We recently ran a post asking if the junior talent in advertising are packaging themselves wrong. As we tend to do, we turned to a reader to help us answer that question after a number of very insightful comments on the post. In this case, we asked William Burks Spencer, who recently interviewed over 100 Creative Directors about what they look for in portfolios and compiled them into Breaking In, a book about creating a portfolio that will get you hired. For excerpts from the book, checkout the companion site.
Author: William Burks Spencer (@wspencer), Freelance Copywriter
Are students and juniors in advertising packaging themselves wrong? I think the answer is “most of the time, yes.” When I asked over 100 Creative Directors about what they look for in portfolios, on most topics there was a good diversity of opinion. But everyone agreed on one point: most books are pretty much the same.
Certainly a lot of it has to do with content–books all look the same because the advertising in them is the same. Often ads in student books lack strategic thinking. It is very obvious when someone jumped right into making ads without any thought as to what the business problem was, or how to solve it. Another common problem has to do with technology. Students often show executions across tons of different media including Facebook apps, iPhone apps, and more, without having a powerful idea at the core. They’re good at blowing out an idea, but not actually crafting it. But beyond just the ads, I think there is a problem and an opportunity here. Very few juniors venture outside of the normal format: 5-7 campaigns and a resume.
I think a solution can come from thinking about two things:
1. A portfolio tells a creative director “this is what I want to do”. That’s a very personal question and it gets to the heart of a student’s personality and passion. I think the reason a lot of books feel the same is that students haven’t thought about this question. They don’t have strong feelings about what they want to do so they let other people to figure it out for them. I’m not talking about “being an art director or writer”–that’s too broad. I’m talking about having a unique voice that comes through in your work. Or a strong point-of-view. Or specializing in one aspect of advertising that you love and demonstrating it. A lot of junior talent are trying to fit into what they think a creative should be, whereas Creative Directors are looking for people who know who they are.
2. A portfolio needs to make a point. It needs to make an impression on a Creative Director that stays with them. Matt Vescovo, an art director and artist, said in the book: “What’s really appropriate about the whole thing is that Creative Directors look at student books the way that consumers look at advertising.” Just as a good ad needs to leave you with a certain message or feeling, a good book should as well.
I think students need to combine these two goals and build a portfolio that demonstrates, in a memorable and original way, what kind of work they want to do.
If want to make Facebook apps and that’s what you’re good at, go for it. If you love crafting long-copy, show that. Make that your hook. It comes back to the idea of the T-shaped creative person that BBH and others use. Show what you’re good at and passionate about. And then show that you can do the other things that someone with the title you want would be expected to do. It seems like most students and juniors are afraid of planting the base of the T and the result is they end up just being an underscore.
I often tell students about a friend of mine whose student portfolio consisted of a 6-foot roll of paper. Unrolling it revealed a single campaign that he art directed 7 different ways. Think about the impact that has for a CD to see that layed out on the floor. It stands out because it is different and bold. It made the point that he’s a prolific, exacting art director who will work for as long as it takes to get it right. And he is. He works at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland.
In the book, Pat McKay, who is a freelance Creative Director in Seattle and worked at Wieden+Kennedy London with me, said that he thinks it is smart for a book to have an idea to it. Pat said he “would certainly look twice if a book came in with 100 sketches and they were all good ideas.” That book would say “I’m just going to have loads of ideas and that’s the one thing I want to leave in that person’s mind”.
Another way to package yourself differently is to get away from advertising completely. To show something else that shows your voice and personality. One of the other questions I asked everyone I interviewed was about showing this type of work–writing, art, hobbies, etc. Most Creative Directors I spoke to were interested in seeing it and it was usually those things that they could remember and talk about, years down the line.
Tony Davidson of Wieden+Kennedy London talked about a team who filmed themselves getting over a very low rail in different, often silly, ways to show that they solved problems differently. Dave Bell from KesselsKramer talked about someone who had a book called “Very, Very Short Stories” containing a hundred or more 3-line stories. Ted Royer of Droga5 talked about someone he hired who put a technical blueprint of Noah’s Ark in his book. Vince Engel of Engine Company 1 remembered someone who wrote absurd letters to companies and compiled them into a book. Those things all probably say more about a person than ads.
Your portfolio has to represent you for those precious few minutes with a Creative Director. The onus is on you to show that they can think differently than anyone else in the building. Why not make a statement? Be different. Take a stand. Demonstrate that you have the base of the T, whatever that might be. If you open the conversation, you will always have an opportunity to show that you have the broader skills at the top part of the T as well. It might feel risky, but the bigger risk is not taking one.