A primer on how to build your student portfolio

By Egotist / /

Portfolio season is upon us. To the students out there at ad schools, or for anyone just trying to get into the business, we have a few suggestions. These are not rules. And they likely contradict what you may hear elsewhere. But a few years ago I began to help bring in the talent here at Venables Bell and so I’ve probably looked at hundreds of portfolios in that time. And as someone who sees copious amounts of work at all levels, I can tell you that there are things that can help you rise to the top, and then there are things that won’t help you at all. And so as you go through all those sleepless nights of toil and stress, I humbly offer up some advice to students who seek it.

1. Know Your Audience. Most likely there is a creative recruiter or creative director looking at portfolios. Each of these people is tragically short on time. If you’ve got great work, don’t make us dig for it. Put your best few things first. Make it simple, succinct and easy to process.

2. Embrace print. We say this at the risk of sounding like dinosaurs, but hear us out. We believe print is one of the most revealing mediums available to judge a creative. It’s challenging, yet unlike film, achievable at the student level. If you’re an art director or designer, it tells us whether you have taste, craft, knowledge of typography, comping skills and the capacity to organize information. If you’re a writer, it tells us just as much. Can you be succinct? Can you get my attention? Can you make me want to read more? Can you be funny? Can you be thoughtful? If we see someone with smart and beautiful print work in their book, we truly believe they can do almost anything. And the bonus for us? It’s way faster to go through your print work than your 360˚ social campaigns.

3. Avoid group projects. This may be another one that makes your teachers angry, but to someone recruiting you, it’s difficult to know what member of the group contributed the most value. If you are truly proud of something you did in a group, keep it in. But distinctly and honestly list what part you contributed most to. Group projects are still a valuable learning experience because team dynamics are crucial in an agency setting, but generally speaking, the group project is rarely the best work in someone’s portfolio anyway.

4. Avoid doing commercials. There are exceptions to this, but making a great web film/tv commercial is not an easy task even with a director, trained actors and loads of money. Unless you have a very simple and short tv idea that can be pulled off with minimal acting, we would recommend against it. In most cases, the student commercials remind us that we’re looking at a student, when the rest of the book had us imagining the candidate as a professional.

5. If you’re a writer, show us some actual writing. You will likely be asked to write in long form many times, even if those things don’t end up being seen by the public. Selling a brand platform or campaign idea often requires a manifesto and a video. So whether it’s a manifesto in script or video form, an article, or some other form of long copy in your book, make sure you have an example of writing that you’re proud of. It lets us know where you might fit and whether we can count on you to write more than a social post.

6. Show us something outside of advertising if you can. We don’t want to just see advertising in your book. Show us examples of things that you’ve made that are beautiful, interesting, smart or funny. It could be posters, packaging, art, articles, books, inventions, poetry, invitations, furniture, illustrations, photography and anything you’ve done that you’re proud of. But be honest with yourself. Don’t just do it to do it. Do it because you’re tremendously proud of it and people have told you that it’s good.

7. Show us something unconventional. This is something we don’t really even have to ask for, because most of the portfolios we see these days are almost strictly unconventional. But make sure the unconventional idea is simply and succinctly conveyed at the start. Sometimes, an unconventional stunt or comp can be summarized in a single image with a few sentences of explanation.

8. Make your site look great. This might be obvious, but you’d be surprised. Make no mistake, you are being judged the moment we get to your website. The design, writing, and functionality all matter. And they matter immediately. For art directors, if your site exhibits good design and typography, we’re more likely to spend time and go deeper into your work. If your site looks ugly, busy, or amateur, we’re less likely to stick around very long. Your site doesn’t need to have all the crazy, slick functionality of a professional site. But make it easy to navigate. Make it clean and simple. And that goes for you too, writers.

9. Help us get to know you. Believe it or not, we actually do want to know your background, your hobbies, and what you do on the side. We want to know your voice, humor, and point of view. What makes you tick? Did you have an interesting upbringing, or a funny story about your parents or family? Sometimes a person’s short page on their background can take them from being a person who is on-the-fence into full consideration because we see something promising in them and a great chance to add to our culture.

10. What other useful skills do you have? Can you edit, can you animate, can you shoot video, can you take a decent picture, can you code? If you can do these things, give some examples of them or list them clearly somewhere in your site. There may be opportunities that arise from them that may surprise you.

11. Causes vs. Products. These days, it’s easy to believe that ad agencies are simply out there curing cancer and 3D-printing homeless shelters, but there’s actually a lot of other work ad agencies need to do to keep the doors open. Don’t overload your book with more than one or two causes. It’s low hanging fruit. If you lean too heavily into cause-related work, it makes us concerned that you won’t be able or even want to do any other kind of work.

12. Show your range. This is true of both art directors and writers. If you can show us that you can exhibit different tones, looks, and points of view it opens up more possibilities. Sometimes people are simply great at one thing, like being funny, or thoughtful, or writing emotionally. And that’s ok. It’s still very valuable. But if you can be smart, thoughtful, weird and funny…then you will be a valuable commodity.

That’s it. And if you’ve made it this far, you know how it feels for a recruiter to wade through a single portfolio. Now imagine if you had to read a hundred more of these in a day or two. Cut us some slack. It will do you good. And best of luck to you this spring.


Tom Scharpf is a Creative Director at Venables Bell and Partners