Know What You Need To Know

If you’re doing an ad – even a spec ad for your student portfolio – know what you’re advertising.

If you’re advertising gum, go buy a pack and chew it. Chew it every day for a week.

If you’re doing an ad for a car, go to the dealership and sit in it. Take it for a test drive.

If you’re doing an ad for insurance, call them up and pretend like you’re interested in buying some. You’ll get a bunch of junk mail and follow-up phone calls. But you’ll probably have a better ad in the end.

A lot of times, students (and even professionals) rely on the internet for research. We watch videos. We read articles. We sit through planners’ consumer insights presentations. We think we’re too busy for hands-on experience.

We’re not.

Get to know your product. Use it. Live with it. See what you love and what you hate about it.

You can do a good ad without ever touching your product.

But without it, it’s very difficult to do a great one.

Technology and Creativity

There’s a lot more technology in advertising than when I graduated from portfolio school with a book full of double-page print ads. And the great thing about technology is it lets so many of us become makers. But sometimes we get so excited about what we can do, we lose sight of what we’re doing.

Don’t phone it in.

I’m going to talk about voice overs first. Then I’m going to talk about student portfolios. Walk with me.

I just listened to about 190 voice over auditions. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s not the most glamorous part of being a creative. But it is necessary.

Here’s the thing: voice over auditions have grown much sloppier over the years. Here are some major glitches I heard in this last round of 190:

  • Echo in the room.
  • Talent flubs a line and doesn’t bother to re-record.
  • I can tell the talent has a cheap mic.
  • I can tell the talent is recording with their iPhone.
  • Volume is mixed way too low.
  • Volume is mixed way too high.
  • Talent didn’t read the casting specs I wrote (e.g., an energetic 20-year-old guy auditioning for the role of a laid-back 50-year-old.) 
  • I hear the mic stand wiggling in the background.
  • Sounds like talent was on a plane. Maybe it was just someone vacuuming in the background.

There’s one reason why voice over auditions have grown sloppier: technology. Mics are less expensive. Garageband. Apps. It’s easier to set up a home studio. It used to be VO talent would go into a professional studio and record their takes where nothing was left to chance. I’m all for home studios and convenience. But not when it allows you to be lazy.

If the talent’s voice is exceptional, I can overlook poor quality. It’s just an audition, after all. But if there’s even a question (and with 190 voices to choose from, there always is), I go with quality. Because quality shows me that the talent cares. They care about their career, this particular opportunity, their craft, and my script.

Now, here’s how this applies to student portfolios: technology can make you lazy, too.

Art directors can search Getty Images and plug in cheap stock. Copywriters can use a Microsoft Word thesaurus. Creative teams can use nicely designed printouts and Keynote presentations to sell an okay idea without really pushing it as far as it can go conceptually.

Whether you’re a student trying to get your portfolio on a creative director’s desk or a creative director trying to win a pitch, quality and craft can be the difference between a win and a loss. As Sally Hogshead says, “The difference between an A- book and an A+ book is all the difference in the world.”

This is your career we’re talking about. Don’t phone it in.

Pitching Yourself: Leah the Lego Intern

There are two schools of thought on presenting yourself to a potential employer.

1. Do something creative so they know you’re creative.
2. Let your work speak for itself.

Normally, I recommend the latter (that’s #2). I think it’s better to spend your time coming up with great ideas you can put in your book than working on clever ways to introduce yourself. I’ve also seen very, very few students successfully pull off the former (that’s #1).

This, however, is someone who got it right. Great idea. And because she’s looking for a gig in account services, it’s even more impressive/necessary. (And it doesn’t hurt that her idea was picked up by Adweek.)

Highlights from the Maker Generation

Last month, I was in Richmond, Virginia for the recruiting session at the VCU Brandcenter. I saw a ton of books – copywriters, art directors, and creative technologists. I continue to be amazed by the Maker Generation. When I graduated VCU forever ago, I left with a suitcase-shaped black portfolio full of double-page magazine spec ads that had been trimmed with an X-acto blade and spray mounted to black mounting boards. But today, if students have an idea, they go make it. Here are three examples from the VCU Brandcenter recruiting session that stuck with me (shown with permission).  

banethatcher.com

After Margaret Thatcher died, Maddison Bradley and Jon Robbins were listening to some of her quotes and thought, “These sound like the kind of things Bane would say.” So they created banethatcher.com. I don’t know British Conservative politics of the mid-1980’s well enough to comment, but I’m amazed that they pulled this together in a couple of days.

Harry Potter Ipsum

When Olivia Abtahi and Christina Chern needed some lorem ipsum, they thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this weren’t just gibberish, but Harry Potter gibberish?” So they created Harry Potter Ipsum. Feel free to accio your own text on their joint Most Auspicious.

Dragon Grips

Sam Cantor, Nick Marx, and Hunter Pechin didn’t just go to portfolio school to make spec ads. They came up with Dragon Grips, an actual, functioning product. (That just happens to be surrounded with some well-thought-out marketing.)


“People’s Choice Award” Winner: DragonGrips from Nick on Vimeo.

How I Judge A Book

Jim and I were just at the VCU Brandcenter portfolio review. As usually, there was some very impressive work on display. By my count, I looked at 22 art directors, 22 copywriters, and 10 creative technologists. Some were good. A few were great. All made me feel I’m glad I graduated when I did, because this generation is a lot more competitive than mine was.

Let me explain why.

When I look at a student book, I typically look for two things:

1. Craft. Can the writer write? Is the art director a real art director, or just an ad director who knows Photoshop. Craft shows passion, and it’s easy to see who has it.

2. Thinking. Is the strategy smart? Or self-indulgent?

But now there’s a third thing I look for:

3. Jealousy.

Let me explain.

When I left school, I had double-page magazine spreads spray-mounted to black boards. That was it. And we all got jobs based on how good those spray-mounted ideas were.

But this is the Maker Generation. If you have an idea for an app, a website, a product, some kind of technology, chances are, you can go out and physically make it. Or at least have it made. And I’m pretty jealous of that.

So if you’re putting your book together and you have an idea for an app, don’t just mock up what the program would look like on your iPad, go make it. That’s what a lot of the students at the VCU Brandcenter were doing. And it was pretty inspiring.

Resume in 140 characters

There’s an article in the WSJ about how Twitter’s become the new resume. A recruiter from GSD&M in Austin says she regularly uses Twitter to assess candidates. From the article: “I watch people interact, learn what their positions are, who their best friends on Twitter are, whether they have a sense of humor. From that you can get a pretty good picture.”

So is your resume interesting enough in 140 character or less?

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 Maker Generation

Last week, I was able to catch up with my friend, mentor and first boss Kevin Lynch. Over lunch he said a few things worth sharing here. Paraphrasing, of course. My hands were too busy with my pulled pork sandwich to take notes.

According to Kevin, you portfolio students and recent grads are the Maker Generation. When Kevin or I were looking for our first jobs, if we wanted to pull something real together, we would have had to find a typesetter, a photographer, maybe a sound engineer. Nothing got produced that didn’t involve a team.

But today, people are producing work all the time with nothing more than a great idea and maybe a little tech shrewdness. I go to portfolio school reviews each year and more and more, there are students developing their own apps, fonts, websites, radio programs. It’s not just theory.

Kevin said this democratization of maker-iness means there’s no reason any portfolio school grad should go into a job interview where the person interviewing hasn’t already heard of them.

That’s a pretty high bar. Thing is, there are plenty of examples out there where portfolio school students (your competition) are already clearing it.