If you’ve ever felt totally awkward during a networking meeting, you have some sense of how Alex Davies was feeling earlier this month. “I’m naturally an awkward person,” says Davies, a student at Humber College. “The last meeting I had, I awkwardly hugged the person,” she admits.
Davies, currently enrolled in Humber College’s Advertising Copywriting program in Toronto, is hoping that by this time next year she’ll be working as a junior copywriter. But in an industry that’s all about the schmooze, she can’t just rely on her technical skills—she’ll need to learn how to connect with industry insiders.
Trina Boos, founder of networking community Ad Lounge and president of Toronto recruiting firm Boost Agents, says this skill gap prompted her to create the Next Gen Dinner Series four years ago. The concept: a networking dinner where students can sit with company execs, future mentors, and possible hiring managers.
The catch: to be eligible, students have to apply, complete a training program and get vetted. Out of approximately 300 applicants this year, 100 were invited to interview for a spot. Only 63 were invited to dinner.
That rigorous process is meant to help students like Davies overcome their awkwardness. “Students tend to be missing soft skills when it comes to looking for work and positioning themselves with hiring managers,” explains Boos. “If they didn’t have that training, it would be awkward, not knowing at all how to act.”
The Next Gen Dinner Series culminates on March 25. Tables will be organized around themes like integrated communications and PR, with one industry professional per group.
But before they’re let loose on the industry’s top players, the Next Gen students train with Leslie Ehm, president of Toronto-based Combustion. Ehm, who Davies describes as a “firecracker,” has worked as an organizational creativity consultant for such giants as Google. It’s a rare opportunity for students to take a crash course in personal branding.
“She tells you how to make yourself memorable in a way that doesn’t sound like hard work,” says Davies. Ehm’s process involves identifying what makes each participant unique and how to use their natural strengths to distinguish themselves, hopefully giving them the confidence to put themselves in front of potential employers. While her teachers were always telling her to network, Davies said she “needed that little push the program provided” to actually make it happen.
“She helps them figure out what makes them tick,” explains Boos, “and they bond with each other in the process.”
That bonding is perhaps more valuable to students in the program than the networking they’ll do at the dinner. “It’s not just about networking with creative directors and executives, it’s about connecting with people who are moving up [in the industry] at the same time as me,” says Davies. The two people Davies sat with while waiting for her interview also got accepted into the program—“business cards and Twitter and LinkedIn information were exchanged,” she says. She’s forming a network of peers that will support her throughout her career.
Bonding with your peers can also help diffuse some of that competitive tension.
Former program participant Sarah Kirkpatrick, who’s now a copywriter and social media manager at AdMaki in Calgary, says the most intimidating presence at that table isn’t that one executive. “It’s sitting at the table with all other students vying for that one person’s attention.”
That’s where Ehm’s coaching on how to differentiate yourself really paid off. Kirkpatrick sat with KBS+ president Cameron Wykes and secured an internship with the company. Before meeting Wykes, she was given his name and encouraged to look into his background—an important lesson in the value of researching potential contacts before a meeting.
Kirkpatrick says she filled an entire notebook with advice from keynote speakers at the dinner, but in the end, it’s the confidence imbued by her interactions with Ehm that was most valuable. “What I took away from the event is that it’s up to the students to make it their own,” she says.
Chris Page, an associate creative director of JWT who attended last year’s dinner, says the event’s vetting process saves everyone – students and executives – a lot of time. “The students are vetted to get to that level, so there’s nobody approaching you [at the dinner] to whom you would say, ‘try again next year.’ They’re meeting you more than halfway.”
It’s this attractive prospect that’s helped the event gain traction; this year it landed a few impressive sponsors such as Google. For Boos, mentoring young students is “a labour of love.” While it doesn’t hurt that in a few years, those same students are prime candidates for her recruitment firm, Boos says she started the program to help nurture the next generation of industry stars—“I believe in them.”
Next Gen Dinner 2013