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January 5, 2009
Your First Portfolio—an Industry Survey
My first portfolio was truly awful.
Bruce Bildsten was at Fallon at the time, and was kind enough to tell me the truth.
It took almost a year, numerous revisions, many coaching sessions with other creatives, but eventually I got my first fulltime gig as a Copywriter in advertising, at TBWA in St. Louis.
I’ve been thinking about those early experiences as I gear up for my second year of teaching “The Future of Advertising” for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I didn’t go to an ad school. I also didn’t have to acknowledge the Internet, or empowered consumers, or any of the media and technical complexity driving advertising today. But my students will. Anyone searching for a job now must.
Back in 1999 I produced a survey of the creative department at Arnold Worldwide. As I recall, we had about 100 writers, art directors and designers on staff. Roughly 60% responded to the poll; most had at least three year’s experience. I was an ACD at the time, and teaching a course called “So You Think You Want My Job” for the Boston Ad Club. The results were supposed to help people just starting to develop their first portfolio better understand the path they had chosen.
For this first Talent Zoo column of 2009 I thought I’d revisit this poll, to see if and how times have changed. I asked the same three questions today as I did in 1999, but across a broader spectrum of working talent. 32 responses came in this time, from as far away as Muscat, Sultanate of Oman—a pretty even mix of men and women, most having more than five years of experience, and over half now working primarily in interactive/digital settings.
1. How many individual pieces/samples were in the portfolio that got you hired for your first fulltime job? (How many pieces were part of a campaign versus single units/one-offs?)
In 1999 the average response was 16 pieces (approximately four campaigns and the rest as single/one-off ideas); 90% of the portfolios contained only print ads.
For 2008, the mean average response was also 16 pieces. Most contained several 3-piece campaigns with the rest as one-offs. But 20% of respondents claimed to have only single/one-off pieces (no campaigns) in their first books.
Over half the respondents for 2008 were already employed in advertising in 1999. So I didn’t see a dramatic shift in portfolio content (i.e. Only three of the 2008 respondents mentioned having digital/interactive work in their first book).
One anonymous CCO said, “I feel like I can tell a lot more about a creative by the print. If you can do great print you can do the rest.” I agree. There’s a diligence to creating print which shines through regardless of the medium you ultimately need to produce in.
But that’s not all. Years ago Andy Spade, then a creative director for KBB, told me he liked to see two portfolios: one for Work and one for Life. Or as our anonymous CCO puts it, “I like to see you present who you are in a way that helps me know more about you. Something personal—something bigger than advertising and bigger than the book. Surprisingly, the resume is a big deal for me, too. I like to know a lot about how you became who you are, what happened and why you thought it was important. And hobbies. I’m all about the hobbies.”
Charlie Hopper, Principal/Creative Director at Young & Laramore says, “It’s amazing to me that more people can’t or at least don’t get their personalities across effectively in their cover letters / resumes / emails / phone calls. When everyone’s portfolio tends to check off the same boxes (“responsible ad, visual-pun series, small cool client, charity ad, famous brand re-thought”) it’s often the presentation of the person that makes it delightful.”
2. How long did it take you to assemble this first portfolio (printed book, website)?
In 1999, the average response was 2.5 years—the quickest respondent was six months, the longest was six years.
In 2008, the mean average response was 8.5 months. But the spread was dramatic. One respondent took three days to assemble the CD-ROM that got them hired. Another took two weeks. Still another took just 40 hours to assemble their website. The modal average was 12 months—typically occurring along with a senior year in art school or college.
But I was asking strictly about assembly. Almost every respondent mentioned “years” of preparation, trial and rejection and study in formulating the raw ideas that went into their first portfolios.
As George Tannenbaum, currently Executive Creative Director, Momentum WW, put it, “A wise man once said to me, ‘you never stop working on your book.’ He was
right. 25 years after getting my first job, I work on my book every day, in everything I do. Doing so is the only way to survive/thrive in this business.”
Kevin Roddy, ECD at BBH said, “My portfolio was an ongoing project. I never stopped working on it until I got the job I really wanted. I did spec work. Freelance. Anything and everything I could do to make my book better.”
The message here is universal: It’s not about time, it’s about commitment and ongoing passion.
3. Once you had this portfolio assembled, how long did it take you to get hired? How many interviews did you attend?
In 1999, the mean average response was 12 interviews. One person got hired on their first interview, another on their second. Another respondent did 60 interviews. The modal average for this process was four months.
By 2008, the mean average response was four interviews occurring over 3.5 months. But 30% of respondents required only one interview to land their first fulltime ad creative gig.
Arun Rajagopal, Copywriter at Wunderman Oman was one of those, “I had only one interview, and I wanted to bag that job, which I did. I had a general idea about the agency and the clients they handled. (This research matters!) So I did some spec work for some of their clients as well as competition.”
It’s about commitment. How much effort are you willing to put into understanding your potential employer and their clients? Michael Ancevic, SVP Group Creative Director at Mullen said, “You have to be prepared to start over and work your ass off to make your first book right—especially now that students books are generally pretty good right out of the box. How bad do you want the job? It still rings true today. The only reason I am sitting here is determination and hard work. I just wanted it so bad and I didn’t take no for an answer. You have to keep that attitude for your entire career, otherwise the weeds will grow in your book and you will pay for it. I find a healthy fear of sucking is a great motivator to propel a career.”
Enough said.

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As a writer, creative director and drummer, Tim Brunelle started in advertising in 1993 after receiving a B.A. in Jazz from the University of Cincinnati. Since then, he's worked with TBWA/Chiat Day, Heater/Easdon, McKinney & Silver, Arnold Worldwide, OgilvyOne, Mullen and Carmichael Lynch. Tim now works for his own entity, Hello Viking.

Tim has provided strategic and creative leadership to A.G. Edwards, Anheuser-Busch, Brown Forman, Goodyear, Harley-Davidson, Porsche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Volkswagen.

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