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.

Portfolio-Launch.com Beta Testing

[Portfolio Launch is currently off-line. We’ll repost once we find a new server. 8.29.12]

Before I launch this site officially, I’m announcing the beta version on makinads.com.
There are five concepting exercises on this site meant to help portfolio school applicants put together a competitive book.
The art direction of the site is admittedly underwhelming. I’m working on that. Comments and criticism of the content is very welcome.

Make Your Book Less Student-y! Act now!

I see a lot of student porfolios. And I can peg most of them – say 80%, and that’s pretty generous – as being a student portfolios before I even look at the resume. It’s not a unique skill. Most people in the industry can do the same. Because most student portfolios just feel student-y. And the thing is, it’s the other 20% that make the big impression.
There are lots of different contributing factors to the studentyness of a book. For this post, let me just bring up one: Most studenty books neglect calls to action.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a call to action is something that gives the reader, viewer, participant, whoever, something to act on. It could be as simple as a website or phone number, or as specific as a date and location. It doesn’t have to be crass like “Hurry! Limited time offer! Call now!” (In fact, if you’re considering that kind of copy, you might be reading the wrong blog.)
Maybe you buy the argument that a lot of advertising is about brand building, or having a conversation with the consumer. I buy that, too. Sometimes. Nike rarely uses a call to action unless they’re trying to send you to some kind of microsite. iPad commercials don’t end with “Visit apple.com” popping up at the end. But for most ideas you’re going to present to your client, you’re going to need something more than just a logo. A book entirely full of pure branding pieces comes across as a very studenty book.
Look at it from a client’s point of view. You’re paying your agency to come up with a great idea and execute it. You’re paying your media company hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of dollars to make sure people see/hear/experience the idea. You’ve got a boss who’s expecting you to deliver some kind of tangible results. And you’re going to run an add that hopefully gets people to think of you as cool?
You don’t have to slip into gross promotional language. Just figure out what you want people to do once they come in contact with your ad. And then give them a way to do it.

Job Search Plan of Attack


Agencies don’t hire between Thanksgiving and New Years. That’s a fact that holds so true that I tell my students who graduate in early December to just chill, get their portfolio together, enjoy the holidays, refresh, and plan to hit the ground running in January.

Over the years, we’ve written quite a bit about various aspects of the job search. I thought it might be helpful to compile some of those posts here in some sort of order. So, as you get ready to jump into the job search, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Portfolio. Obvious, right? But just because you’ve graduated doesn’t mean your portfolio is finished. Your portfolio is NEVER finished. Get your work together. Get your website polished. And get ready to keep working on it until you retire. Here are some questions you can ask about your portfolio.

1b) Presentation. Your website speaks for itself. The moment it loads in my browser window, it says something about you. There are plenty of very simple portfolio-hosting sites that are easy enough my mother could set up a professional-looking portfolio in a day. DO NOT let your site’s appearance kill your chances before anyone sees your book. This goes for real-world opportunities too. If you have someone coming into school to look at portfolios or are going to a portfolio review of any kind, be professional about it. It’s an opportunity to make an impression. Don’t bring a stack of foam-core boards in a plastic grocery bag (I’ve had it happen before).

2) Contacting agencies. Have your list. Use your connections (friends, alumni, LinkedIn). Start sending out emails or making calls. Here’s a post about writing down your five criteria to help you narrow down your agency search, a few examples of emails and followups, and another on what not to say in your email.

3) The interview. Know what you’re looking for. When someone comes in to show their book to me, I always ask first: “What are you looking for?” As in, do you want me to comment on everything in your book? Are you looking for “what to keep in my book and what to take out?” Do you want our agency to hire you? It might seem obvious if you’re sitting in someone’s office showing your book, but it’s not. Be clear about what you’re looking for. And have an opinion on work in your book. I ask questions about pieces I like. I often ask the person I’m interviewing what they like best, because I want to know what kind of work they like to do most. And know what questions you want to ask about the agency. Here’s a good starter list.

4) The followup. When you’re interviewing, write down the names of the people you talk to. Ask them each for a business card. And then send a thank-you note afterward. It can be a card, which is nice, or simply an email. It shows the person appreciation for the time they spent with you and, more importantly, is another opportunity to connect with them.

5) The negotiation. If you’re a student, there shouldn’t be much negotiation, really. Getting into a good agency where you can learn and grow and do good work is invaluable coming out of school. So whether you making $40k or $50k a year isn’t as important as the kind of work you’ll be doing. I know that $10k sounds like a ton when you have school loans, etc., but going to a place where you make less but have the opportunity to build a great book will pay off multiple times over in the long run.

Finally, here’s a post Greg did about the timeline of the whole process.

Good luck in your search.

Directors Reels and Student Books

This is a room in my agency full of directors reels. Each one of those DVDs on the shelves feature anywhere from one to six different directors. And each director may be showcasing three to eight spots. And there are a few more walls full of DVDs you don’t see in this picture.

This isn’t too different from a creative director or agency recruiter sifting through the sea of portfolios they receive each week. So here are some of the things we can learn from a room full of directors reels:
  1. Most directors (and usually the best ones) are represented by a production company. Just like most students tend to come out of portfolio schools. I can tell you which production companies tend to rep the best directors. And I can tell you which portfolio schools tend to produce the best graduates. Nothing’s guaranteed; I’ve worked with bad directors at some of the best production companies, and I’ve seen poor student work come out of the top schools. But generally, talent produces talent.
  2. I can tell you which directors I want to work with without even looking at their current reels because their reputation precedes them. Building a body of work like that might be a little difficult for you as a student. But it’s something to shoot for. I keep about 10 directors in my head, which is better than being one of a thousand on these shelves. Entering student award shows and trying to get into CMYK is a good way of jumping off those shelves.
  3. There are other directors who are less famous (either because they’re new, or simply haven’t been discovered yet), that I really want to work with. I get to know about these directors when their reps come to the agency and offer to screen their reels for anyone willing to watch. Not every screening I attend is amazing. But I do keep a list of the names that stand out to me. That’s not too different from a student who invests time and money traveling to different cities for interviews, instead of waiting for an agency to call them. I want to work with the people I know best. And if I don’t know you, your chances are that much slimmer.
  4. I don’t always have work for directors I like. Maybe they’re not right for my current project. Or we’ve already awarded the job to someone else. Or we need someone with a little more experience. But I still keep my list of directors I want to work with one way or another. It’s the same with students. The agency you want to work for may not have an opening for someone in your position. But that doesn’t mean they won’t hire you the first chance they get. So be sure to stay in touch.
  5. Imagine a director who calls me once every couple of weeks to see if I have any jobs for him. That would get annoying. Unless that director were calling me to share his latest spot that was truly worth sharing. Then I’d think they were hard-working, dedicated, talented and prolific. Students who send me new work are always more interesting than students who want to “remind” me of the same book they showed me a couple months ago.
  6. Imagine a rep who comes in to screen a directors reel, and decides that the best way to help that DVD stand out in this sea of reels is to put it in a silly case with green feathers sticking out of it and macramé all over the casing. Would it stand out? Sure. Would it make me want to hire that director? Nope. Because I only want to see the work. If it’s bad, it will make the dog-and-pony packaging that much worse. If it’s good, I’ll wonder why they thought they needed anything else cluttering it up. Students, beware of conceptual portfolio bindings and resumes. Let your work speak for you.

An Observation of Student Books

This being graduation and recruiting season, I’ve seen a lot of student portfolios lately. Seriously, gobs of them. And this is generally what I’m seeing:

  • Lots of digital ideas
  • Lots of integrated ideas
  • Lots of side-bar explanations of how the digital and/or integrated ideas are supposed to work
  • Not a lot of print
  • Not a whole lot of outdoor

If I were a student in portfolio school, I’d probably skew toward the digital/integrated ideas, too. Done right, they’re cooler, more memorable, and it’s the direction the industry has been heading for about a decade now. And we’re thinkers and concepters first and foremost, right?

But here’s the catch: speaking for the majority of creative directors and recruiters, the best way for me to judge your talents is with an unsexy, unglamorous old school medium: a print ad. If you’re a copywriter, a bunch of headlines and scintillating body copy lets me know you can write. If you’re an art director, a double-page spread is going to tell me more about your skills and artistic judgement than a big idea blown out across six media channels.

I’m not knocking digital, integration, or big, big thinking in any way. You need that stuff in your book to be competitive. But imagine you’re a creative director, with a couple of portfolios on your desk. All writing and art direction being equal, this is what pretty much what you’ll come away with:

BOOK #1 contains several digital pieces with their accompanying explanations, a couple integrated campaigns with their accompanying explanations, and a billboard campaign.

My reaction: Wow. Some pretty cool ideas in here. At least I think so. I didn’t take the time to read through all the explanations.



BOOK #2 contains several print campaigns which might even be a part of one or two integrated campaigns, a couple digital pieces.

My reaction: Wow. Some pretty cool ideas in here. And this kid can really write/art direct. We could use them here.

Multiply Book #1 by about 20, and Book #2 by three or four, and you start to see why having big ideas on their own might not be enough to get you a job.

You need to be a big thinker. And digital and integrated campaigns are usually the best way to show off your brain.

But agencies don’t hire big thinkers. They hire writers and art directors who think big. And as unsexy as it sounds, the best way to show off your craft is usually a double-page spread. Sure, roll it into your integrated piece if you can. But don’t assume one print campaign is enough to showcase your talent.

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.

The Doughnut Vault

There’s a place in Chicago, down by the Merchandise Mart, called The Doughnut Vault.

Just like Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, and even 7-Eleven, they make doughnuts. But the Doughnut Vault has something those other places don’t have: A line that stretches around the corner.

There are a few more things that make this place unusual. The Doughnut Vault does not have opening hours. They open when they’re ready to open (9:30-ish), and close when they run out of doughnuts (this usually happens while people are still in line). Their prices are also pretty steep: $2 – $3 a donut. And they won’t let you walk away with more than a half-dozen, so forget bringing them back to the office. More than a few people have compared it to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Here’s a screenshot of their tweets @doughnutvault.

I stood in line for a half hour last Saturday morning before the tweets of their diminishing supply made me give up. I was a little bummed that I didn’t get to see the inside of the shop. And also disappointed that I didn’t get to find out what a pistachio or chestnut doughnut tastes like. Still hungry, I ended up walking two blocks and buying an apple fritter at 7-Eleven where I was the only customer in the store. But I don’t blame The Doughnut Vault at all. Next time I’m in Chicago, I’ll just be sure to get in line around 8:30, and bring something to read. I still had an interesting experience with them. And I still want to get into their club.

There are Doughnut Vault-level agencies out there. You know who they are. And there’s a good chance you’re standing in line right now, portfolio in hand, waiting to get in. Lots of people will give up and settle for a job at a Dunkin-caliber shop. And that’s fine. There’s some great work/donuts coming out of those places.

But if you want to get a Doughnut Vault-level job, you’re going to have to have a Doughnut Vault-level book. You’re going to have to offer more than the chocolate long john campaign (those are delicious, but we’ve all seen them). You’re going to have to figure out how to make the work in your book as remarkable and satisfying as a pistachio or chestnut doughnut.

With graduation coming up at portfolio programs around the country, I’ve seen a lot of student portfolios in the last couple of weeks. And I can tell you those books are out there. They’re just as rare as a blockbuster line for a donut shop. But they’re out there.