Portfolio Night 11

If you’re a student in advertising, attend Portfolio Night. You’ll walk out with a better understanding of how creative directors will view your book. That’s something you can’t get from your professors, peers or parents. It’s worth the cost of admission. And if there’s not one in your city, it’s worth the cost of admission and a road trip.

Here’s an old post featuring me and my dearly departed friend, Sonya, talking the day after Portfolio Night in Chicago.

What I Look For In A Book

Last week I reviewed student portfolios at the AD2SF review. The thing I’ve learned about these big portfolio reviews is that in order for your advice to be helpful, you have to tailor it to the level of each person’s book. If the book doesn’t have a good concept in it, there’s no sense in talking about typography.

I like to flip through the whole book first to get an idea of what level it’s at. I also ask the person upfront what their current situation is (which quarter in school, looking for a job, freelancing, whatever). This helps me assess what the landscape looks like. The landscape (and the discussion) usually then takes place on one of three levels:

1) Concepts. If there aren’t solid concepts in the book, the rest doesn’t matter. Bad concepts with good design are just bad concepts. If the concepts are hit-and-miss, most of the review will be about pinpointing which concepts are working and which still need work.

2) Execution. If the concepts are solid, I start looking at the craft. Do the executions deliver on the underlying concept? Do they communicate? Are the headlines well-written? Which are the strongest and weakest? How about the copy? For art directors, I’m looking at design, type treatment, etc. I want to know that this person has a mastery of the skills they’ll need in the industry. What can be polished?

3) Personality. If the concepts are good and well-executed, I start looking for a range of voices. A smart book is one thing. A book that makes me laugh is another. And a book that makes me laugh on one page, think on another, and get all weepy on the next is another thing altogether (I have yet to get weepy over a book). I see that as the last stage–you have a good book with well-executed concepts. Now push yourself to write or art direct in different styles. Show me that you have more than your one voice.

Good luck to everyone finishing up their portfolios.

Portfolio Night 8

If you’re not familiar with Portfolio Night, it’s time you were.

If you haven’t registered for Portfolio Night 8, it’s time you do.
If you’re not going to Portfolio Night 8, you’re nuts.

Seriously, this is one of the most important things an advertising student can do. To have your book viewed by a series of industry professionals gives you a very good idea of which campaigns are working and which aren’t. It’s a very good way to start making impressions and connections. And the ones I’ve been to have had some pretty good food.
Love to hear your experiences. Here’s one of mine.

Portfolio Night 7

ihaveanidea.org is hosting Portfolio Night 7.

June 11, 2009.

I can’t stress enough how important it is that portfolio school students attend this.


  1. You get a huge amount of feedback in a small amount of time.
  2. The feedback you receive is from some of the top talent in the industry, no matter the city you’re participating in.
  3. It’s face time with the people you want to work for. 
  4. It’s an opportunity to make an impression. Mike Shine was the very first person to review my student book at PN’s predecessor the One Club Student Exhibition. Six years later, when I interviewed with him, I still had one student campaign in my book. He said, “Oh, yeah! I remember these!” (Probably helped that I sent a thank you card with the campaign in them.)
  5. It’s a really fun night. I can’t speak for the other cities, but last year DDB Chicago had hors d’oeuvres and Guitar Hero while you were waiting for a review. So much better than sitting on your couch watching Friends reruns.

Go online. Book your tickets now.

Portfolio Night Recaped on the East Coast

Dan Jordan was a student of mine a couple years ago at the Chicago Portfolio School. Since graduating, he’s interned at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and taken a full-time job at Hill Holliday working with powerhouses like Ernie Schenck and Tim Cawley. He’s also been honored by Archive and the One Club. Not a bad start. He reviewed books at Portfolio Night 6 in Boston, so I decided to ask him about it.

Greg: How was judging Portfolio Night in Boston?

Dan: As far as judging the event, I would have to say it was enjoyable. I like looking at work and we had a decent amount of topnotch Boston creatives on hand.

Greg: Generally speaking, what were the best and the worst things you saw 
that night?

Dan: A constant pitfall I found in pretty much 100% of the books I saw was produced work that was bad. Just because it is real, does not mean that it’s good. Another terrible trend I’ve noticed both at Portfolio Night and in my Creative Concepts class is that art direction seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. I see design books that look great, but have no conceptual ads, and art directors’ books with concepts that look horrendous. 
Also, students are rarely teaming up. I know that at ad schools they will make sure they pair you up, but if you’re not attending a portfolio school, I feel the book really shows it.

Greg: Why do you think art direction is suffering in so many student books? Is it experience? Resources? Too much reliance on “concept-is-king”?

Dan: I’d like to believe that it’s still possible to break into advertising without portfolio school, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think that good art direction stems from a solid grasp of the Adobe tools, yet a keen knack for concepting as well – skills that are almost impossible to obtain from anything but a two-year portfolio school. I still think that concept will always be king. A polished turd is still a turd. However, you must be able to make things look as visually appealing as something you’d see in Archive or CA.

Greg: What’s the secret to going from portfolio school graduate to working at Hill Holliday and being featured in Archive and the One Show in just a couple of years?

Dan: The secret to making a successful transition from portfolio school to junior creative isn’t really a secret at all. It’s hard work. And I think it’s imperative that you genuinely love advertising. There’s a part in Comedians of Comedy when one of the comics (either Patton Oswalt or Brian Posehn) talks about how they both lived together in a crappy apartment and would write jokes every night for hours. And that was just them having fun. When I was creating my book, I was fortunate enough to have a phenomenal art director who liked creating ads. When we finished school, we had enough work to fill 3 books. That’s a fantastic problem to have. 
Creating ads is the best part of advertising (besides for expensing overpriced meals). Everything that comes afterwards (the meetings, the presentations, the tweaks, the shoot, the edit, etc.) are merely necessary evils to ensure your creation lives.
 So work your ass off and make sure you enjoy it. And you’ll be a successful junior.

Rehashing Portfolio Night

I attended Portfolio Night 6 last night with Sonya Grewal, a creative director / art director here at Y&R Chicago. This afternoon we had the following conversation:

GREG CHRISTENSEN: So what did you think about Portfolio Night?

SONYA GREWAL: Out of nine people, none of the portfolios were very memorable. Now that said, I think it was a good idea to bring students from the Chicago Portfolio School who were in their third quarter who had a fourth left. I thought that was smart to see where they’re at and be able to guide them to their final book. So hopefully, I helped a few people.

GREG: I wonder if there wasn’t a better showing in New York simply because the One Show’s going on. If you’re from Miami or Richmond or Atlanta, I think you’re more likely to go to New York because top creatives from around the country are also in town at the same time. I even know a couple people from Chicago who went to the New York show for that reason.

SONYA: If I were a student, I’d go there. I think that makes sense. Not that there aren’t top creatives in Chicago.

GREG: It’s not that New York has more talent. It’s just that more talent goes to New York for the One Show.

SONYA: Right.

GREG: I think Portfolio Night was kind of a microcosm of what you see in advertising anyway. There were a handful of good books. A ton of just okay books. And a few that were not very good at all. I even sat with one guy who had put his book together on his own as an undergrad, and wasn’t even sure that he wanted to be in advertising. But I didn’t see book after book after book that stunned me.

SONYA: I saw one good campaign. But that was it. It was as if you spend all your time and you get one good idea and one good campaign, but your other work just doesn’t match up. Conceptually, visually, everything. It was surprising. I saw at least three books where I’d think “That campaign’s good,” but the rest was “What were you thinking here?” So quality consistency I didn’t see. Granted, they’re students, but if you’re capable of doing one great campaign, then I would think that you’d be able to do many more. Most of them started their books off with the ad they thought was the strongest creatively. So I was expecting to see more of that and then the quality just suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately for all the students today – and I think I was a harsher critic than I’ve been in the past – there’s just a lot more competition than there was 10 years ago. So you have to have a solid book. There’s just no room for even one slightly mediocre campaign. It brings the whole book down.

GREG: One thing that I found interesting was that more and more, we’re seeing alternative media. Which is good. Student books used to just be print piece after print piece. And now students are trying to give some depth and breadth to their ideas. But I saw a lot of books last night where alternative media was included, but there didn’t seem to be much thought behind it. It was almost as if they said to themselves, “Okay, I’ve done my print campaign. Now I’ve got to do them as banners,” without ever questioning whether banners were appropriate or not. The alternative media included, but it wasn’t connected.

SONYA: I have to say, one thing I was very happy with was I saw a lot of copywriters, and a lot of campaigns they had in their books were headline driven. And that was refreshing. Considering the past few years I’ve seen the big visual, conceptual campaign with a small line. And I would think, “Okay, but can your write?” So I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of headline-driven campaigns, and I think that was very essential.

GREG: Well, I saw a couple of writers’ books, and the art direction was pretty poor. So if you’re looking at a writer’s book, if the lines are good and the thinking’s good, are you able to forgive shabby art direction? Or do you feel the writer should have done a better job?

SONYA: I would probably forgive them 40%. I feel like I would have been more generous six or seven years ago. But now I feel like we all have to learn how to write copy, how to do good art direction. I mean, a copywriter should know what a good layout is. And an art director should know what a good line is. You just need to know those things. So I’ll let you off for a bit. But if every ad is poorly art directed in a copywriter’s book, then that tells me he or she can’t think visually. That’s a problem.

There was one writer last night who said, “I don’t like any of the art directors in my class, so I’m going to art direct my book.” And actually, he’d done quite a decent job. But that’s an exception. You also need to be clear on whether you’re an art director or a copywriter. When you start off the conversation with, “I wanted to be an art director, but I moved over to copywriting,” that’s not good. You need to say, “I’m a copywriter.”

Again, there are schools around the country that are pushing their students to produce more finished work, and you have to remember you’re competing against them.

GREG: What advice would you give the students who attended Portfolio Night?

SONYA: Send your pdfs to all the creative directors you met last night. I will definitely give you feedback. I will always give you feedback because I met you and I’m vested in you, and that’s my responsibility. That’s why I do these things. Choose a few people who you admire. Because ultimately the student has to decide what to put in his or her book, and they’re going to get tens of thousands of people giving them advice. Just keep updating your work and keep showing it. What would you tell them?

GREG: I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from getting into advertising. Especially if they really want to get into the business. But I think a lot of times I’ll see a student book that’s just not as polished as it could be. You could be forgiving and say, “Well, they’re students, they’re young, they’ve maybe only been at this for a year or two.” But the truth is, I’ve seen student books – kids that are coming out of portfolio school this very month – whose books are amazing. There’s already been a standard set in my own mind of what to expect from a student book in 2008. Even Richard [Fischer] and Evan [Thompson], the guys we hired out of school last year, set a standard. I mean, why would we hire anyone who is less than a Richard or Evan or Michelle [Nam]? And I’ve seen a small handful of students of that caliber coming out of this class. So if I’m looking at a student book on Portfolio Night, I’m already judging them against the team we hired out of school last year, and I’m judging them against the books that if it were up to me, we would have already hired this year before graduation. So, I don’t ever want to be discouraging. But sometimes you just find yourself saying, “You’ve just got to work harder.” And as a student, when someone would say, do such-and-such and change this ad, I’d frankly think “I’m not going to. It’s finished.” And I guess that’s okay. But you should still keep doing ads.

SONYA: Exactly.

GREG: I think the best thing a student can do, if they feel they have a finished portfolio is send out your pdfs, see who bites, and follow it up two or three months later with an updated portfolio. Even if they’ve only added one new campaign. Because I’ll see the new campaign, and seeing all the old ones will refresh me on who this person is.

SONYA: I think it’s also important to talk to the more junior creatives like the Richards and the Evans. Ask them how they went about it. Because it’s been a while since I was a student. But talking to people who’ve just done it is very wise. Because they’ve got fresh information. When I graduated no one was sending out pdfs.

GREG: And now my entire book is on Keynote.

SONYA: Or on websites.

GREG: Anything else?

SONYA: Should we talk about Lost now?

GREG: Absolutely.


Portfolio Night is almost here. Can you feel the power?

One piece of advice: When you sit down with the person reviewing your book, feel free to exchange pleasantries, but once they open your portfolio and begin perusing the fruits of your labor, resist the urge to speak.

Do not talk. Do not explain. Do not comment.

Enjoy the awkward silence that is the interview process. If the reviewer has questions, by all means, answer them. After they’ve gone through your work, ask them all the questions you want. But during the review, it’s quite time. Don’t even preface a campaign with, “The strategy with this one was…” The strategy should be apparent.

This isn’t protocol. It’s just common sense. When you talk as someone is trying to look at your ads (even the purely visual ones) this is what happens:

Thursday night, let your book speak for you.

Portfolio Night 6

A chance for you to spend the evening showing your work to and getting feedback from some of the top names in the business.

Thursday, May 8

21 different cities including Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. (Santiago, Auckland, and Istanbul are also available if you’re roadtripping.)

When I was in portfolio school, the One Show Student Festival (which Portfolio Night has effectively replaced) was an annual highlight. I’d take the midnight bus from Richmond to New York, wake up seven hours later in Manhattan and spend the afternoon showing my book to people like Mike Shine, Bob Barrie, Sally Hogshead and Jamie Barrett. Not bad people to get opinions from.

Bonus why (for denizens of the greater Chicagoland area):
This year, I’ll be reviewing books in Chicago. Come to my table and mention this blog and receive a free something. (Haven’t figured out what it is yet. I’m thinking mini Hershey bars or maybe some old radio scripts.)

Click here to locate a city and to buy tickets.