January 17th, 2013
I’ve seen a number of portfolios from “green” copywriters lately, and it got me thinking — where are these guys getting advice? Because obviously, some professors are providing some dated commentary.
I ain’t no expert. Just trying to help.
I’ve learned a ton over the past twelve years trying to sell myself as a writer, and Lord knows there’s so much more for me to learn. Some of the best things I’ve learned have been because I fell flat on my face.
For what it’s worth, here’s my take on what makes a good book.
First off, when I say “copywriter” I’m talking about a copywriter in the advertising business or related creative field. For any creative job, your portfolio means everything. You can have the most impressive resume and references in the world, including a Harvard degree and presidency of every extra-curricular activity possible. But if your book stinks, you’re going nowhere in this business.
A copywriter’s portfolio lives and dies by one word: “Thinking.”
Some of the best advice I ever received was from my first creative director at a small agency in Virginia. He told me, “Clients don’t pay us to make ads. They pay us for our minds.” This statement is so very, very true when it comes to assembling your copywriting portfolio.
Copywriters in this biz are not hired because of their typing skills, education or grammar expertise. Copywriters are hired because of how their brains work. You’re expected to be a think tank – ideating, strategizing and figuring out the best way to frame, stretch and sell any sized idea.
Therefore, the most important thing you need to showcase is how you can develop a good idea, write fantastic, concise headlines and then stretch an idea across all media (AKA: campaign). That includes print, broadcast, outdoor, event and of course social and digital. Campaigns are no longer just a series of print ads. Instead, campaigns are ideas that have legs, legs and more legs.
Don’t have enough produced work? Improvise.
It doesn’t matter if the work is “real.” Some of our best ideas never live past the point of a white paper anyway. So if your best idea is forever in white paper form, go ahead and put that in there. Or find a talented art director to help you turn it into something real.
Of course produced work is always more impressive, but if you’re just starting out, an insightful creative director would love to see how you assemble and sell an idea with only the written word and concept instead of trying to slap it together in a sloppy design.
What kind of work should you show?
In the Mad Men days, it was more about headlines and print ad campaigns. Today, it’s about everything else. Because every client is looking to hit people everywhere, sometimes in places that even don’t exist yet.
As mentioned, showing that you can write creatively and stretch an idea across all media is extremely important. But it’s not always necessary. If you have a great radio script, put it in there. If you have a fantastic billboard headline, put it in there. These are quick-hits, so be sure you have some bigger ideas in your book to spark a more in-depth discussion.
How many pieces should you include?
The standard rule is 12. And that’s still true today. But you should aim to have about 20 portfolio worthy pieces up your sleeve that you can swap around depending on the agency or client you’re interviewing with.
When it comes to selecting exactly what to show, I like to spread out on a table every piece of decent work I’ve produced the past year. Then start turning over anything doesn’t measure up to being “portfolio worthy.”
Go eat something. Watch some Judge Judy, then come back and kill some more stuff until you narrow it down to 100% gold.
Keep rationales short. Very short.
I’ve seen a trend for young writers to put long copy rationales next to their work. It must be a new thing professors are preaching. It’s fine, but in my opinion they’re typically about four-times too long. “Nuggeting” information is a crucial skill copywriters must possess. You want the work to be the focus. Your rationale should be no more than a couple easily consumable bullet points.
Your online and real-life portfolio should live together in harmony.
Showcasing your work online is an essential step in getting your foot in the door. You need a place where your stuff is easily seen with the click of one simple link.
Online, you’ll want to present an enticing preview of what to expect from you and your portfolio in person. In other words, flash the goods and show some shiny objects, but don’t show your entire arsenal. A good tease can go a long way.
Personally, I like the online portfolio setup at: Carbonmade.
Be mindful of the agency’s existing accounts.
If the place you’re speaking with has a fast food account, you’ll want to include anything you have done for a restaurant or food client. But what you should NEVER do is recreate the agency’s ads, in an effort to say you could do it better than them. The person who created the original may be the person you’re talking to.
Have a reason for everything you do.
When you are finally in the midst of presenting your portfolio in person, be ready to quickly answer any question about your work. Know why you chose that style of headline. Know the tidbits, story and results of the campaign. Just like selling to a client, justified confidence in an idea can mean the difference between your work falling flat or impressing the hell out of ’em.
Good luck out there and feel free to share any of your own thoughts and experience.