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 Creativity-online.com? 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!!

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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).