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The marketing entrance exam: 3 portfolio questions for aspiring creatives

I can still see their faces as they closed in on me. Eyes burning with raw enthusiasm and a hint of desperation. Hands thrusting leather cases, laptops and iPads forward. And mouths opening in unison to ask the same burning question.

“Can you review my portfolio?”

I was on the panel at an annual industry career day. The event was held so young women and men from around the country could make contacts, hone interviewing techniques and have their work critiqued by creative professionals. My role, as the organizer loosely defined it, was to “look at their books and answer their questions.”

Over the course of that afternoon, a curious thing happened.

The aspiring creatives came to the career day for answers, but I wound up asking them questions. In fact, I began to ask the same three portfolio inquiries over and over. They’re simple questions, beginning with what, who and where.

1. What’s in your portfolio?
This is the “show and tell” question. And as I reviewed the aspiring creatives’ work, I discovered a definite pattern emerging. The media options of choice were print and TV. Almost every marketing portfolio had large, individual print ads and a scattering of individual 30-second storyboards or rough animatics. Some of the ideas were solid; others needed a lot of shaping. But unfortunately, they were all missing the big picture.

A little advice: I understand why many marketing portfolios are print-heavy. You want to showcase your skills and print gives both designers and writers a chance to shine. I also get the TV. Who doesn’t want a Super Bowl spot in their book? But chances are you won’t do a lot of print or TV. Especially early on. Hopefully, you will get to work on multichannel campaigns that include email, landing pages, websites, direct mail, online display ads and maybe even a PDF brochure. You might also get to help out on content marketing efforts, such as blog articles, tweets and web videos. So it’s smart to show you can do this type of work before you ever walk in the door. Put it all in your portfolio.

Bonus advice: Here’s another potential pitfall to avoid. You may have noticed that the word “individual” was stressed to describe the scope of many portfolios. That’s because too many books have individual ad executions. As a marketing professional, you’ll need to think on a much broader scale. You’ve probably heard the term “big idea.” What that truly means is a campaignable idea. It has to be expansive enough to carry a campaign across all channels. And in your portfolio, it should be brought to life in the media described above. That way, your work will show you have the ability to think beyond the borders of the usual portfolio media.

2. Who’s in your portfolio?
In other words, what types of clients are lurking in there? Over the years at career day events, I have been inundated with concepts for blue chip accounts like Apple or Gap or Starbucks. And Nike. Always Nike. That’s because many aspiring creative marketing portfolios are focused on familiar Fortune 50 brands that scream big-name B2C.

A little advice: Try to avoid the big, established brands in your portfolio. Instead, take something that’s not particularly interesting to you and make it interesting to your audience. Want some examples? Concrete mix. Business insurance. A specialized industry conference. In addition, show a mix of B2B and B2C work, and maybe add a not-for-profit client into the mix.

I’m not saying to totally eliminate a household brand if you have a truly original and campaignable idea. But remember, you won’t be interviewed for a creative director position on the Nike account straight out of school. However, you definitely will need to show the recruiter or creative that is interviewing you how you think. Why not show them you can take a complex topic and make sense of it? Admittedly, this will require more work than most CPG accounts, but that’s a positive. Your choice of unexpected clients will boldly declare that you can do research, hone in on what makes an unfamiliar product or service different, and find a creative way to make it compelling to your target.

Bonus advice: If you know the account you are interviewing for, do not include that brand in your portfolio. This wisdom came from a fellow panelist who worked on Bud Light. He cautioned, “Never, ever show us Bud Light ads. We’ve already thought about every possible angle and rejected them all. You’re only setting yourself up.”

3. Where is your portfolio?
Creatives still use the term “book” to describe a portfolio. It’s slang that comes from the time when portfolios truly were books. In most cases, that meant large, black presentation cases. (On a personal note, I’m very glad those days are over. I was a writer and illustrator back then, so my book weighed more than a Mini Cooper. Despite that bulk, I actually had one agency confess that they lost my portfolio. Really? It’s only my leather-bound career you’re playing with. Sorry, old wounds. Anyway, I digress.)

A little advice: Forget about the big portfolio. There’s a much better way to expose your genius to the masses. Or at least get it in front of a recruiter. Two words: Online portfolio. If someone wants to see your work, send a link. There are a number of professional portfolio-builder sites that let you present your work in a professional manner for a nominal fee. If you can’t afford to develop an online portfolio, at least you can represent it digitally. Make PDFs of your campaigns that you can send whenever someone wants to see your best.

Marketing Innovation Seminar. New Techniques for 2015. Register now. For all of the aspiring creatives out there, I hope this article proved helpful. And if you still want to show me your work, please send me a link.

For everyone else, feel free to check out our agency portfolio. You’ll find it’s composed of B2B, B2C and not-for-profit work, and it runs the gamut from financial service to fireworks. Or, if you're new to marketing, sign up for our personalized session, “5 new techniques every marketer should consider for 2015.” We’ll share marketing innovations to build into your communications plan.

Topics: CMO

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