So you've got some years under your belt but you want to try your hand at an agency gig. You're not the first. The industry is very fast-paced, often cutting-edge, and never dull. It's attractive. But if you're like many, your overtures have either gone unnoticed or you've received a distinct 'no' as your response. Ad agencies are hard to break into when you're not coming right out of school (it's not even easy then) but there are some avenues to pursue that may get you an interview. As always, the rest is up to you.
First off, agencies do like to either hire right out of school or poach from competitors. There are very few other backgrounds they seek out or consider when recruiting. It's frustrating to see 'agency experience required' for all openings, yet if no one will give you a shot, how are you going to gain the experience, right? Well there is somewhat of a method to their madness. One of the reasons an ad agency will shy away from hiring you to come in at entry level (no experience required) is because 1) they see the reporting structure going askew having younger people managing older subordinates, and 2) even if you're willing to take a pay cut, start at the bottom and then work your way up they have concerns you will jump ship when an offer comes from your former career with a comp package you were accustomed to having. These are tough hurdles to jump over. And frankly when it comes to a large agency, you probably can't. But, smaller and mid-sized agencies tend to take more chances and appreciate people who can wear more than one hat so those are always my first suggestion. (STEP ONE: Focus on small and mid-sized shops)
Next, look at what skills you bring and where they best align to an agency department or structure. An obvious route for someone with sales experience is on the New Business team. Granted, agency new business is a unique animal but good sales skills are a solid benefit to bring to the table so if you do have a knack for sales, it can be an entry - even if your goal is in Account Management. (Note: if your goal is any other department, you probably won't be able to make the jump because there are definitely skills and experience required for Media Management and the Creative department).
Now, if you have good creative skills (writing, design, etc) and that's your focus, you'll probably need some prep work. One avenue to consider is enrolling in a portfolio school so you can get a book together and while that will only be spec work, it's a better place to start than a portfolio without ads in it. Not everyone can afford that expense or time commitment though, so you may want to consider building a spec portfolio from scratch, using your own brain and creativity. The most important thing to know now is that your work needs to be ONLINE - create a website showcasing what you can do. Again, in the form of ads. Great creative writing outside the scope of advertising work proves you can put sentences together, but shows no concepting skills - ie, can you take a product and solve its problems in the form of a marketing campaign. Likewise, a good eye for design is important, but so is execution of a concept. If you want to work at an ad agency you probably know people who already do, so it's time to draw on their expertise to help you understand what goes into working for a client from start to finish, and what is just stuff they show on TV.
Finally, there is the digital space (interactive work) and this is where you can most quickly get skills in place if you have limited time and resources. Basically, learn how to build a website, and fast. If you can quickly find an educational program that will give you an intense crash course, and you like it and are actually good at it, you'll have the supply that is so in demand right now. Same goes with web design and user interface skills. Become a techie in any form you can and you should see some traction when you go out and apply for jobs.
The last piece of advice I can give is to be patient. Even in the best economy, breaking into the agency world is tough. In the hiring climate we're experiencing now, it's obviously much tougher (MUCH). It may even take you the better part of a year. But if you really want it, don't give up - and don't give up your day job just yet, as you still have to bring home the bacon while you're trying.