Navigating your way into the industry can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. The best way to build a network is to make it about something other than building a network. Don’t approach it as a way to get a job. If you do, you’re just using them. Spoiler: no one enjoys feeling like they are being used. It’s much better for everyone involved if you honestly and intentionally go into a conversation looking to build an authentic relationship.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that ‘networking’ doesn’t have its place. Of course, it does. LinkedIn exists for a reason, and preparing an elevator pitch is undeniably essential. But the most fruitful networking experiences aren’t just about exchanging business cards and sending formulaic follow-up emails. They’re about real, human connection.

Picture this. You’re at a networking event, agency tour, an AdFed meeting, or something else with potential agency contacts. This advice applies to connecting on LinkedIn or via email, too. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to get everyone to take a look at your polished portfolio or resume. But let’s flip the script. What if, instead, you focused on wanting to get to know them, understanding their journey, their triumphs and tribulations, the campaigns they’re proud of, and the ones that flopped?

This approach isn’t typical. That’s why it might help you stand out. But it only works if you are honestly interested in getting to know them.

Note: If you aren’t able to see how a relationship is more valuable than an interview, you might not be emotionally mature enough for the industry yet. I mean, sure, shoot your shot, but why would you choose to be thrown into gen pop with everyone else? It’s easy to get lost in there.

But, if you’re there trying to make a new friend, you might get a job too. Because there’s a good chance they won’t remember the Pencil you won, and they very likely won’t remember a single bullet point on your resume, but they might remember your genuine interest, thoughtful questions, and shared love for minimalistic design or witty copywriting.

This approach doesn’t always yield immediate results. You might not walk away from the conversation with an internship offer, but you’ll leave with something potentially far more valuable: an actual connection, a mutual understanding, and perhaps even a mentor. You would have laid the groundwork for a relationship that could pay dividends in the long run.

Be prepared for this conversation to catch your new contact off guard. That’s okay. Be ready to explain your perspective. Maybe you’re not just another student looking for a job. You’re a young professional eager to learn, connect, and build relationships. You’re not looking for a stepping stone. You’re looking for guidance, mentorship, and genuine interaction.

So here’s my advice for your next networking event: Leave your sales pitch at the door. Ask about their work, their experiences, and their favorite campaigns. Share your perspectives, your aspirations, and your ideas.

Remember, the most effective networking is less about ‘networking’ and more about connecting.

Breaking into the advertising industry isn’t an easy journey, and you’ll need allies along the way. Reach out for coffee, lend an ear when someone needs to vent, celebrate the wins together, and learn from the losses.

One more thing: While forging these connections, always remember to be genuine and kind. Your efforts will be well remembered, and the authenticity of your interactions will set you apart in a world where networking is often seen as transactional. Make it about the relationship, not just the outcome.

👀 Bonus: Mary Buzbee and Lauren Meadows came back and gave us a killer talk all about how to network your ass off. You can find their deck in our Resource Center.

Photo by Laura Tancredi.