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April 14, 2008
Dear Graduates

With graduation season approaching, I thought I'd work through my commencement address. I'm certain that VCU or the Miami Ad School or Art Center or the Portfolio Center will be calling soon. (I think there's a rule about not being the commencement speaker if you already teach at the school, which means MCAD probably won't make the offer.) Anyway, I want to be ready.

Here's the working title of my commencement address: "You're Not Creative Enough."

I think that sets a good tone, don't you?

Traditional thinking suggests you go to school, build up a body of work, graduate and that's enough to get your first gig in advertising. But I believe your portfolio is just table stakes. Your "book" is the ante. It's not the rest of the game, and it's certainly not enough to launch a remarkable career.

I just completed a survey of 10 creative leaders and advertising recruiters, CCOs and the like. Almost universally, these people (the ones who make the hiring decisions), describe the need for an entry level creative's portfolio to be outstanding. Not "great," but exceptional. The fact is, if you have some measure of talent and the tenacity to polish your ideas, you'll easily assemble a portfolio that looks and feels like 98% of all the other portfolios competing for jobs.

It's just not that hard to be a great entry-level creative anymore.

So what will get you hired, assuming you've got the bare minimum of a truly outstanding portfolio with the requisite print ads, guerrilla tactics, and digital integration?

  1. Timing. Honestly, you have almost zero control here. But being in the right place at the right time helps. The key is research. The more you know about where you want to work -- who works there, where they came from, who's blogging outside the firm, what they're saying -- the more likely you'll be ready when they are.
  2. Casting. Again, not much you can control here. As a creative leader, it's my job to find people who will fit into an existing team and enhance it. That's casting. You might be the 2% that's truly awesome, but if your style doesn't fit with the style we're creating for Brand X, you won’t get hired. Know yourself. Would you hire you to work on Brand X, assuming the table stakes are covered and we're just talking about style? Where would your style fit in best? 
  3. Your story. You have one, right? You've spent as much time on it as your portfolio, right? The reality of agency life is portfolios just blur together during a hiring phase, and the things creative leaders latch onto are often the stories you tell us about yourself. At the simplest level, it's your bio, your website, the way your work is packaged. But it's also about editing -- what you choose to reveal about you, and how much. You're not yet worthy of an autobiography, are you?

The Interwebs have made this part so much easier. When I started out, my gimmick was billing myself as a "writer/drummer," and I'd give the interviewer a drumstick that had a functioning ballpoint pen coming out of the tip. (Yeah, I know.) Jelly Helm mailed boxes to guys like Mike Hughes that said, "I hear the Martin Agency is hiring art directors for $20,000 a year." Inside the box was a check from Jelly for $20k.

Now we've got art directors like Gabriel Jeffrey, who created Group Hug, the anonymous online confessional. There's a story. (And by the way, Gabe's book is top notch.)

Or Kyle Phillips, an MCAD student, who created the Generative Engine. Sure, this might be a portfolio piece, but the story behind it creates something more. Does some of your work deserve a greater telling? Find a way to tell it.

Even Chris Crocker offers a valid example. That guy is creative. He's established a brand. He's got an audience of millions. How many entry-level writers and art directors do you know with their own syndicated video series?

Oh right, didn't Facebook start in a college dorm?

The point is, be more creative. Go beyond the portfolio. Use the readily available (often free) tools to help create, distribute, and nurture the story that is you.

Here's why this matters, dear graduates. Look at how rapidly and dramatically the advertising industry is evolving and mutating. To survive, we need more than your portfolio, however brilliant it may be. We need entry-level talent whose story offers energy and insight into the future. We're looking for illuminating experiences above and beyond a portfolio that demonstrate your abilities to help all of us move forward.

Thank you, and good luck.

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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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