There’s no denying it’s tough to be a college student right now. For some, the excitement of freshman year was abruptly cut short. Sophomores and juniors, on the other hand, have spent the past few months watching internships they’d worked hard to secure disappear at a fast clip.
But, arguably, seniors and recent graduates have it worst, facing a job market rife with hiring freezes and rescinded offers. They’re desperate for resources to help them land on their feet once the effects of Covid-19 begin to subside. We Are Next, a site founded four years ago by Natalie Kim with the express purpose of helping young people in advertising jumpstart their careers, has become a go-to platform for them.
Kim served as director of strategy at Firstborn before starting We Are Next. She was inspired to create it after guest lecturing at universities and realizing that students harbored anxiety, confusion and self-doubt about entering the industry. So, she took it upon herself to do something about it.
“I looked at what was being offered by the industry to help students through that transition, and I felt like what existed was limited to one-on-one mentorship programs, internship pipeline programs or local ad club situations,” Kim said. “I just didn’t see something out there that was truly open to anyone no matter where you went to school, where you were in the country, or what you could or could not afford.”
We Are Next’s offerings provide practical advice for young people just starting out; for instance, one of its most popular weekly newsletters details “How to Find (Almost) Anyone’s Email.” Kim, who runs We Are Next as a one-woman team, also hosts regular podcasts with professionals in the advertising world.
When the crisis hit, she started coming up with new ways to help, one of which was a series of virtual roundtables with agency recruiters where they discussed how to make connections and stay focused in this environment. We talked to Kim about how she has continued to evolve We Are Next to address the issues that junior talent is currently grappling with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How have you had to pivot We Are Next’s content to make it relevant for students right now?
Kim: I was coming off of maternity leave when things were starting to get really serious with Covid-19. Content I’d created months ago that was going out was falling a little flat, because obviously the situation is so different now. I came back from maternity leave a couple of weeks early and started working on a few new resources that we launched over a month ago, specifically to help junior talent in this time.
The biggest thing we launched is Coffee at a Distance, our version of a mentorship program. Instead of it being a one-on-one matching system, as a lot of mentorship programs are, it’s more about asking people in the industry to raise their hands if they’d be willing to talk with students and young talent virtually. Initially, we had about 100 people in the industry raise their hands. Today, there are over 350 people on the platform, which is just really telling of this time. People wanting to help is pretty universal.
It’s been pedal to the metal for the last month and a half. It still never feels like enough. A lot of it is about helping to shift young talents’ mind. I think a lot of them are still trying to find a job or trying to find an internship. Much of messaging I’ve been putting out there is basically like: “You might be looking for something that doesn’t exist, so think about how can you creatively create opportunities for yourself, whether it’s volunteer work, freelancing or creating something totally new with someone else.” The networking portion is a huge part of that as well—how can you build your network now so that when there are opportunities, you have people out there in the industry who can vouch for you, or guide you at the very least?
Do you think agencies should be prioritizing internships right now and trying to make them work virtually, despite the circumstances?
I applaud any effort to create those opportunities for people, especially those who were expecting to do an internship this summer. But I think agencies have to be really honest with themselves in terms of the experience, because it’s so hard to do that translation. It’s not an easy thing. Think about internship experiences in-person; they’re variable as well. An agency might really want to bring on an intern or feel like they need an intern, but they don’t have the capacity to really provide an experience that will be beneficial to the intern as well.
There’s a lot of aspects of an internship—whether it’s onboarding, training or giving opportunities to actually connect with people at the company—that go beyond just the tasks that you’re giving the intern. We see that in-person, so the idea of translating the internship online and still being able to provide all of that is a pretty big undertaking.
Do you worry that DE&I efforts will be hampered by the current layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes at agencies? Is that something you’ve heard or seen?
The feeling that “my opportunities have been taken away from me” is pretty universal on the student end. From the industry side, I have heard that—the fear of attention or resources being taken away from DE&I efforts. It sucks, but when the business is at stake and the industry isn’t humming along like we hope it would, some of the first things to get cut are, unfortunately, some of these DE&I efforts. I know there are people on the ground working really hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
On the flip side, I see [positive] signs when we look at different organizations. Because they’ve had to virtualize everything, they’ve made it open to everyone. For example, the AEF made its internship program—all the content and the webinars that are usually just for summer interns—open to everyone. Same thing with Creative Circus: Their Friday Forum is now open to all students. The 3% Movement made its Academy free and open. You’re seeing some of the walls and barriers to entry come down. If all talent can access it, that’s a great step in the right direction.
It’s difficult for students and graduates right now, but are you seeing any silver linings or opportunities cropping up that wouldn’t otherwise exist?
One of the main messages I keep telling our users is that, even though it feels like a lot is outside of their control, ultimately the outcome of all of this is very much in their control. How they respond to what’s happening is going to determine how they come out of this on the other side.
My hope is that this generation of young talent experiencing this right now and starting their careers in this environment comes out more resilient, creative and connected in a strange way. I see really amazing examples of them banding together and creating things, or supporting one another—across schools, even—which is encouraging to me. There will be things that define them and the rest of their careers that directly come out of this.
What can the industry overall, whether agencies themselves or various organizations, do to ensure young talent isn’t forgotten?
Because we’re all at home and maybe have a little bit more time than usual, I think a lot of people have been making themselves available on an individual level to talk with young talent. It sounds small, but it goes such a long way. Even just to reassure them that this is going to pass and that they are going to get through this. Hearing that from someone in the industry is really powerful. I’m always encouraging of people to do that. It never takes as long as you think.
Since a few industry organizations have made their previously gated content accessible to everyone, agencies could provide so much value to young talent by doing the same with their internal training modules and presentations. Especially ones that are already web-based. It’d be an easy way to give them some of the agency experience they’re looking for, while also giving them a glimpse of the company culture. Additionally, while everyone’s had to adjust to this new normal, young talent typically has less experience working from home, presenting virtually or mentally weathering an industry downturn. Any additional support agencies can provide on these fronts will go a long way.