The Eighties' stereotypes of highliving ad girls and boys are long gone. By Annabel Venning
Among the images brought to mind when someone mentions the Eighties are shoulder pads, big hair, Porsches driven by yuppies and outsized mobile phones clamped to the ears of bow-tied ad executives. But the latter is a stereotype of an all-but-extinct species. Advertising at the turn of the millennium is barely a shadow of its former self.

"If you harbour illusions that advertising is all about long lunches, designer chemicals and sex in the office you will be sorely disappointed," cautions Miranda Kennet, director of Training and Development at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA).

Indeed, advertising may still have a glamourous image, but it's about hard work not hard drugs, and long nights working on a pitch are just as likely as long lunches. But while the work is demanding, most people in the industry agree it's also "great fun. As Tom Nester-Smith, account director at Abbot Mead Vickers points out, working late is not such a sacrifice when it involves being on a shoot with Lesley Ash and Neil Morrissey.

Katrina Thompson, who graduated in Italian and history of art from Edinburgh University in 1996, and now works as an international account co-ordinator on the McDonalds account at Leo Burnett, is equally enthusiastic: "It's a very open, very dynamic atmosphere. You can swap ideas and jokes with senior directors without feeling inhibited by any hierarchy."

One particularly prevalent misconception about the advertising industry is that everyone has to be wild, wacky and brimming over with hilarious punch-lines. While it is important that you have creative, spontaneous mind, Tom Nester-Smith stresses that not everyone in adverting needs to be able to think up ads. That is the role of creatives. So if slogans don't trip lightly off your tongue, it doesn't necessarily mean it is the wrong career.

In fact, skills required in advertising are as varied as the industry itself. Account handling - a role similar to a business consultant as you're responsible for co-ordinating the resources of the agency to the needs of the client - requires excellent communications skills. You have to work with all the different departments in the agency and act as the interface between them and the client. Team working and leadership skills are also essential, as is the ability to persuade and convince - vital when you are making a pitch to a new client. In media planning, analysis and research skills are needed, while media buyers - those who purchase air time on television or space in newspapers - must be quick thinkers and strong negotiators.

With only 200-250 graduate level vacancies a year in the advertising industry, competition is intense. Abbot Mead Vickers chose just six people from over 1,000 applicants last year. "So it's important for us to make sure we get the cream of the crop," insists Tom Nester-Smith. Like other top agencies, AMV has a big investment in training as a way of not only attracting the best graduates but making sure they stay. Their in-house graduate training scheme, The Knowledge, begins with six weeks of intensive training and continues throughout the graduate's career at AMV until they reach account director level.

But while a good training programme is something to look for when applying to agencies, don't despair if you do not get a place on a graduate scheme. "It's about persistence," says Gary Duckworth of Duckworth Finn. "There's no hard and fast route." Katrina Thompson, for instance, joined Leo Burnett via a recruitment agency, having worked in the art world for a year after graduating.

All degree disciplines are welcomed by agencies and the most valued quality in candidates is, unsurprisingly, enthusiasm. Do your homework on the agency you're applying to, know about current campaigns and advertisements: read the trade press, talk to people in the industry. Do not try to be too wacky: gimmicks can backfire.

Miranda Kennet adds that it's not necessary to restrict your job search to the big London agencies. You can cut your teeth in a small local agency and move to one of the larger agencies later. A well-worn route is work experience for little or no pay - but make sure you impress. It's also an excellent way of finding out more about the industry and the different roles within it, and whether it's for you. Going in at an administrative or secretarial level is a possibility, but often leads to disappointment and shouldn't be seen as a fast route into account handling.

Averaging pounds 15-17,000, starting salaries may compare unfavourably with banking and IT but the prospects for rapid advancement are excellent. Stephen Carter became MD of J Walter Thompson aged just 30, having started as a graduate trainee.

Call the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) for a copy of `Graduate Careers in Advertising' on 0171 235 7020, or visit their website: The Advertising Association (0171 828 4831 or publishes `Getting into Advertising'