How to Pick a Portfolio School – updated July 17, 2015

[SPECIAL GUEST POST FROM THE VCU BRANDCENTER’S ASHLEY SOMMARDAHL.]


Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts about portfolio schools. As Director of Student Affairs for the VCU Brandcenter, my POV may be a bit biased but hopefully some of this advice will be helpful. I’ll start by saying a few quick things about the VCU Brandcenter (I can’t help myself!) and then I’ll focus on portfolio schools in general.


The first thing our faculty, students, and alums will tell you about that Brandcenter is that we don’t consider ourselves to be a portfolio school. The Brandcenter is a comprehensive graduate advertising program focused on creativity, commerce (remember, advertising is a business!), collaboration, and culture. We have five tracks (Copywriting, Art Direction, Strategy, Creative Brand Management, and Experience Design), and while the students work together in cross-functional teams, each student develops an expertise in his/her individual track. Assignments at the Brandcenter are as realistic and practical as possible including actual “real world” assignments from companies like Google, Barnes & Noble, Audi, and HBO who’ve asked Brandcenter students to work on some of their most challenging marketing issues. Students are supervised by full-time faculty who’ve all had successful careers as Creative Directors, Planning Directors, Agency Presidents, Designers, Directors, and Editors. Most of our faculty members continue to work or consult in their field in addition to teaching. Brandcenter students earn a Master of Science degree in Business/Branding from Virginia Commonwealth University. Our students tell us the Master’s degree is important to them, more for the long-term, as it may give them an advantage if they choose to take on management roles or teach at the college level in the future. All of that said, the VCU Brandcenter is often included in the portfolio school “category” b/c all of our students (brand management, strategy, creative, and experience design) graduate with portfolios that showcase their strategic and creative thinking abilities. Our copywriters and art directors are often competing for jobs against graduates of Miami Ad School, Creative Circus, Chicago Portfolio School, and Portfolio Center. So, if you’re thinking about attending one of these schools, here are the questions I would ask each portfolio school you apply to (and if they don’t have the answers, that’s a red flag!)


QUESTIONS TO ASK OF PORTFOLIO SCHOOLS YOU ARE APPLYING TO: 
Answers for the VCU Brandcenter are below each question so you’ve got one school’s answers already! 


1.) What is your school’s job placement rate? (That’s why you’re going back to school, right? Most students go to a portfolio school to get a job in advertising vs. to continue on with a Ph.D in advertising.)
The VCU Brandcenter’s job placement rate is consistently 97% within 6 months of graduation. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of job placement rate using the Class of 2015 as an example. For reference, they graduated on May 9, 2015.
Job placement by graduation (May 9) = 25%
Job placement by June 1st = 56%
Job placement by July 1st = 83%

2.)  Can I see a list of where your most recent grads got jobs? (It’s important to see which agencies/companies currently recruit from the school. Who will be recruiting YOU when it’s time for you to graduate?)
Here’s a list of where the VCU Brandcenter Class of 2015 is getting jobs. All of the best agencies are on the list but it’s also important to note that brands like Facebook, Apple, Google, IBM, Coca-Cola, Capital One, Nike, etc. are also recruiting Brandcenter students and alums.

3.) What does the school do to help students get jobs? (Your portfolio/work is important but so are the connections your school has to the industry.)
The Brandcenter hosts a Recruiter Session event each April for recruiters to come meet our graduating students. Over the past 5 years, we’ve consistently had 200+ recruiters from the best agencies in the country attend our event. That’s more than a 2:1 ratio of recruiters to students! Check out who attended in April. 

4.) Can I see the portfolios of your most recent grads? (Look at the “end product” of your investment. Check out the graduates’ portfolios. Are you impressed by their work? Are you envious of their  portfolios? Hopefully, the answer is “yes!”)

5.) What does the school do to help students get summer internships? (I’m sure most grad programs talk about internships, but how many curate the opportunities and facilitate the application process for you?)
During the summer between the 1st and 2nd year of the Brandcenter program, the school facilitates PAID internships at some of the best agencies/ companies all over the US.  We curate all the available opportunities and our students can search the opportunities by agency/company, location or job title.  You can see where the Class of 2016 is interning this summer here. Internships are a great way to apply what you learned in school in the real world and make valuable industry connections. 

6.)  Who are your faculty? (How many of them are full-time vs. adjuncts who have other full-time jobs? How many of them actually worked and/or continue to work in our industry?)



7.)  Do you have salary data for your alums? (You are making a huge investment in yourself and the school you choose to attend. What’s the ROI (return on investment) going to be?)

8.) Why do recruiters and creative directors say they like to hire graduates from your school? (What recruiters and CDs think about the school is important. They are the “gatekeepers” to your dream job.)

9.) Do you stay engaged with your alumni? (Again, grad school is an investment so make sure you choose one that will “pay dividends” long after you’ve graduated.)
Your relationship with the VCU Brandcenter doesn’t end when you graduate. Being that we are a small, elite program, we stay in close touch with our alums. And, our alums stay in close touch with each other helping one another interview, network, etc. We keep a job postings board for our alums so they have access to the newest job openings from agencies and companies all over the world. We also feature the work our alums are doing and we share their work and accolades with our industry contacts.  Check out a few of these recent projects from our alums.

10.) Why do so many Brandcenter alums end up marrying each other? 
I have no idea but it’s one of my favorite “statistics” about our students/alums. We always joke that we should make our recruiting strategy something like, “Come to the Brandcenter to get an amazing portfolio and job + find your soulmate.” 





Makinads is an amazing resource so keep reading what these guys have to say. You may also want to check out books like Pick Me (by Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin) and Hey Whipple, Squeeze This (by Luke Sullivan) and Breaking In: How to Build a Portfolio that Will Get You Hired (by Burks Spencer.) Good luck to all of you as you pursue careers in advertising! Hopefully, I’ll see some of you at the VCU Brandcenter one day!

Ashley Sommardahl
VCU Brandcenter / Director of Student Affairs and Industry Outreach / 804-827-8874 direct / 103 S. Jefferson Street, Richmond, VA 23284
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Interview Questions to Ask

Yesterday, Ad Age reported that BBDO Detroit will be closing in January, and is laying off 485 employees. Yikes. I don’t know any of them. But I feel for them.

Yes, the economy’s bad. But here’s the thing: BBDO Detroit is closing because is lost Chrysler. And that was its sole account. 485 jobs. Poof.
So when you start interviewing, remember: make sure you ask about the agency’s current, paying clients. Not just the fun pro-bono accounts and side projects they use to enter award shows. Ask everyone who the most important clients are and why.
Even if you’re winning Gold Lions, anyone who feels comfortable in a one-client shop is delusional. Even Wieden has lost part of Nike on more than one occasion.

Answers to Questions

A couple posts back, Bukes asked two really good questions.

Q: As a junior, how realistic is it to get to work on anything other than the “bill paying” projects?

Greg says: That depends on the size of the agency. If you’re in a small shop with only a few teams, you’ll work on pretty much everything. If you join a larger shop, the chances diminish. That’s why you’ll hear the mantra, “Take advantage of every opportunity.” You only get to work on tray liners? Make them tray liners worth entering into the One Show. You’ve only got a table tent? Make it more than a table tent.

Jim says: I wholeheartedly agree. Every project counts. And if it’s a tray liner, do the best tray liner anyone has ever seen. Then bring ideas for posters and napkins and in-store posters and anything else you can think of. I was offered my very first job because of an assignment to re-design the McDonald’s employee application during an internship. My partner and I wanted more stuff for our books, so we did in-store posters, drive-thru posters, menu signs and, yes, tray liners. The creative was okay, but the creative directors were just impressed that we took the initiative.

As a junior, you want to prove that you’re a source of great ideas. And nobody’s going to fault you if you say, “I know the assignment didn’t call for stunts, but we had this idea we thought could be really cool.” Just MAKE SURE YOU DO THE ASSIGNMENT first. It’s not “We didn’t want to do tray liners so we did a spot.” It’s “We did these tray liners AND had this other idea.”

Q: How long should you do that before you can expect to start building your professional book?

Greg says: You start building your professional book the day you start earning a paycheck. Not feeling like you’re getting enough great creative? You’ve got two choices: 1) quit and find another job, 2) start doing great creative. Give the clients something more than they asked for. If it’s good enough, most agencies will pay to run and enter it. Or go out and get a pro bono client. I shortlisted at Cannes this year with a client that I went out and found on my own. I had some great creative directors and producers help bring it to life. But if I hadn’t made the cold call, I wouldn’t have it on my reel.

Jim says: Keep in mind, high-profile assignments aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. There’s a lot to be said about the tiny assignment nobody cares about. As a writer, I LOVE to do radio because (and shhhh, this is a secret), nobody gives a shit about radio. Creative directors nod along and check their blackberries when you present it, then it’s usually a junior client approving it. Compared with political, high-profile projects where you might have 9 creative reviews before the work even leaves the agency, assignments that nobody else cares about can be rewarding in more ways than one.

Parting With Your Student Book

Yesterday, LC posted a few very good questions:

“Once you’ve got a job, how long is it cool to keep student/spec work in there? And is it mandatory to put produced work in your book? What if you’ve done TV, but it isn’t anything of note. Having the experience is valuable to a potential employer, I’m sure. But what if the spot isn’t book-worthy?”

Keeping Student Work
After 8 years, I still have one student campaign in my book. I’m proud of it. I’ve been told by people I respect to keep it in. I’ve even tried (unsuccessfully) to sell it to the client to make it legitimate (and so I could enter it into award shows). It’s not a showcase piece anymore, but I still include it. That said, I think that’s pretty rare.

Produced Work vs. Spec
It’s not mandatory to put produced work in your book. I interviewed with Guy Seese when he was at Cole + Weber, and he said he thought it was cool that I had spec work in my book. When Mark Figliulo hired me at Y&R, it was partially because of the same spec campaign. That said, professional spec work looks much different than student spec work.

Putting Subpar TV on Your Reel
If you’ve done TV, but it isn’t anything of note, have a reel for it, but don’t tout it as “your reel.” If you show someone “your reel” and it’s full of impressive spots you’re communicating two things:

1) you think it’s work worth showing (bad)
2) you can’t sell a great idea to the client (even worse)

For my first two years at Y&R, I only did promotional TV for Sears. I had done over 50 spots where the main message was a laundry list of things like “Get 20% off sweaters!…All treadmills half off!…Plus free delivery on all home appliances over $299…Hurry! This sale won’t last long!” I had a ton of TV experience, and nothing on my reel to show for it.

But I did keep a CD of the work in case anyone asked. And in two interviews during that time, people did ask. It’s interesting to note I didn’t get either job (and because I ended up being able to do great work on Sears, I’m glad). TV experience is great. But only great TV experience is worth putting on your reel.

My book is my boss.


A couple of posts ago I asked “Who will you work for?” My answer (which most of you hit on in some form or another) is this:

I work for my book.

It sounds selfish. Ego-centric. A little self-absorbed. But it’s the only answer I’ve found that really makes sense to me.

When I work for my book…

I win. Because I know I’m pushing myself creatively, and I’m more likely to end up with a breakthrough idea. If my end result doesn’t garner any awards, I’ll still know that I didn’t phone it in, and I’m that much sharper for the next assignment.

The agency wins. For all the reasons listed above. The agency gets another number by its name in the index of the One Show and/or I’ve become that more valuable to the office as an employee.

My creative director wins. For all the reasons heretofore listed.

The client wins. I can’t do great creative if the client’s not benefiting from the effort. It’s not creative if it doesn’t sell. And it probably won’t sell if it’s not creative. Also, outside the industry, when a great ad appears, it’s the client who becomes famous, not you. Happy to live with that.

Your alma matter wins. No matter what portfolio school you went to, they get to say that you went there as a recruiting device.

The industry wins.
I think we’d all agree at least 90% of the advertising out there is garbage. Work for your book and you’ll automatically be in the top 10%. Better yet, you can be part of the effort to push the percentage of bad advertising down to 89%.

My bank account wins. Keep your eye on the ball. But, yes, this too will be affected.

Work for your book. It’s the only thing guaranteed to follow you to the next gig.

Investments vs. Advertising

“You can’t do well in investments unless you think independently. And the truth is, you’re neither right nor wrong because people agree with you. You’re right because your facts and your reasoning are right. In the end that’s all that counts.”

– Warren Buffett (interview with Fortune, 11/11/02)


Now, replace the word “investments
” with the word “advertising.” Is the statement still true?