To work at a big agency or a small agency?

Q:  I don’t know if I want to work at a big agency or a small agency. What’s the difference?

Students often don’t know which is better:  big or small. It’s hard to know without working in both. Rob Schapiro (ECD at Brunner) has worked in big and small shops, and he wrote a nice article on this topic. It’s on the Talent Zoo website. Some thoughts from his article are included here as well as some other thoughts.

First of all, Rob defines a small agency as having less than 40 people. And a big agency as having more than 400. That seems like a good place to work from.

– Get to talk with the president the client company (or someone close to him/her). It’s good to work with the person with ultimate authority. You’ll be on a first-name basis with the president of the agency, too.
– Big budgets will never sway your thinking. Creating a great 30-second spot for a few thousand bucks will require good, strong thinking.
– To be noticed, the work must be great. The small media budgets won’t develop anyone’s reputation.
– Learn a little of everything. There are less people around, so everyone wears many hats. Get a taste of different sides of the business.
– Get to know co-workers well. The entire creative department can meet up after work for drinks and easily fit at the bar down the block.
– Christmas Party:  All 37 of you will climb on a bus equipped with a keg, check out the tacky lights around town and wind up at a bowling alley somewhere. Or do something else just as cost-effective.
– Some small agencies think and act like big agencies (in a good way).

– The clients are more experienced. Less of a learning curve about how good advertising works.
– Big budgets. Great concepts can be afforded top-notch talent.
– Even if people don’t recognize your name, they’ll know your agency.
– It’s a little easier to develop into a T-shaped talent because there’s less demand for a jack-of-all-trades.
– More opportunities for movement within the organization. It’s just a math thing.
– Get to know co-workers well. Even in a huge company, we’re all human; we’re social beings who like our small communities. The folks you hang with at work can meet up after work for drinks and easily fit at the bar down the block.
– Christmas Party:  Semi-formal at a nice hotel. Open bar. Good eats.
– Some big agencies think and act like small agencies (in a good way).

Which one is better?  Rob Schapiro summarizes it by saying, “It really depends on you.” I’ll add a little more by saying, “It really depends on you and the particular agency.”  It also depends on your career goals. If you want to eventually work at a big agency, start there to learn how big agencies work. If you want to eventually work at a small shop, start there to get good at wearing lots of hats.


How do I make a portfolio?

Q: I hear that I should have a portfolio, but I have no idea where to start. I just started on the Strategic Ad track at VCU, and I don’t know what should go into a portfolio or what one should look like. I was wondering if you can just offer some insight where I should start or what are some pieces of work I should include.

There are many books that show how to build a good ad portfolio. Most (if not all) are focused on creating a portfolio for a creative position. They are worth reading for strategists because the same thinking goes into portfolios for strategists.

A:  Most people won’t expect you to have much of a portfolio if you’re still in college. Especially since you’re not a senior yet. But, any ad student (Creative and Strategic) who wants to secure a wild internship or an exciting job, should have an interesting body of work. It will help to sell you.

Simplify your thinking of a portfolio. It is just a collection of work — stuff you’ve done. To make a portfolio, first make it easy. Then make it better. And better.

First, just begin with a WordPress blog or any free place to collect your work. Put 10 things up there, and you’ll have a portfolio!! Then make it better.

Listed below are things you should show in a portfolio. I have listed them in the order of importance:

1- Show passion. A deep interest in anything. Really anything. And I mean a deep interest. That means that you go further than most people. People with deep interests are interesting people. Successful ad people are interesting people interested in things. In advertising passion trumps skills all of the time.
2- Show creation. Make stuff and share it. It doesn’t matter what you make, just make stuff. Stand up comedy, spoken-word poetry, write hip-hop licks, design a laser-light show, write music, redesign album artwork, make strawberry shortcakes, write stories, brew beer, design houses, or knit sweaters.
And share it. Put it out there for others to enjoy, criticize, steal, and get pissed about. Because creation without sharing or publishing might be OK for fine artists with issues, but it doesn’t work in advertising.

3- Show you’re willing to try, and suck, and try until you get better. That’s another big part of advertising. Ad folks are always presented with new problems every day. Every client wants something really new (never tried before). So there’s going to be things that don’t work out as planned. Trying hard and failing is a big part of the ad game, and so is trying again, and trying again… and eventually winning. Yippee!

4- Show you are a student of the ad business. Do you read at least one of these on a regular basis:  AdAge, AdWeek, CommArts, or If you did, I’m sure you could show the ad knowledge that you have gained.

5- Show your ad chops. I know you have had Curiousness. Have you had Empathy, Awareness, Imagination, or Perspicuousness? How about Story? Did you have projects in those classes that you could share to show your ad skills? If your work wasn’t exceptional, you have two choices:  1) forget showing the work to anyone, or 2) rework it until it’s exceptional (see item #3 above). I suggest reworking those assignments until they are exceptional.

And you could do one thing that covers all of the 5 sections above. Here’s an example: Create a blog. Then get a list of the companies in the Fortune 100. For the next 100 days, write a one-hour brand analysis every day. Start at company #100 and work your way up to company #1. This project would show a passion for brands (#1). This project is a creation that’s shared (#2). This project would show that you kept up on your trying and learning about brand analyses (#3). This project would show you have a deep interest in the ad business (#4). And if your work is good, this project would show you know about branding.

Designers could start with the same list of 100 companies and redesign each company’s logo. Writers could write engaging answering machine messages for each company’s phone system. Have fun with your portfolio!

Recently some advertising hiring executives visited VCU to talk with students. A student asked William Manfredi, Executive VP – Global Human Resources for Wunderman, what he looked for in undergrad’s portfolios.  Manfredi said that Wunderman is so large that there isn’t one thing, but he looked for a fit in personality and in culture. Then he listed two specifics, “Energy and passion.” Susan Lim, also in Global Human Resources with Wunderman, nodded her head in agreement.

You can see that there is no one way to make a portfolio. There is no concrete list of things that should go into a portfolio. Tell the story of what you have done.

One last thing:  Include you in your portfolio. People want to see the person behind the collection of work. Tell your story. Stories are compelling (hey, that’s one more last thing).

Get your portfolio together and you’ll have some life-changing experiences. Best of luck!!

Advertising internship at Apple (writer)

Copywriter Internship for Apple:

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork, and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple is reinventing the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and has recently introduced its magical iPad which is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices.

Apple is looking for a writer intern with a "positive attitude and a curious mind.".

Looking for a copywriting student to spend the summer at Apple. You would be working on projects and campaigns with design interns, which would potentially include work across social media, in-store posters for Apple stores, web, app development, and iAds. Ideally you’re able to write great headlines and body copy so we could also pull you in on other day-to-day projects. And as you can probably guess, you would need to write in a way that makes all the tech stuff easy to understand and keeps with the voice of the Apple Brand. By the end of the summer you’ll have written a lot, everyday, and potentially have your work seen by millions of people worldwide.

Good things to have:

  • Advertising writing with headline experience
  • Ability to tell a story and be creative
  • A positive attitude and curious mind

Please send resumes and sample of work to Amber at

AKQA Drives Beyond Thinking Horizons

At a recent VCU Brandcenter Friday Forum, Adam Creeger (Technical Architect at AKQA) presented the Fiat Eco:Drive campaign. Wow! That’s some really cool stuff. Check it out here. It’s like Nike+ for the car.

Fiat Eco Drive

AKQA designed something that will change how we drive in the future -- Eco:Drive

Can you think of a car company doing anything like this 5 years ago?  Can you see the possibilities of this thinking in 5 years?  I’m excited to see where it will go. There’s plenty of room for pushing this idea. First of all, it’s silly that a USB drive is needed to make the technology work. It will be only a couple of years before all new cars are able to connect wirelessly with our PCs — skip the USB. Or, skip the PCs altogether… cars will soon be displaying this information right on the dashboard.

I love how “ad agencies” are pushing the thinking of product design.  Eco:drive will make us smarter drivers and change how we drive.  Good advertising is smart design thinking that communicates the brand, creates benefits, and solves problems — regardless if it is “advertising” or not.

I used to work with someone who limited her own thinking horizons. When she was pressed to push her thinking beyond her self-imposed boundaries, she would say, “I didn’t know we could do that.” It would drive me bonkers. Too often we create thought boundaries that limit our thinking horizons. Fortunately these boundaries are NEVER real; they are only perceived. Let’s commit to always pushing ourselves to go beyond. Never say, “I didn’t know I could do that.”

Bravo, AKQA and Fiat!

Adam had some great advice for those just starting out in the ad business:  “Do something… now.” He said, “Make something. Make mistakes. Learn from it. Make it great.”  It doesn’t matter what it is; just make something. Great advice.

Advertising’s Biggest Enemy is Indifference.

Indifferece was the focus of a recent presentation from Martin Weigel, head of planning at Wieden + Kennedy, Amsterdam. The presentation was one of the weekly Friday Forums at the VCU Brandcenter… always rich with inspiration. Here are Weigel’s ways to defeat indifference along with some of my thoughts thrown in:

Most consumers will not care about your client’s product. For most brands half of all sales come from 20% of the consumers. So that means half of all sales come from people who are indifferent about the brand.

Many advertisers try to overcome indifference by making ads bigger, brighter, and flashier. But consumers are getting better and beter at ignoring those ads.

Weigel says that the conventional wisdom is that 80% of brand’s sales come from 20% of the customers. The 80/20 rule does not exist for the vast majority of brands. Weigel says that the accurate ratio is 50/20. This is counter to many experts’ thoughts about the influence of brand loyalists. However, the numbers don’t matter (for this discussion). What matters is getting people to care.

Q:  How do we get people to at least mildly care about the client’s brand? How do we defeat indifference?

A: Engage the audience with natural human instincts — primitive creature impulses. When we strip out all of the demographic and psychographic data, consumers are beings that react to stuff – like all living things do.

Weigel says that brands need to “stir” consumers’ emotions.

In The Persuaders (a great PBS documentary), Coltaire Rapaille says that brands need to go deeper than just appealing to emotional needs. “All purchasing decisions really lie beyond conscious thinking and emotion,” says Rapaille. He says purchase decisions reside in “a primal core” — the reptilian brain. “When we [are] born, we have the reptilian brain.” The reptilian brain is where the first reaction to things takes place, before emotions.

Back to Weigel’s great presentation. Weigel says that brands need to use these four tools to defeat indifference:

– Beauty

– Immersion

– Transformation

– Shock

Beauty: Humans seek out patterns naturally. Beauty is seeing the world so that everything fits and everything has consequence. For an intellectual illustration of this, Weigel reminded us of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Less-abstract examples are the work of everyday artists, architects, and designers. They all try to get things to fit appropriately into the contexts of time and space. Beauty has a way of bypassing critical and rational thinking. It persuades us to act on our emotions and to make impulse decisions. Many studies have shown that beauty, pattern, structure, and order add perceived value. Weigel concludes that “beautiful brands are stronger than unorganized, random brands.”

Immersion: To get lost in the moment and to be part of something bigger. Weigel gave examples of Burning Man, sex, music, and intoxication. Professional sports teams do a good job of making their fans feel like they are part of a bigger cause. I’d say that many colleges do that, too (but VCU has some room for growth in this area). Immersion is turning “I” into “we.” Nike Plus is a great example of that. Another good example is the wonderful cause marketing efforts like Yoplait and their work with several social causes (like the Susan G. Komen for the Cure). The success of Toms Shoes (and many other cause-related brands) proves that when a company becomes a cause, consumers care about them. This also reminds me of the article about “creating fashion” – when a brand offers the customer a sense of identity. Think about Harley-Davidson, political parties, and religions. And speaking of religions, it’s not a coincidence that baptisms are an immersion (figuratively and literally).

Transformation: The promise of change. Barak Obama won the 2008 election by evoking the emotion of transformation. Walmart’s old message was all about low prices and slashing prices. And they did very well with that strategy. But their new strategy is much stronger because it takes the fact of low prices and makes it transformative:  Save money. Live better. The “Save money” builds off of the equity they had established. The “Live better” connects Walmart to a transformative emotion, and makes people feel better about Walmart.

Brands are stories. Good stories (from the beginning of time) have always been about triumph over conflict: transformation.

Shock: Freshness and originality. Weigel says there are two methods of shock:  1) The shock of new, and 2) The shock of recognition. The shock of the new goes along with surprise, especially sudden surprise. When Mini Cooper came out, they connected to consumers with the shock of new. Hummer did the same thing… in a very different way.

The shock of recognition is produced by uncovering things that were always there. Many comedians build nice careers by reflecting back people’s funny situations to them: “What was the deal with the hairstyles of the 90s? What were we thinking?!” While the shock of new is quick, the shock of recognition usually builds a little slower.

Apple uses shock to connect with consumers by turning them on with cool, new products. There’s a quick attraction to the newness of Apple’s neat innovative products. Apple also uses simplicity to create a slow-building emotional attraction similar to the shock of recognition.

Shock creates stimulation, and that causes our brains to release dopamine. Dopamine is connected to the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Weigel says, “We crave dopamine.”

To battle indifference, we need to make others care. We need to look at the things that humans crave all of the time, and give it to them: beauty, immersion, transformation and shock. If we’re successful, it will inspire consumers to come toward the brand (not back away from it). It will inspire consumers to share the brand with others – automatic word-of-mouth promotions. And if we wipe out indifference, it will change how ads are perceived and received. Ads won’t be something that interrupts the audience; ads will be welcome. To illustrate the last point, look on YouTube to see how many great ads from this week’s Super Bowl have over a million hits. these are ads that have broken through the indifference barrier.

I wondered what others were saying about indifference. After a quick online search of quotes about indifference, I found this from Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate, writer, political activist, and college professor. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Wiesel also said, “Nothing good can come out of indifference. In fact, nothing can come out of indifference.”

To battle indifference, we need to make others care. For Elie Wiesel it’s getting people to care about each other and to make the world a better place — a noble cause. For Martin Weigel it’s getting people to care about brands. Not as noble, but still very difficult.

Am I creative or am I strategic?

“I hope so.”

The VCU ad program (undergrad) is split into two majors:  Creative and Strategy. Many first- and second-year ad students ask the same question:  “Am I creative or am I strategic?”

This should not be an either/or question. It should be a yes-or-no question. Advertising is a business for people who can think creatively and strategically to solve business problems through communications.

People who lack creative thinking skills will not do well in advertising (the ad business or the VCU ad program). The ad business is a creative business. Everyone in advertising needs to find new ways to solve problems. And each client problem is different from all previous problems. There are no cookie-cutter solutions for writers, for account planners, for art directors, for media planners, or for account managers. Everyone is expected to engineer new solutions. To be creative.

Check out this little video (from the Effie Awards) to see the story behind the strategy of an ad campaign... and to see the creative execution of the strategy. The link is at the bottom of the article.

People who lack the ability to think strategically will not do well in advertising. Solving a business problem with new ideas requires a full understanding of the problem. It also requires an understanding of business in general so that competing ideas can be evaluated against each other. Critical thinking abilities are required from account planners as well as from art directors.

Work Communications (a creative talent agency in the UK) talks about the connection between creative thinking and strategic thinking:  “Commercial creativity is all about using original thinking to solve difficult problems in the real world. By definition, innovation takes you into the unknown; any action that is truly pioneering has an element of risk to it. So if you are going to do something that is genuinely new and different, you’d better know why you’re doing it and what you hope to gain from the exercise.”

There are plenty of under-inspired people working in creative departments. And there are plenty of scatterbrains working in account services or planning departments. These people are not the leaders; they are the followers. Most of the ones I’ve known tend to be happier after they leave the ad business.

So, back to the question, “Am I creative or am I strategic?”  The best answer is “I hope so.”  If the answer is “yes,” then I can help you pick a track. If the answer is “no,” then I can help you pick another major.

Let’s assume you’re creative and strategic. Then which advertising track is best for you? Are you a writer? Do you love to write? Really love it? Stephen King says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

If you’re not a writer, are you an art director?  Mark Fenske says, “If you come up with good ideas but they all look bad, you’re a copywriter.” From Mark’s wisdom, we might assume:  If you come up with good ideas and they look good, you’re an art director.

Or, is the Strategic track best for you?  Grab a drink and some popcorn, and watch “The Persuaders,” a Frontline documentary from PBS. It’s about the strategic side of brand communications (advertising). It shows how companies and organizations figure out how to persuade you and me to buy their products. If you get excited from the documentary, you’ll like the strategic side of advertising. Watch the film here (click on “Watch the Full Program Online” – a link on the right side of that page).

Some final advice from Helayne Spivak: “Exciting ads come from excited people with incredibly diverse backgrounds and interests. And while most creative advertising people have a healthy interest in their field, they have an even healthier interest in the world around them. In other words, the single-minded study of advertising and advertising alone will not make you a better writer or art director. In fact, the best advice I’ve ever heard for aspiring young creatives is something my mother said to me years ago: ‘Turn off the damned television and go outside and play.’”

Here’s the link to the Canadian Club video (from the photo above).

How to be a good creative (copywriter, art director).

Tom Lichtenheld is an accomplished creative director (at Cramer-Krasselt and now freelancing). Before that, he was a fantastic art director (at Fallon). Last year he spoke at the VCU Brandcenter’s Friday Forum on the myths about creativity. It was a great presentation (see my notes on that topic here). I recently ran across some more of my notes from the presentation. Tom made a list of seven things to be a good creative. Here is Tom’s list combined with my thoughts:

To be a good creative, one must give the creative director:

1) Passion (the most important thing): This was the top thing for Tom, and it is the most important attribute listed by most people when talking about being creative. Passion creates the desire to want to be creative. Passion fuels the need for generating the strongest idea. Passion helps us endure the endless pursuit for absolute beauty in the writing and art direction of advertising.

The author, Sir Ken Robinson, is an expert on creativity and innovation. His book is about finding your passions and how that can change everything.

2) Studiousness: Being a good creative is a never-ending pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge about the craft (writing and art direction). The craft is ever evolving. Knowledge about people – people in general and specific knowledge of the target audience. There’s always more to know about the target audience. Knowledge about culture – what are cool things that people are doing around the world (fashion, hobbies, technology, opinions, interests, etc). Culture is how creatives use their craft to connect with people… they do it by creating culture. Knowledge about he brand. How do people use is (apart from it’s primary use), why do consumers buy it (really), how does the brand fit in with people’s aspirations in life?  As a creative, there’s always more to learn

3) Constant focus on the brief: Creatives are paid to think of millions of ideas. To succeed in that mission, it is natural to veer away from the direction of the brief. That’s OK. That’s expected. In fact, that’s encouraged. However, good creatives always get back to the brief. The ideas that are presented are always on brief. And if ideas are presented that are off brief, those ideas have rationale telling why they diverted from the direction of the brief.

4) More ideas (and fewer pixels): Wonderful direction! The best tools for generating the best ideas are:  paper, pen or pencil, and brain. Notice that “computer” is not on the list. Our capacity to generate ideas is infinite. And all we need to tap into the endless resource of ideas (our brain) is the passion to want more ideas (see #1 above), the background knowledge on the topic (see #2 above), paper and pen/pencil (to record the plethora of ideas that will flow.

5) Good presentations of the work: Raymond McKinney (a CD at The Martin Agency) once told me, “Ideas that are presented like shit, are shit.”  In my years in the ad business (and my years outside of agencies, too), it was easy to see that the ideas that were presented well had a better chance of approval than all of the other the ideas. The guys who always presented their work in a strong, fluid, and easy-to-understand manner, got their work approved. Approved work equals bonuses and promotions. Learn to present your ideas well.

6) Acceptance of critiques: As the saying goes, “Everyone has an opinion….” Creative directors are hired to have opinions and to give critiques. It’s their job! Good clients give good feedback (compliments and criticisms = critiques). So creatives job is to accept all critiques, use them as tools to make the work better, and flourish. The opinions of the creatives are important, and everyone has an opinion. Creatives who don’t respect the opinion of the client or the creative director, tend not to get respect.

7) Independence: Good creatives take direction (as described on in #3), while at the same time they push ideas further (as described in #1). Creatives are expected to own the projects, push the work on their projects, and see the projects through without micromanagement. Creatives that require close scrutiny or micromanagement are less creative and drain the mojo of everyone else.

Tom Lichtenheld makes a great presentation. He is smart, he is down to earth, and he is funny. Every junior art director and junior copywriter should tape this list to his/her cubicle wall. Live by these ideas, and you won’t be a junior for long. And when you’re ready to be a creative director, Tom has a new list for you. Along with this list of how to be a good creative, he shared ways to be a good creative director. I’ll post those thoughts later.