Too Old for Portfolio School

More than a few people have told me they wanted to go to portfolio school, but figured they were too old. Advertising’s a young man’s game, and they missed the boat. Whenever I hear this, I always think of Ronny Northrop. Ronny and I were classmates at the VCU Adcenter. I was 25 and thought I was old. Ronny was in his 30s. At that age, some people would have bailed and gotten into real estate. Ronny went on to work at places like Crispin and Goodby.

I recently emailed Ronny a few questions, which he was kind enough to answer. Long story short, if you think you’re too old to do something you’re passionate about, there’s a good chance you’re wrong.

When did you go to portfolio school?
I started ad school in 1998. Graduated in 2000.

How old were you went you were there?
Let’s see, I started when I was 32 or 33. I graduated at 35.

What factor did age have on your experience there?
I was definitely concerned about my age in terms of getting into an intense business like advertising so late in the game. It takes a hell of a lot of energy to make good marketing. Even more than I realized coming in. And this seems to be something many students don’t understand. Great advertising takes hard work and long hours. There’s a lot more to it than coming up with a bunch of funny ideas. And it’s competitive as heck–more so each year. So every advantage helps, including having a lot of energy to do the work. And the older most of us get, the less energy we’ve got.
On my first day, Jelly Helm, a wonderful teacher I was lucky enough to have, asked the class to talk about their life experiences so far. I think I was the oldest person in the class. And I had done a ton of different things in my life at that point, from a few years traveling abroad to a range of various jobs to going back to college for creative writing…the list goes on. Jelly made the point that the people who had the most life experience to bring to their creative approach would have a significant advantage over those with less to draw from. Which was great to hear. And true, I think.
A few days later I learned that Jelly was the same age as me. And the fact that a hugely successful famous ad superstar—and my teacher, for that matter–had already reached stardom at the same age I was when just starting school, freaked me out a bit. But them’s the breaks. 

Same was true for Alex Bogusky, who I later ended up working for. Point is, if you’re getting into the biz later in life, be okay with encountering many success stories and maybe even bosses who were drooling on a baby rattle when you were half way through high school. 
Another advantage getting started a little later in life brought me was motivation. As I said before, I had done a lot of stuff in my life when I finally made the jump into ad school. And at that point, I really had no idea what else I could do for a career. Advertising in many ways was a last resort for me. And that can be a powerful motivator. Which helped me out-work lots of 22-year olds. 
What factor did age have once you graduated and started looking for a job?
People just want to know that you are a great creative. If there was a 74-year-old dude who was making Grand Prix-winning work, I’m pretty sure the agency would keep him on staff. It’s a cliché I get tired of hearing, but this business has always been about great ideas. If you can consistently deliver the goods, you’re gonna do well.
All this said, it’s no secret that there’s been a shift happening in our industry. More and more work made under unrealistic deadlines, less and less time for craft. Lots of work that attempts to leverage the latest social media platform. Apps, games, tweets, something else that will make client check lists before this blog entry is published. Schedules and themes that, well, us older folks are probably less likely to keep up with than say, someone who learned their ABCs on an iPad.
In my opinion, it’s important to keep up with all this stuff as best you can. At some point someone might say, “Hey, that old dude hasn’t produced anything cool in like, two years.” But hopefully, someone else might reply, “Yeah, but he really gets Pinterest.”

Ronny Northrop is a freelance creative director and copywriter who lives in San Francisco. He’s still in the business, and he’s still got a fair amount of energy.

Portfolio School Lies to You, Part 5

When I was in portfolio school, one thing was drilled into me over and over and over:

It’s all about the big idea.
Okay, it’s not a lie. But it is only a half-truth. Because having brilliant ideas does not mean the client is going to buy them. As Seth Godin pointed out in a recent post, “Selling ideas is a fundamentally different business than having ideas.”
He also writes, “The quality of ideas is not a factor in whether or not you will be in a position to have a chance to sell those ideas.”
In other words, you can have a Titanium Lion-quality idea get killed in a client meeting because you thought you’d wing your presentation. Or because your account team, creative director or president doesn’t recognize it as a Titanium Lion-quality idea.
You need to be concerned with having big ideas. But it’s not all about the big idea. You have to have the skills, the team, and the perseverance to sell them.
Make sure you’re at an agency that will champion big ideas. If the client needs to be challenged, make sure you’re at an agency that will do so diplomatically, but thoroughly. And make sure you either develop the presentation skills you need to sell your work, or have someone you completely trust to do so for you.

Portfolio School Lies to You, Part 4

Another lie that took me a long time to recognize:

Great creative sells itself.

This is one we want to believe. That you’d present something so groundbreakingly brilliant, the client has no choice but to run it.

But here’s the reality:

The Apple “1984” spot was never supposed to run. The clients hated it. The only reason it ran was because the media – a Superbowl spot – was already purchased.

The clients initially hated Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” campaign. Cliff Freeman was told, “Under no circumstances should you run this spot.”

You need to be focused on creating great work. But great creative will not sell itself. You have two choices:

  1. Develop the presentation skills you’ll need to sell your work.
  2. Find someone whose presentation skills you trust to sell your work.

There are different schools of thought here. One says the account management should sell the work because they have the objective view and usually more face-time with the client. Others say the creatives should sell the work because nobody is as intimate with the work as the ones who created it.

One way or another, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll have to do some presenting at some point in your career. This is especially true if you want to become a creative director.

Learn how to sell your work. Not like a used car salesmen. Be able to communicate why the spot works beyond, “It’ll look cool.” If public speaking’s a challenge for you, take an improv class and expense it to the agency. Do whatever you need to do. Because the work isn’t going to do it for you.

Portfolio School Lies to You, Part 3

In the continuing series of lies that are somehow harbored before you’ve even begun interviewing, I offer yet another lie:

The client is stupid.

It’s easy to believe this one. We continually promulgate stories about boneheaded CMOs who killed a campaign because their spouses didn’t get like the color of the background. Or marketing managers who tested and tested and tested an idea into the ground until it was so devoid of soul it was the commercial equivalent of marshmallow fluff. Or clients who kill work with all the glee of those Muppet hecklers in the balcony. And you’ll all have your own stories within a month or two of your first job.

But the lie you need to uproot from your worldview right now is that the client is stupid.

They’re not. You’ll find that more often than not, they have more education than you. They have more business experience than you. They make more decisions and handle themselves better under pressure. That may be why they make four to ten times more money than you.

I’m not defending poor judgment or playing it safe. You’ll face clients who are inconsistent, timid, egomaniacal, and downright silly.

But the problem with believing the lie (other than it being false) is that it usually prohibits you from communicating with them. Why aruge with an idiot, right?

Dave Lubars has said that his talent is less in creative development (although he certainly has that in spades), and more in being able to listen to people and understand exactly what they need.

I’m sure Dave Lubars could tell more stories than me about clients giving schizophrenic feedback, or being gun-shy on a campaign that could make the company millions. But instead he listens. He knows there’s a reason for their actions. If he can understand their motives, their desires, their modus operandi, he can figure out what to do next.

Whatever his next steps are, I guarantee it’s not mope, complain, or talk about how stupid the client is.

Portfolio School Lies to You, Part 2

Here is another lie that’s often perpetuated in portfolio schools:

“Account people are your enemy.”

Sometimes they’re called “suits.” Or “account execs.” Or even just “the account side,” like there’s a geopolitical barrier between you.

They usually wear slacks while we wear frayed jeans. They read The Wall Street Journal and Brandweek at their desk while we flip through Wired and Dwell in the a coffee shop around the corner. We’re creative. They’re not. We’re superior. They’re mostly idiots.

Come on. There’s a part of you that believes this, right? That you heroically champion the creative spirit while they couldn’t straighten their spine in a client meeting to save their life?

Stop it. Take the thought, wad it up, flick your Bic and incinerate it. Seriously. No agency needs a creative (especially a young one fresh out of school), who distains someone on the same team.

True, there are a lot of bad account people out there. I’ve had the displeasure to work with a few. And I could tell you some funny stories that would perpetuate a certain stereotype.

But I’ve also worked with a lot of account people who are smarter than me. Who have more patience than me. Who are more adept at seeing a bigger picture than me. Who deservedly make more money than me.

My advice: When you get your first job, cross the tracks and make friends with the account folk. Talk to them about advertising. See what they like about it. Find out what they consider great work. Have the same conversations with them that you do your creative peers.

And I recommend you not refer to them as “suits.”

Portfolio School Lies to You

Here is the greatest lie you will be told in portfolio school:

If you don’t get a job at one of 4 or 5 elite agencies, you have failed.

Didn’t get an interview at Wieden? You suck, obviously. Goodby sent your book back? F minus for you. You spent all that money, and all those long nights working on a book. And what did you get in return? A subpar career.

And you kind of believe it, don’t you?

It’s hard not to. Certain shops are in the books more often than others. They get more press. More of their spots run during primetime. So if you start to believe the lie, it’s understandable. But that doesn’t make it any less of a lie.

The agencies change from year to year. When I graduated, Crispin wasn’t the shop everyone prayed would hire them. Cliff Freeman was. Twenty years ago, it was probably Ammirati & Puris.

But this lie ignores two truths:

  1. What creative director you work for usually matters more than what agency you work for. (Personally, I’d rather work under Ty Montague at J. Walter Thompson, than do product brochures at Goodby.)
  2. There are great, creatively driven, career-building shops everywhere. Check out Push in Orlando. Firehouse in Dallas. Wexley School for Girls in Seattle. Zig in Chicago. Richter7 in Salt Lake City. Walrus and Toy in New York. The most recent issue of How has a great write-up on Shine in Madison, Wisconsin. If I were looking for a job, it’s one agency I’d definitely check out. And they’re not all boutiques. Publicis in Seattle, Hill Holliday in Boston, and Y&R Chicago all do great work. (That last one may seem like a brazen plug, but check out the work.)

What “unknowns” have you guys been digging?