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How did you discover that you wanted to work in advertising? I participated in a language exchange program in the south of France during my sophomore year in high school, and was incredibly homesick my first couple of weeks abroad. One of the few things that comforted me was seeing commercials from brands I recognized, like Coca-Cola. While I couldn’t understand everything that was being said, I understood the emotion the ad was trying to elicit from me. Advertising’s ability to transcend cultural and geographic boundaries became so clear at that moment, and I knew that it was the industry for me.

How did you get started in the field? After I graduated from college, I landed an account management internship at a small, young agency in Los Angeles called goodness Mfg., which was started by a group of ex–Crispin Porter + Bogusky vice presidents. Once I started working and saw how different teams functioned within the agency, I quickly realized that strategy was a much better fit for who I was naturally and how my brain worked. Because it was a small team, I was able to get my hands on some strategy work, but it wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I got my first real job as a strategist. I moved to the city without a job, which was stressful, but ultimately it opened up so many more opportunities. Looking back, the risk was worth it!

When and how did you get the idea to start career resource platform We Are Next? In my last role, as director of strategy at New York–based design and technology company Firstborn, I started to guest lecture at universities about starting a career in advertising. From that firsthand exposure to students across different programs, I was reminded of the heightened level of anxiety, self-doubt and confusion that exists when trying to break in. Advertising is one of those industries with multiple pathways in and roles that continue to evolve, so it’s hard to know what’s what when you’re looking in from the outside. When I looked at what the industry was providing young talent, it was mostly one-on-one mentorship programs, which are valuable and important, but inherently limited in the number of people who can benefit. There was no resource that was truly open to everyone—no matter what school you go to, where you are geographically, what role you aspire to be and the resources you have access to—that also gives those all over the industry a way to share their perspective and advice.

What has been the biggest challenge of running We Are Next? These days, it’s been shifting how I spend my time. In the early days, I was happy to respond to everyone’s career questions via email or with a fifteen-minute call. Now I get so many messages that if I responded to everyone, it would be impossible for We Are Next to function. The goal has always been to create a resource that benefits the greatest number of people, so while I’d love to be able to help people individually, I’ve had to focus more on long-term planning and making We Are Next sustainable as a resource. As someone who stumbled into being an entrepreneur, navigating how to scale and grow a team in the right way is challenging.

How are you preparing the next generation of talent for the advertising landscape of the future? A lot of our content is focused on the soft skills that don’t get taught in the classroom, and which will always be relevant to the industry, no matter how it evolves. I also include guests from emerging roles and disciplines within the industry so that young talent is aware of all the opportunities that exist. Most importantly, We Are Next builds diverse voices into its editorial strategy—our podcast has a one-to-one female to male guest ratio, and 65 percent of guests identify as people of color—so that young talent can not only see themselves in the industry, but also enter it with expectations that can help change it for the better.

How can agencies stop the talent drain to in-house teams? Open office spaces and beer taps are no longer enough, especially for the next wave of talent. Agencies need to invest in their employees in ways that matter—paying interns, providing healthcare, supporting 401(k)s, and budgeting for ongoing learning and development. A lot of the opportunities to better support talent are hidden in plain sight, such as making sure that there are regular and frequent ways for talent to receive and give feedback, and celebrating small wins and individual accomplishments.

Open office spaces and beer taps are no longer enough, especially for the next wave of talent.”
 
What’s the bigger picture of mentorship? We often look for mentors who are much more senior than us, but those only a level or two ahead are a largely untapped and undervalued resource. Not only will their experience be most relevant to yours—versus someone who started her career more than ten years ago—but also, they’ll probably be flattered and excited to respond. It’s amazing how much horizontal mentorship and networking ends up positively influencing your career down the line.

How has working on We Are Next affected the way you view the advertising industry? It’s easy to feel jaded when working in advertising and seeing its issues and blemishes. But working on We Are Next has filled me with hope for the industry. I truly believe that young talent who are more informed, better prepared, more diverse and more aware of what they’re walking into can play a huge role in changing the industry for the better. Also, the response and support from the industry itself has been wonderful. There are so many people who want to help junior talent and just needed an easy way to do so.

Natalie Kim is the founder of We Are Next, an open resource for students and junior talent pursuing advertising and marketing. After studying mass communications and French at the University of California, Los Angeles, she spent ten years in advertising—lastly as director of strategy at Firstborn in New York City—and has partnered with clients including Coca-Cola, HBO and L’Oréal. She’s been recognized on Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list for marketing and advertising, and was named by the Drum as one of more than 70 women of color who should be speaking at marketing conferences. While she calls Los Angeles home, she is often on the road, visiting universities and agencies as a thought leader in entry-level talent development.

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