How can I build my portfolio when my client won’t buy good work?

Early in your career, you should be chasing opportunity. Go where you can produce your best work. A lot of it. Cycle great work into your portfolio and expunge the crap—that’s your simple goal. And early in your career, it’s critical.

Thus, one of the most frustrating (and dangerous) situations to find yourself in is to a client that refuses, for whatever reason, to buy good work (and here let’s define “good work” as work you’d want in your portfolio).

So what do you do?

First of all, don’t put work in your portfolio just because it’s “real” (i.e. just because the client bought and ran it). If it’s not better than your student spec work, it shouldn’t go in your book, period. You get no points for “real” bad work.

What about my good ideas that were pitched to and killed by the client? Can I put those on my site? The specifics of the situation, the agency-client relationship and legalities of contracts, etc. all can determine the right answer to that question. Some would say yes, just password protect it. Some would say ask your creative director. Some would say just do it and ask forgiveness if needed. I’m going to save that tangent for another time.

What does that leave you with? You still have some options. Here are four that have worked for me in the past:

1) Do work on the side.

Find a client that you can do good work for. Go outside the agency if you need to (just avoid any direct conflicts with your agency clients ). You have a friend who owns a bar? See if you can throw some work her way. Or the local aquarium. Or a startup that you happen to like. It doesn’t have to be a Fortune 500 company. Go to a conference and introduce yourself to some people. Be open about what you’re trying to do. You’re looking to do great work that you can put in your portfolio. Would they be open to letting you take a crack at a project for them?

When I was in San Francisco, you couldn’t throw a smartphone without hitting someone who knew someone involved in a startup. A group of people at my agency found a wine startup that ended up being a dream project. Although these guys were never an official agency client, the agency supported the work (they wanted to see us do cool side projects too).

 

Obviously, if the person knows and trusts you, you’re more likely to get a yes. But I’ve found that if you’re honest about your intentions, people are happy to let you pitch some ideas to them. They’re not obligated to buy or run the work. Whether or not you do the work for pay is another can of worms I won’t get into here, but remember that your main reason for doing this work is the work, not the money. And if you are willing to do it for no pay…

 

2) Find a pro bono client.

When I take on a project, I want at least one of these:

  • Great creative.
  • Get paid.
  • Work with friends/have fun.
  • Good cause.

Ideally I get all four. I usually have to settle for three, sometimes two. If none of those boxes are checked, I’m-a-gonna pass. For pro bono, you eliminate #2. So find a cause you believe in. Try to involve people who will make it fun. And be clear with the client that you want to have good work in the end, not just brochures. You might do a brochure, but only if you can also do something you’ll be proud to put in your book.

I worked for a music education pro-bono client for years. I’d say we had #3 and #4, often #1. But we also had something else, which was an opportunity to experiment and learn. We shot a number of documentary pieces that put my partner and me behind the camera, working the boom, editing and building stories out of interviews and b-roll. It was something we didn’t have much experience with when we started, but after six mini-docs, we’d actually learned a few things. And that’s not nothing.

And years ago Greg had an idea for the National Parks, so he reached out to them to see if he could do some free work. That campaign ended up in Communication Arts.

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3) Solve a real-world problem.

Forget clients altogether. Just pick something that sucks and solve it. My partner and I once had a planner who would call and talk forever. We were bullshitting one day and had the idea of an app that lets you select from a library of sound effects to give you excuses for ending the call. Like knock at the door, pre-flight announcement, baby crying, etc. Neither of us had ever made an app before, so we decided to figure out how to do it. We called a developer we knew, worked out a deal around profit-splitting and got to work. Again, we learned a lot in the process and, in the end, we had something we could show off. We even sold a few of them.

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4) Do a passion or self-promo piece.

What do you love? Do a project around that passion. Love books? Redesign covers for your favorites. Create a children’s book. One former student used to build big type installations. Who cares if it’s not “ads?” It’s probably more interesting. Create a website for your grandmother. As a last resort, create something about you.

The point is, make something. And make it good. You have no client for something like this, so you have no excuse. If I’m looking at a portfolio from someone who has only a couple okay client pieces but a bunch of really interesting, well-crafted side projects, I figure that they’ll be able to do that for a client if given the opportunity.

But if I’m looking at a portfolio that has a couple of okay client pieces and a handful of excuses, no thanks. Clients may be a reason you can’t do great work on a particular brand—believe me, I’ve had my share. But bad clients are not a reason you can’t fill your portfolio with great work.

 

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