“I’d like to work in advertising. Can you help me get a job?”

You must have heard this more than once.  As the summer milk round kicks off the requests from graduates will begin to escalate.  Dave Trott, years ago, wrote a definitive guide “How to get a job in advertising” which includes the memorable advice :”99% of people trying to get a job believe they are whiz kids… unless you realise that you do not at present know any more about advertising than your mother, you are no use to a good agency.”  He goes on to point out that your mother might in fact be more useful as she probably buys more of the products that are advertised than you do.

So referring job seekers to Dave’s guide is of course a good place to start.  So is a job application letter written half a millennium ago.

Back in the 1480s Leonardo da Vinci applied for a job at the court of the ruler of Milan.  It is an utterly brilliant letter constructed on the basis of what he can offer Ludovico Sforza, not on the basis of what he, Leonardo, would like to do (I’ve assumed that he is quite keen on art).

Assuming then that da Vinci had a bit of an interest in drawing and painting we can notice that he doesn’t even mention his skills in this area until the end of his letter : “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other”.  It is almost an afterthought.

The thrust of his application is specifically tailored to what he, and only he, can offer to make Sforza’s personal objectives more attainable.

These include plans for portable bridges with which you can either pursue or flee the enemy; several portable types of cannon; “an infinite number of items for attack and defence”.

The letter, which is printed as part of a brilliant collection Letters of Note by Shaun Usher, stands as a fantastic guide to anyone aspiring to a new job.  Don’t dive in with what you are good at.  Work out what the business needs and be specific about how you can fulfil those needs better than anyone.  By all means talk about your core skills too, but only framed in the context of their needs.  I have spoken to more than one prospective advertising candidate who – when asked what advertising they think is good and why – can only mention Nike, because it has footballers they like in it.

That’s if they can think of any advertising at all.

Da Vinci concludes his letter with two excellent points.  First he applies his talents in art specifically to Sforza like this :”moreover, work could be undertaken on the bronze horse which will be to the immortal glory and eternal honour of the auspicious memory of his Lordship your father and of the illustrious house of Sforza”.  Nice use of flattery, appeal to family values.  Finally he offers proof points :”if any of the above-mentioned things seem impossible… I am most readily disposed to demonstrate them in your park”.  Always be prepared to walk the walk, right here, right now.





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