Advice from Maria

If you’re a student putting your book together, here’s some advice from Maria Scileppi, director of 72U:
Lead with personal projects. That’s what people really want to see; how you’re thinking, how you’re solving problems, how you see the world. Show the process if you can. And then have three or four campaigns to show that you can blow out an idea. But personal projects are a must, and I would lead with that. That’s how people get hired. Agencies want to see that you can make advertising. But what gets you hired is the personal project, because it resonates with us. It’s contributing to the culture. It’s not just giving a message. It’s being relevant in culture. And that’s what advertising wants to do. That’s what brands want to do. That’s why we connect more to these personal projects. They’re a reaction to the world we live in.

The New 72U

Maria Scileppi doesn’t like to call 72U a portfolio school. Before heading things up there, she was the director of the Chicago Portfolio School, so she knows what a program full of art directors and copywriters looks like.
“This is really strategic art school for the maker,” she says.
Oh, yeah. And it’s backed by and housed in 72andSunny, AdAge’s Agency of the Year.

I had breakfast with Maria last week and asked her about the new program. I gotta say, I’m jealous something like that wasn’t around when I was trying to break into the industry. Here are some of the highlights:

Forget what you thought you knew about 72U. It’s a new program. It used to be 10-months. Now it’s 12 weeks. It used to cost applicants $10,000. Now it’s free. (Students will pay $1,000, which goes toward their final project.)
Six applicants will be selected, and they’ll work individually, in groups of two, in groups of three, and all together. They’ll be sharing space with 72andSunny employees. They won’t be grouped together, and they won’t be separate from the agency. They’ll be seamlessly integrated.
They’ll have a range of assignments. Not all – in fact, very few – will be making ads. One assignment will be to develop and market a brand that embodies who they are. Another will be to fix a broken system. Maria says the purpose of each exercise is to make sure students come out with a stronger creative process. They’ll think and make faster.
Who should apply? Maria says, “It’s an intense curriculum, so people won’t be able to hold a job while they participate. I imagine they’re a couple years out of college. Maybe they got stuck at the wrong job and don’t know how to switch over. They don’t have to have any advertising experience, but they do have to have talent.”
Applications for 72U can be found at 72U.org. The deadline for applications is April 5th. The program will begin May 27th. The next session is planned for October 2013.

If you’ve got questions, reach out to Maria and 72U on Twitter.

Why Portfolio Schools?

When I was in portfolio school, there were two girls who quit after the first semester. When I asked them a few months later what they were up to they both gave me the same answer “Working on my portfolio.” They were still pursuing a career in advertising. They’d just given up on portfolio school.

In my opinion, that was a huge mistake.

A lot of undergraduates have asked my advice on their books. After reviewing their work, I’ve always told them the same thing: “You should look into portfolio school.” And they almost never want to take it.

Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard for not going to portfolio school:

  1. It’s too expensive.
  2. I can put my book together on my own.
  3. An internship at an agency will be just as good.
  4. I want to get a job now, not in 1-2 years.
Here’s my one reason for going:
  1. Portfolio school graduates have books that are lightyears ahead of non-portfolio school grads. Lightyears.

Is this true 100% of the time? No. But it is, maybe 98%. The rare exceptions are top-of-the-class wunderkids from dedicated programs like the University of Texas or the BYU Adlab. Sure, you can get by without portfolio school. Just like people make it into the NBA without playing college ball. It happens. But that’s a huge bet.

So let me address each of these concerns as best I  can.

COST: Portfolio schools can be expensive. But it’s your career you’re investing in. Skimp on your education, and you’re only limiting your job prospects.

GOING SOLO: In portfolio school, you’ll be paired with writers and art directors who are hopefully trying to do their best work, too. You’ll be instructed by people with more experience and more interest in your success than you’ll ever get from a book or magazine. If you’re putting your book together on your own, you may as well be doing it in a dark closet.

INTERNSHIPS ARE A WAY IN: They’re really not. Don’t get me wrong, internships are very valuable. But if you want a job as a writer or art director, it’s not like Mad Men, where you take a job as a receptionist and eventually work your way up into the creative department. More and more, internships at top agencies are for portfolio school students in between semesters.

I DON’T WANT TO WAIT: The year or two you put into a portfolio school program will give you more of a jump on your career than taking a menial job at a direct mail shop that lets you put your book together in your down time. Portfolio schools are a launch pad, not a time suck.

Which portfolio school should you look into? That’s your call. Jim and I are both graduates of the VCU Brandcenter, and we can’t say enough good about that place. We’ve also both taught at the Chicago Portfolio School, which we’re big fans of, and Jim’s taught at the Miami Ad School in San Francisco, which is a killer program. We’ve seen great books come out of all three, as well as the Creative Circus, Portfolio Center, and Brainco. If you can get into W+K 12 or the new school from 72 and Sunny, more power to you.

Is this US-centric? Probably. But I gotta be honest, I spent two years working in Europe, and I didn’t see any program that comes close to those I’ve seen in the US. Maybe the Bergh’s School of Communication. They’ve won some notable student awards, but I can’t read their homepage. I’ve also seen some great student books out of Brazil, but, again I’ll plead ignorance in my native tongue. (If you’re a graduate or teacher of a portfolio school outside the United States, let us know. We’d be happy to sing your praises here.) Also, it’s no surprise the number of foreign students coming to American portfolio schools has been on the rise.

[Update 3/22/13: 72U has revised their program. Read about it here.]

[Update 5/16/13: For a comprehensive list of portfolio programs, check out The Best of Makin’ Ads now available on Blurb.com.]

[Update 6/30/14: VCU Brandcenter’s Ashley Sommardahl wrote this great post on How to Pick a Portfolio School, and offers a list of questions students should ask when applying to programs.]