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May 7, 2018
Four Things Agencies Look For in a Portfolio
Recently a recent college graduate lamented how agencies wouldn’t respond when she sent her portfolio for consideration. After learning that she had sent her work to some of the hottest agencies in our industry, I told her they had responded. Silence means no. I told her not to be offended by a non-response because great agencies are overwhelmed by candidates. They do not have time to respond to those who are not qualified. Her portfolio apparently didn't meet the standard they required. My advice was not to give up, to improve her work and her skills, and keep in touch with those companies.

“What kind of portfolios do get their attention?” she asked. Agencies have a wide variety of criteria when it comes to what they look for in a portfolio. There are some common denominators though. Here are four you must not ignore.

1. Craft skill. Today, entry-level employees have to immediately contribute. Demonstrating through your work that you will need less training than most candidates will place you in the “maybe” pile. Invest in skill training beyond what your degree offered. Master skills and make sure every detail of your work reflects a professional skill level.

2. Great ideas. Solving a marketing problem in an innovative way is most powerful way to demonstrate your creative prowess. Doing it over and over will move you to the top of the list of applicants. Get as many critiques of your portfolio as possible. Those pieces people ignore are overlooked for a reason. They are not demonstrating innovative thinking. You should always be in the process of improving your portfolio. The next project should be better than piece in your book. That new work pushes everything down the pecking order of quality. The goal? Your weakest piece is replaced by something that is better than your current best piece.

3. Experience, even if you have none. When you present yourself and your work as more experienced professionals do, you become more attractive as a candidate. From how you speak about yourself to how you explain the work, show insight to the industry. Giving an impression of experience instills confidence that you need less training and will contribute immediately. Remember, entry level positions at great agencies are sought after by people with experience too.

4. “It.” As good as your work may be, as professional as you may seem, the person that sticks out from the crowd is going to stay out of the “no” pile. It may be something as simple as how you speak about why you want to be in this crazy business. It could be the way you present your work. Companies like Wieden + Kennedy ask candidates to make a 30-second video to introduce themselves. What kind of video would you make that would be unlike anyone else’s? You should think the same way about your portfolio. What about aside from the craft, ideas and demonstration of experience will “stick” in the prospective employer’s mind? Solving that problem could be the most important piece of work you do in your career.

With these four things in mind, analyze how well your portfolio and your website are performing. If you want a free, brutally honest opinion from me, don’t hesitate to reach out.

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Bart Cleveland spent over 30 years helping grow brands like Coca-Cola, The Ritz-Carlton, and CNN. Now, he guides creative professionals to plan and execute successful careers through his business, Job Propulsion Lab℠. He also helps both agencies and marketers nurture customers into advocates through a relationship development program he calls, ACES℠. 
Bart launched Ad Age’s most popular blog, Small Agency Diary. He is also a contributing author of the book, The Get A Job Workshop, How To Find Your Way To A Creative Career In Advertising.
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