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!!


The Best Books About Advertising

A colleague sent me this note today:  ”A friend of mine is getting into undergrad teaching in SF and was wondering what I could recommend for reading, I told her “Hey Whipple” and Malcom Gladwell’s stuff, but that I would ask you.”  Here’s my reply. I’m sure my quick list is missing some good books. Please add your recommendations in the comments section.

– “Made To Stick” talks about developing good ideas and communicating them so they catch on. It’s not about advertising, but it addresses core issues in advertising. It’s an easy read. I use this book in Completeness, a course where we go through an entire campaign process.

– I like all ad students to be able to think like planners. “Hitting the Sweet Spot” and “Truth, Lies, & Advertising” are good on that subject.

A good guide to idea generation in any business including advertising.

– The PBS Frontline show called “The Persuaders” is a great intro into the basics of the brand communication process. It’s not a “reading,” but it’s good. Free to watch online.

– For the creative side, I like “Creative Advertising: Ideas and techniques from the world’s best campaigns” by Mario Pricken. It nicely spells out the creative brainstorming process.

– “Zag” by Marty Neumeier is an introduction to brand concepts and strategies. It’s a concise and easy-to-read review of the basics. I use this book (along with Made To Stick) in Completeness, the ad campaign courses.

– I agree with your pick of Gladwell. I like “Tipping Point” and “Blink.” I have not read “Outliers” yet, but it’s on my list.

– “How Brands Become Icons” (by Douglas Holt) is about big brands like Coke, Nike, and Bud. I like how the author spells out cultural branding and shows how it works for any brand — big and small, national and local.

– Call me nostalgic… I still like “Ogilvy on Advertising.”

– For beginning art direction, a subscription to “How” magazine is good. The “Before & After” newsletter does a nice step-by-step of creating stuff.

– “Communication Arts” magazine.

– I also agree with you on “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.”  I use this book in my Story class — a lower-level ad writing class.

– On the marketing side, I use a lot of articles from the AMA magazine called “Marketing News.” The reoccurring article called “Best In Class” is usually a good place to find good case studies.

– To learn how to get a job and to have a good career in advertising, marketing, and any business, “Radical Careering” is tops. I use this book in my Judgment class — a portfolio class for strategy students.

Okay. What did I leave off?  What should not be on this list? Share your comments, please.