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How To Create An Awesome Copywriter’s Portfolio.

January 17th, 2013

eammon

Trust Me

Copywriter PortfolioCopywriter PortfolioI’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.

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12 Comments

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  1. JD #
    February 21, 2013

    Thanks for this; frustrated former academic here who is looking for a career restart; the comments in the blog version of this are helpful too. Thanks

    • eammon #
      May 3, 2013

      Thanks for the read and comment JD!

  2. Carol #
    April 23, 2013

    Hi, a question, if you’re still responding to them. I need to show my portfolio at an upcoming meeting. I’ll be showing samples of direct mail fundraising copy. The majority of my samples are NOT laid out finals, they’re just Word docs. Is this okay? I can show some finals, but it won’t be my best work. Also, do I just print the pieces on copy paper and stick them in a folder. Thanks!

    • eammon #
      May 3, 2013

      Hey Carol – you’re fine to show the word docs. It’s about your writing, not the design – and if the hiring manager is smart, they’ll recognize that. For your 2nd question, I’d hit an art store and get a small portfolio for your documents. Makes for a quality, professional looking presentation of your work.

      • Carol #
        May 3, 2013

        Thanks for getting back to me.

  3. Anthony #
    May 3, 2013

    If you use other published works, make your own changes for portfolio purposes, is it necessary to ask permission? Likewise if I use a Mercedes Benz car for a “fake” portfolio add, must I ask for permission? Thanks!

    • eammon #
      May 3, 2013

      You should be in the clear to do that – as long as you aren’t placing the ad in media, and it’s clear it’s just for your portfolio, you’re fine!

  4. Chime Gochan #
    June 26, 2013

    I am a copywriter for more than a year and six months already, but my works are owned by the company that hired me. Is is all right to put in a “generic” copy of the copies that I made? Or rewrite them for portfolio purposes? I will really appreciate your advice.

  5. RaginiSiva #
    July 11, 2013

    just to start with writing need inspiring advise ,love to write but yet to learn how to start

  6. Thompson #
    September 22, 2013

    I have a similar question about ownership. Much of the work I do, cause me to have to sign a NDA. And they wouldn’t be thrilled seeing their copy with my name on it. So does it create suspicion if I black out names? Even then, can’t they copy and paste into Google and see exactly who I wrote for?

    Thanks, great post!
    CT

    • eammon #
      December 21, 2013

      Hey CT,
      If you have to sign a NDA, then don’t put that work online. Make it only something you show in person, and if you have to, go ahead and blackout names. Or, create an alternate version that delivers the same message without the sensitive information. Hope that helps!

  7. Vicky #
    January 14, 2014

    Dear Eammon,

    First of all, thanks for the informative tutorial!
    I am also a newbie to the copywriter’s world, but I am really interested in
    learning as much as possible!
    I would like to know if one can find a job with ONLY having speculative ads in her portfolio.
    Another question I would like to know is whether it is a good practise to include graphic designs
    found on the internet, or if it is better to include only the copy of the writing.

    Thanks for your time and help!

    Vicky

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