What To Avoid When Assembling a Spec Portfolio

Tips for Creating a Spec Portfolio That Gets You Noticed

Corporate businessman using digital tablet outdoors
Caiaimage/Chris Ryan / Getty Images

In the many years I've been in advertising, I must have seen hundreds of portfolios. In the beginning, it was physical books, now the work is online. But over the years, although the style of advertising has changed, and the level of finish has become much more polished, the same old mistakes are still being made.

When you're shopping your book around, either as a student or someone looking to switch agencies or careers, you are looking to impress people.

Your portfolio should be a concentration of your skills, featuring solid work spanning multiple mediums and product segments.

The work you show, and do not show, is paramount. So here are some things to avoid when preparing your book.

Never Choose Easy Projects For Yourself

Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of an advertising professional. He or she has taken the time out of their insanely busy schedule to look through your work, either with you present or by viewing your website or book.

When the pages are turned and endless campaigns for Nike, Wonderbra, Viagra, Victoria's Secret and Red Bull appear one after the other, you are giving a clear indication that you don't like to challenge yourself.

A quick look at a site like Ads Of The World will give you a good idea of this phenomenon. There are dozens of campaigns for Wonderbra. It's easy to advertise for. Big breasts, and the outcome of them, is a very simple idea to get behind, and it's easy to be visually funny and verbally concise.

Most don't even have headlines.

The same goes for Viagra and Red Bull. Sex is an easy subject. Tons of energy is easy. These campaigns only prove to the potential employer that you can handle the low-hanging fruit.

If you really want to impress, do ads for bland products or services that have no easily-identifiable or unique traits.

Choose an airline, dish soap, a wireless carrier, or something else that you have to use your brain for. Now, you need to create a strategy, rather than piggyback one. You need to think. And that's what employers want to see. Spec work should not be easy; it should not be shooting fish in a barrel.

Do Not Throw Money At The Problem

Here's another classic mistake that many up and coming creatives make. A book filled with creative but extremely costly ideas is not going to do you any favors. Advertising and design agencies rarely have the huge budgets to work with that they'd like, and often have to think of creative ways to use the increasingly shrinking budgets that clients supply.

By filling your book with $10 million solutions, no matter how creative, you're pigeon-holing yourself as someone who can only do good work if the budget is good. And 90% of the time, the budget is mediocre at best.

By all means, have examples of places that you could take the campaign, if the budget allowed. But don't fill your book with overpriced billboards, stunts and Super Bowl ads.

If you can give people a great idea that costs just pennies, they will know you can do something just as cool with a ton of money.

Don't Ignore The Unpopular Types of Media

Billboards, print ads, guerrilla and TV scripts are what most student books are filled with. They're big, sexy and fun to work on. But you can have so much more impact if you take your campaign to places that most people want to avoid. Radio, direct mail, websites, point of purchase, packaging, these are mediums to explore. It's easy to find people who can produce great billboard ads, but great direct mail, that's another story. And as David Ogilvy proved, it's a very effective medium when done right.

I saw a student book filled with direct mail ideas once. These were big ideas. Huge ideas. There were very few print and outdoor ads in the portfolio. The level of thinking put into the direct mail pieces was smart, strategic and had legs. Those two kids went on to become creatives at BBH. Remember, this is a business of ideas, and if those ideas can work on the more utilitarian, but less sexy, mediums, then you're doing well.

Don't Spend More Time on Polish than Ideas

As I stated in the introduction, great execution and polish has become commonplace in modern portfolios. I've seen student books that contained work more finished and beautiful than the work in the agency's own portfolio.

But an agency cannot live on looks alone. There needs to be substance behind the style, and if you sacrifice great ideas for beautiful printouts, you're in trouble.

One of the first jobs I ever got was based not on the quality of the ads I had produced, but the sketches in the back of my portfolio. The interview was actually lukewarm until the creative director pulled the folded, dog-eared pages from the back pocket of my folio. I indicated that they were just sketches for campaigns I was working on, they were not finished at all. He didn't care. He opened them and started nodding as he turned the pages.

"These are way better than anything in your book" he said. "This shows me how you think, the book shows me what you've succeeded in getting printed."

And that was something I have never forgotten. In this day and age, it's easy to go straight to a Mac, knock out an idea and then polish it to perfection. But if the idea is weak, the ad will always be weak. No amount of Photoshop can save it.

So, add polish if you like. But make sure those ideas and campaigns are concrete and your very best work before you start shining.

Don't Include Anything You're Not 100% Proud Of

A portfolio is only as good as the weakest piece in it. By filling your book with mediocre campaigns, you're taking away from the great ones that are in there.

A good way to check this is to run through the portfolio and present it to a friend. There will be some pieces that you cannot stop talking about. You'll be excited about them, and will be genuinely proud to show them off.

Then, there are those other pieces. The ones that, when you know they're coming up next, you get lost for words. The ones you'd rather skip past to get to the next campaign. These need to be cut. Get rid of them. Be brutal.

If your book goes from 15 pieces to 10, fine. If it goes from 15 to 3, you've got issues and your book needs a lot more work. And it's also for this reason that you need to constantly update your book.

Something you were proud of five years ago may not have stood the test of time. If in doubt, take it out.

Never Start Strong and Finish Weak

If you follow the advice above, you won't have any weak work in your book anyway. But, even amongst great campaigns, some work is better than others. If you put all that up front, you will definitely make a statement. But as you continue, you'll fail to top it and that does you no good.

When I'm preparing a portfolio, I put my strongest piece of work at the back of the book. This is the piece I want to be fresh in their minds when the book closes. Then, I put the next strongest piece at the very front. After that, the order should be logical and spread out in such a way that you're not stuck on one subject matter for page after page after page. Mix it up. Start strong, finish strong.

Follow these tips, and you should be well on your way to assembling a portfolio that will get you noticed in any advertising or marketing agency.

Continue Reading...