the advertising ivy league

There is an Ivy League in advertising. That is, there is a small group of shops that if you happen to get a job at one you will be shopping that experience and using it to open doors the rest of your career.

The Ivy League group does change from time to time as shops fade and upstarts blow past the competition, but a shop’s reputation counts for a lot and even if it’s fallen on hard times it still means something to say “I was at Fallon when Pat Fallon was there (or, even better, when Tom McElligott was).”

My number one piece of advice to newbies, be they creative, planning or account, is to get an Ivy League shop on your CV.

Like now.

The advertising Ivy League is a lot like Premier League soccer in that there is relegation – poor performance and you will be replaced – and a lot of people who start to hate you if you’re on top of your game for too long.

The current Ivy League is:

Crispin, Porter + Bogusky:

This agency is so hot, they could take a crap, wrap it in a ’64 Beetle, put a German accent over it and sell it to Volkswagen as advertising. Which they just did.

Goodby, Silversten and Partners:

Adweek’s Agency of the Year has a long history of top drawer work, San Francisco is a great location and when I was last there everyone seemed to drive a Mercedes. So…yeah.


Lee Clow, the work for Apple and a bunch of really good looking employees sort of sum up the positives of this Ivy Leaguer.

Wieden + Kennedy:

Best known for their Nike work and for Dan Wieden’s principled refusal to join the 4A’s, they have faced recent encroachment on their key account by CP+B but are still a place with “wow” factor.


This may be a contentious one (and they are in danger of falling out of the Ivy League) because of the recent account losses and other upheaval…but Fallon is still a place that opens doors because of its history of greatness.

There are a lot of agencies that are hanging around just on the outside of this select group. Shops like Arnold (which was recently in the Ivy League on the strength of their better-than-Crispin VW work), The Martin Agency and Butler, Shine, Stern need only that iconic campaign to be in with a shout while other, larger places like your DDBs and BBDOs are places where you can collect awards and do great work…they just don’t have the same cachet.

Though, to be fair, a Pencil looks good no matter which shop you won it at.


15 responses to “the advertising ivy league

  1. R/GA should be on your list – great work coming out of there year after year.

  2. first off, love the zoolander reference.

    second, how in the hell does one get into one of these agencies?

    I would love to see what a “CP+B” or “W+K” worthy book looks like – especially for a jr. level position.

    It would be nice to know what the standard is so us newbies can know what we should be shooting for.

  3. I agree with this. I would do anything to get into these large agencies. I have a good resume, but even that doesn’t cut it where I live (washington DC). Who’s ass do I have to kiss to get into these places?

  4. Don’t know if R/GA would fit on that “traditional” list. All of the mentioned except CBP farm their digital work out to smaller, niche shops. It is one agency model that R/GA actually does not prescribe to as they handle most of their creative and production in house, similar to Razorfish or any of the other digital heavy weights.

  5. My piece of advice for anyone wanting to get into an Ivy League shop, especially if their book doesn’t necessarily show their ability and potential is to treat it as a marketing/advertising problem. Know who your target audience is, and find an innovative way to reach them. These places are looking for people who can creatively solve these kind of problems. Forget what the “industry” and portfolio schools tell you about how to approach these shops. Some places, like CP+B, actually appreciate the unique and untraditional types. That’s why I, a 40-something grandma with a weak book that didn’t show my ability, decided that CP+B a long shot — but they were my best shot if they approached everything (including hiring) untraditionally. I approached them without sending a book or self-promo gimick, but just an honest portrayal of who I am. Alex wondered why more people, in this industry, don’t approach their books as creatively. I got the job, and within a year completed some fun work (BK NFL spots, Coke Zero spots, and VW Safe Happens integrated). I’m no longer at CP+B, but it was the best experience of my career. So, be creative when looking to get into an Ivy League agency. And the smart people there will notice.

  6. Mini…

    You said “I approached them without sending a book or self-promo gimick, but just an honest portrayal of who I am.”
    Well, what did you do? Just show up and say that you wanted to work there?


    “Alex wondered why more people, in this industry, don’t approach their books as creatively.”
    I don’t understand what this means… especially in relation to your previous statement.

  7. Well, I know most books that get sent to agencies are never seen by the CCO. So, instead of a book, I wrote a letter to Alex (on flowery stationary). I told him about me (that I was a grandma) and yes, I did say I wanted to work there, even bake cookies. He emailed me and said my letter was “clever” and he’d love to see my book. I told him I didn’t have one. But, then, I put together a journal of my life. I wrote 175 pages (even though I’m an AD) and placed some little thumbnails of work in there (including a picture I drew when I was 2). He told me later he read most of it, which was my goal. And that’s when he told me he wondered why most people aren’t creative with their book presentation.

    All of this was unconventional — but it had to be — because I couldn’t approach the challenge the way everyone else did. Later, when I had to leave CP+B for family reasons, Alex wrote a reference letter for me. He said, “She weasled her way into CP+B and immediately upon landing was part of some of the best work we were doing.” So, this is not the way for everyone. This is not “the formula.” It was just my route, and will probably never work for anyone else. I’m just saying: Be true to yourself and sell that in an unconventional way to whomever you’re trying to reach.

  8. Don’t forget the agency equivalents of Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Middlebury and Bowdoin. They’re often harder to get into than the Ivys.

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  10. FakeBiz wrote: “All of the mentioned except CBP farm their digital work out to smaller, niche shops.”

    Huh? Really. CP+B farms out 90% of their digital production, but maybe you/we don’t know because they make the niche shops sign super non-disclosures that include their first born and they buy into because holy shit – its CP+B! This happens so much that I have often joked that there are only 4 shops that do great digital production, but everyone says they can do it (and don’t get many wrong many can create the strategy and the concept), but very few can actually execute at a production level.

  11. @huh – Yes CP+B does digital production work, they have slowly stong armed that business away from others and have brought those services in house. This site has even reported on it.

  12. Now I may have been the one who planted this thought in DB’s head (we had an off-blog email exchange a few weeks ago– we bloggers all know each others’ secret identities and all hang out in each others secret underground lairs and all. Jane Sample keeps wanting us all to wear costumes, but I’m not getting into an orange frog suit.)

    But I digress.

    It’s not just the ad business that has this Ivy League. Certain law firms, investment banks, hospitals (if you’re a doctor), movie studios, MTV… you work at one of those places and you’ll be able to spend a goodly part of your career riding that out. Someone will always want to hire “the guy who worked at Crispin.”

    And as years go by and people’s memories grow fuzzy, you can take credit for more and more of the good work that came out of there, since the original owners of said work may be out of the business, retired or both. (I mean think of all the people who came up with “1984”.)

    Given the rate the industry is changing though– or the media landscape to be exact– I wonder if all this is going to matter a few years down the road or if the hot shops won’t be some of the up and comers in the digital/social media world, places like Deep Focus and Crayon and 360i.

    One other point, so long as I’m bloviating here, is that Alex Bogusky never worked at a hot shop. He worked at a not-very-special local shop in Miami called Crispin and Porter and transformed it into a hot shop. Definitely a viable option, but clearly much tougher than the Ivy League route.

    And finally, while I did mention the whole Ivy League thing to DB recently, it’s by no means an original idea- in fact, I was repeating some advice given to me when I was at his level. (Just in case any of you were thinking of commenting about it.)

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  14. I use to think that working at a big shop was where it all happened. I’ve learned in the past 12 years that it isn’t always the case. I have friends in almost every major agency-yes, even CPB. All I have to say is… be careful what you wish for in this world.
    Oh, and I got interviewed by CPB twice and turned the position down. Why? Because I didn’t want sleep at work in a sleeping bag and make less salary than I do now at a medium size agency.
    What happened to Saatchi or Mother in London?

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