it in writing as part of a contract if you feel strongly about that.)
We hope this gives you some insights on the interview process. On this website is an employer survey that will share thoughts directly from the people that hire creative talent. There is a lot of helpful advice about what you should do as well as the mistakes you want to avoid when meeting up with these employers. Read up.
And good luck!
About the author…
Randy Gunter is a thirty year advertising agency veteran and agency owner. The Gunter Agency has worked on national and international projects for companies that include Charter Business, Firestone, Fiskars, John Deere, Kimberly-Clark, Oscar Mayer, OshKosh B’Gosh, Rayovac, and others. Randy and his agency have received Adweek’s Media Plan of the Year award, NAMA Best of PR award, and hundreds of creative awards and recognitions.
Randy still consults with companies on marketing, but today his main concentration is CEO of Sugar River Trading Company. Sugar River is best known as the manufacturer and distributor of McNess home products.