Want a job? Express your mutated genes.

I probably look at five dozen art and copy portfolios a year (double that if you count photographers and illustrators). Every creative director does. 60 portfolios. Each with an average of 15 pieces. Or 900 creative pieces. Of the 900 ideas I saw last year, do you know how many I remember vividly?

Two. Maybe three.

What does that tell you? To me, that says that there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand the fundamental tenet of landing a job in an ad agency creative department:

Stand (the eff) out.

I shouldn’t have to spell this out, but I will. A lot of creative job seekers don’t seem to realize that if they fill their portfolios with ordinary, run-of-the-mill work, they are going to get an ordinary run-of-the-mill job. Or no job at all. This is Natural Selection stuff. You need to express a gene none of those other 60 people have. A mutation that makes you stand out from the rest of the herd. A mutation that makes me and the other CDs want you for their tribe. So express that gene! You have 60 other creative people to best. Do it.

Here’s the competition. How will you bury them?

But how does one stand out? And what constitutes a successful and actionable portfolio? I’m here to help. What follows are the things I look for in a junior creative person’s portfolio.

Great ideas. It goes without saying, but, again, I’ll say it anyway, the best portfolios have the best ideas in them. Fresh ways of looking at a creative problem. Little surprises and ah-ha moments. Ideas that make other creative people envious. Or afraid.

Great stories. If you can tell a short story about most of the pieces in your portfolio, then you will have something to talk about when you sit down to an interview. So make sure you have something to say that is interesting about what you display.

Technically great work. If you’re an art director or designer, that means clean, well designed layouts and sketches and really nice typography. If you’re a writer, that means well crafted headlines and copy. But ADs and designers will score extra points if they display great lines. And copywriters will shine if they also have outstanding art. It shows judgement. It shows taste. It shows complete thinking. Newbie art directors with weak lines should team up with green copywriters, and vice versa, to make their work sing.

Something odd. Want to stand out? Put something in your portfolio that no one else has. When I was looking for my first job in advertising, I included a poem that I wrote about lint. Think anyone else had a poem about lint?

An understanding of the media. These days, it’s not enough to have good ideas. You need good print ideas. Good digital ideas. Good radio ideas. Good video ideas. Good app ideas. And more. If it’s not in your portfolio, how do we know if you understand the medium well enough to work in it?

Campaigns. Single ideas are fine, but it’s always better to have a campaign-able idea. This will allow you to show how your thinking spans different media (outdoor and TV, print and digital) and that you can generate several ways to execute a single idea.

Iconic, memorable images. I still recall with vivid clarity the portfolio of a writer I saw in 2001 because he had some ads for cars that were made to look like insects. Those ads won awards. That writer went on to do some great work.

No crap. I don’t care if you worked on an ad with a coupon in it and it actually ran. That stuff has no place in your portfolio. Do you want to do that kind of work forever? Stop sabotaging yourself. Project the kind of work you want to do — the kind of work you are capable of doing. Not the kind of work you have done. (Also, exterminate all typos.)

Not one portfolio, but two. You might think that putting your work online is enough. But you really need two portfolios. One to set up the interview and one to show during the interview. Perhaps your second portfolio is an expanded version of what’s online. Or maybe it’s a collection of your newest work that hasn’t shown up on your online portfolio yet. Either way, you need to have some surprises in your back pocket for your in-person showing.

The right amount? The short answer is that you should have as many great, stand-out ideas as you can include. The practical answer: Maximum, five or six campaigns, 20 individual pieces. Minimum, two to three campaigns and 10–12 pieces.

A spark. At the very minimum, you need to show your prospective employer that there’s something there. Maybe you are totally new to the creative job market, fresh out of school, with a student portfolio. In that case, you may not have won awards or have worked on a big brand. So show the interviewer that there’s a spark there that can kindle into a flame and grow into a wildfire. As a CD, I’ve taken a gamble on a few young people with limited experience. I did so because I saw something. Some promise. Some intelligence. Some analysis. Some creative rebelliousness. If it’s in you, then it should be in your portfolio. Somewhere.

Now get a job!

Grant Sanders is the Creative Director at Mintz + Hoke Advertising in Avon, CT and he hasn’t had to put a portfolio together for a long time. He commutes weekly to his home on Nantucket Island.



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Okay, Here’s the Thing

Okay, Here’s the Thing


Essays on the creative process from Grant Sanders. Creative astronaut. Art and copy switch-hitter. Brand strategist. Client confidant. Founder, SAND.