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Pitching Your Portfolio: Do’s and Don’ts

Written By Page Jensen-Slattengren | Aug 19, 2015

Congrats, you’ve done it! After weeks, months, YEARS of staying up late to make ads that you love (and then inevitably hate), you have completed your book. Pat yourself on the back my friend, many have tried and many have failed (can you die from sleep exhaustion and Frappuccino overdose?).

After a celebratory dance it’s time for the real work: shopping your portfolio around. This can be the most difficult part of the process and certainly the most humbling. It often involves emailing everyone and anyone you have ever met, networking your ass off, and being as persistent as hell. You’ve worked hard to get this far and now it’s time to sell yourself.

As a recent grad of the Job Propulsion Lab, here are my Do’s and Don’ts for shopping your portfolio around:

Do: Create a great portfolio that targets the agency you want to work at

This shouldn’t be that much of a shocker. Your book shouldn’t just be a collection of your work, but an advertisement of who you are as a professional and what you can bring to an agency. A great portfolio doesn’t just show what you have been working on but should be:

– Quick to load and easy to figure out
– Contain a brief (funny) but professional bio
– Show how you solve problems and improve outcomes
– Demonstrate your range

Basically it needs to be simple, sweet, to the point but still current. Sounds easy right?

Do: Email Everyone You Know

Hopefully by now you’re an advertising expert (ha) but then you have to advertise yourself. Polish that LinkedIn summary, use your social media network to post about your portfolio, and bug your parents to hook you up with that old college friend of theirs who happens to be a leading CD. Now is the time to network yourself, my friend, and that means being persistent as hell.

In his famed book Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, Luke Sullivan suggests you “tell every living person you know you’re trying to land a job at an ad agency. You may find that the friend of a friend has a name. And a name is all you need to start building your contacts.”

Bart Cleveland, founder of Job Propulsion Lab in Austin, TX advises his students to do two things once their book is complete.

“Network and network,” he tells them. “You should be building connections with those at the companies you have targeted. This is a business of one degree of separation. If you can connect with someone in the company you target, they will help connect you to the people making the decisions. Make friends and they may even give you insight into what your portfolio needs to pass their muster, or one day, even shepherd you through the gauntlet.”

Don’t: Put EVERYTHING in your book

You’re only as great as your weakest piece. It’s important to select the pieces that represent the agencies you are trying to work with and not just every piece you have ever done.

Yes, that means killing some of your first year darlings. If it doesn’t reflect the work you are capable of, or now looks overplayed (any campaign that plays on Tinder), slash away.

Do: Your Homework

We all know that quote “to be prepared is half the victory,”and this is especially true when trying to impress agencies and creatives. Before writing an intro email, make sure to check out the work, history, and employees of the agency. Get to know their mantra and goals. Fine tune your portfolio to be relevant to what the employer is looking for. While ultimately a strong portfolio is going to make the strongest impression, a well-researched introductory email will put you ahead of the pack.

“Follow the channels they provide.”

“My best piece of advice when connecting with recruiters or hiring managers is to follow the channels they provide,” Mathys+Potestio Creative Recruiter Denise Faddis told me once. “If a job is posted online or there is an option to register with the company, register first.”

Once you’ve applied, then you can send a note to the manager, or recruiter, letting them know you did so, offering a short summary of who you are, and offering to answer any further questions, or provide additional samples, in a friendly and timely manner.

“You want to do everything you can to make it convenient for the manager to learn about you without taking up a significant amount of time,” Denise said. “We receive hundreds of emails a month from candidates, we really appreciate the people that take the time to do their research and provide what’s needed, then offer to expound if needed.”

Do: Attend a Portfolio Night

The Art Directors Club (ADC) hosts annual portfolio nights around the world, offering recent students and young professionals a chance to network with top CD’s and fellow creatives in their city. Think of it like speed dating for your portfolio: you’re offered “dates” with 3-4 creatives and 15 minutes to present your portfolio to each. It’s a great way to meet your peers, get feedback on your book and who knows—it could be your ticket to a job or interview with one of the companies represented.

Don’t: Get Offended

I hate to break it to you, but not everyone is going to love every piece in your book. In fact some people will straight up hate certain pieces. Through this entire process, the biggest serving of humble pie is hearing creative feedback such as “maybe you should just re-do this campaign” or “I don’t know…I feel like I’ve seen this before” or even worse “yeah, I just don’t really see this going anywhere.” While this can be difficult to hear, it also made me realize that one of my pieces was weaker than the others and my book would benefit from re-doing it.

Do: Stick Up for your Work

That being said, it takes tenacity to stick up for your work. You worked hard on your book and some of your ideas are probably really good (some probably suck too). It’s just as important to show that you care about your work and are willing to stand up for it.

In one memorable meeting I had, a writer told me that he found one of my campaigns to be “trite” and that he’d seen it before. I replied that I didn’t believe him and challenged him to find me this campaign. Thankfully he couldn’t find one and laughed it off, remarking that he admired my spunk.

Do: Be persistent (SUPER PERSISTENT)

In Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin’s book Pick Me: Breaking into Advertising and Staying There, they remark that “often, the single biggest difference between who gets a job and who doesn’t is simply persistence. Stay in touch. Ours is a business of luck as much as skill.”

So get in there. Email the CD’s and ACD’s. If you can’t get ahold of them email writers, art directors and account managers. Follow up with phone calls or thank you notes.

In her book, Janet Kestin recalls calling every agency in alphabetical order.

“By the time I got to W, I was pretty sure that advertising was a dead end. Then, at Y&R, a guy, an account director no less, picked up the phone, listened to my tale of woe about how I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent the next month…he invited me in.”

Don’t: Be a stalker

Seriously. Just don’t.

Do: Write a great resume

As creatives it is largely our portfolio that will showcase our work and professional experience. We still need to put some time and effort into our resume, however.

“Proofread, proofread, proofread,” McGarrah Jessee Human Resources Director Jennifer Blank said. “And then proofread again. Your resume, cover letter or cover email should be immaculate—not just free of spelling errors, but also void of formatting issues. Misaligned bullet points, extra spaces between words and links that don’t work are all issues that can get your resume tossed out. Seems a bit harsh, I know, but really it’s about attention to detail, which is important in many roles in advertising.”

Don’t: Get Crazy with your Resume

Yes we’ve all heard about the kid who sent a shoe with his resume “to get his foot in the door” or sent individualized wine bottles to all of the CD’s at an agency. While sometimes this is a great method to get noticed, it can also come off as trying too hard. If your work is really great, then that is what will you get noticed.

“Proofread, proofread, proofread.”

“One applicant had a spectacular gourmet cake delivered along with their business card,” Jennifer said. “Our employees really enjoyed the confection, but unfortunately, the candidate was applying for a spot that we didn’t have open.”

Jennifer also recalled several candidates who re-created beer labels for one of their clients.

“Most of them are very unsuccessful,” she said. “One, though, was very well crafted and designed and got the attention of our CD. That candidate was eventually hired. It’s important to note though, the work in this candidate’s book was very solid.”

Definitely Don’t: Underestimate Yourself

The job hunt is the most emotionally draining, tiring, crazy, upside-down part of the entire process and it’s easy to get down on yourself.

In the words of Luke Sullivan: “All people are subject to low self esteem, and I think creative people are particularly prone to it. I can think of several people in our creative department who didn’t think they were good enough but sent their book on a lark and we took them up on it.”

So stay persistent. Send your book to everyone—from the agency on your dream list to the funky little shop down the street. Before you know it, you might just land your dream job.

Page Jensen-Slattengren is a producer and studio manager for music and sound design house Tequila Mockingbird in Austin, as well as an aspiring copywriter who just finished her portfolio. In her spare time, she enjoys reading feminist literature, rescuing animals from dumpsters and listening to 3LW on repeat.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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One Comment

  1. Eric

    Excellent advice!
    On the subject of not getting crazy with your resume, I’d like to add:
    Avoid decorating your resume.

    This includes the “chart junk”ratings that attempt to summarize software expertise. Infographic rating systems in this context are subjective, and relative only to one another. What do four out of five circles really mean, anyway?

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