Every student graduating from portfolio school says they are creative, yet many times their portfolios look the same.
Ad recruiters like me spend a lot of time traveling to universities around the world to meet soon-to-be grads. At big job events, we shake hands and chat with large crowds of nervous and excited kids who are all vying for their first adult job.
These events usually take place in a large, stuffy room at a school, hotel convention hall or agency lobby. Eager students sit at makeshift booths trying to hide their exhaustion. Most spent the previous night tricking out their tiny five-foot-long desks with record players, old family memorabilia and homemade desserts, all lined up next to their portfolios in an attempt to encourage interviewers to stop by and say hello.
Quickly, the interviewers swarm, and it’s only a matter of time before many of us are impatiently hovering around a few students like vultures over roadkill. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who is getting a lot of love in the room. But it’s still tough to see some students idly checking their phones while others have a line of people waiting to meet them.
Inevitably, someone will pull me aside and ask what it is those popular students have that they don’t. Many will point out that their portfolio checks all the right boxes. Yet no one is biting.
So, what exactly do those few students have that make us all flock to them?
Their portfolios show that they’ve started tapping into who they are as a creative instead of who they think they should be. And the result is work that’s original and authentic.
Portfolio schools are certainly a great way for students to build a wide-ranging portfolio. Long-copy ad? Check. Social campaign? Check. At least two case studies? Check.
And, of course, schools show you what you need to get into the industry and infuse you with base knowledge. You’ll repeatedly be told to pay attention to craft, work hard and do your research. Teachers will encourage you to stand up for your work but avoid being an asshole. They’ll indoctrinate you with advertising history, and you’ll learn who the all-time greats are. All these things are vital to one’s career.
Rejecting who you think you should be as a creative and owning who you are is possibly the most important criteria of all. It takes time to uncover, and the classroom alone usually won’t cut it. You’ll need to be vulnerable and challenge yourself inside and outside of school. But once you’ve uncovered it and have been bolstered by the above fundamentals, you’ll quickly be swarmed by us hiring vultures.
Use your time in school to ruthlessly uncover and tap in to who you are as a creative person. Leave behind all the crap you think you’re supposed to be and fight to discover who you are as a creative. Embody what you uncover. Bring it with you in your presentations, in your personal demeanor and in your interviews.
Whatever kind of creative you are, and no matter how “odd” or different you may be, embrace your calling. You won’t find long-term happiness or real success in this industry by replicating others or doing what you think “should” be done all the time.
It’s a long and messy process and one that will continue evolving. But once you discover your creative spark and start cultivating it and encouraging it, you’ll have a big advantage. And you’re much more likely to end up in a workplace that fits you.
Of course, portfolio schools aren’t the only way to get into an agency. If portfolio school isn’t a good fit for you or isn’t financially feasible, personal projects are a fantastic way to get attention. Usually, these kinds of projects are focused around a passion, so it’s a great way for people to quickly see who you are as a creative.
I’ve snagged all types of people because of their personal projects. From zine writers with incredible copy to fine artists who exhibit attention to craft, as long as your personal projects demonstrate a skill that can be transferred to the world of advertising, they can help you land a great job.
We recruiters are drawn to creatives who are in touch with that truth inside themselves and who radiate it to the world. It’s infectious and moving. It paints an instant picture of who they are—it’s exciting to be around. And these are the people who end up doing more interesting and more inspired work.
The candidates we’re looking for are these weird and rare people who have rejected what they think they’re supposed to be and have tapped into who they are. It’s special people like this that keep us unique as an industry, and it’s why clients hire us. It trumps any other single thing I could see in a student portfolio.
Whether you’re in school now, thinking of enrolling or are simply considering advertising for your career, remember that you’re entering a field that doesn’t want cogs. Even the best programs can shape students into cogs only to release them into an industry that rejects them.
While you’re working on your to-do list, make sure you’re also using the time to discover who you are as a creative. And once you figure out who that creative is, own that shit.
As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”