Everything I Say May Be Wrong

Last fall, I visited the fine students at the University of Texas to look at portfolios and chat about the industry. I’m quite flattered that they asked some follow-up questions for their blog. Many of the questions are about the same topics Greg and I discuss here, so I thought I’d share.

Here’s the interview.


Why Portfolio Schools?

When I was in portfolio school, there were two girls who quit after the first semester. When I asked them a few months later what they were up to they both gave me the same answer “Working on my portfolio.” They were still pursuing a career in advertising. They’d just given up on portfolio school.

In my opinion, that was a huge mistake.

A lot of undergraduates have asked my advice on their books. After reviewing their work, I’ve always told them the same thing: “You should look into portfolio school.” And they almost never want to take it.

Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard for not going to portfolio school:

  1. It’s too expensive.
  2. I can put my book together on my own.
  3. An internship at an agency will be just as good.
  4. I want to get a job now, not in 1-2 years.
Here’s my one reason for going:
  1. Portfolio school graduates have books that are lightyears ahead of non-portfolio school grads. Lightyears.

Is this true 100% of the time? No. But it is, maybe 98%. The rare exceptions are top-of-the-class wunderkids from dedicated programs like the University of Texas or the BYU Adlab. Sure, you can get by without portfolio school. Just like people make it into the NBA without playing college ball. It happens. But that’s a huge bet.

So let me address each of these concerns as best I  can.

COST: Portfolio schools can be expensive. But it’s your career you’re investing in. Skimp on your education, and you’re only limiting your job prospects.

GOING SOLO: In portfolio school, you’ll be paired with writers and art directors who are hopefully trying to do their best work, too. You’ll be instructed by people with more experience and more interest in your success than you’ll ever get from a book or magazine. If you’re putting your book together on your own, you may as well be doing it in a dark closet.

INTERNSHIPS ARE A WAY IN: They’re really not. Don’t get me wrong, internships are very valuable. But if you want a job as a writer or art director, it’s not like Mad Men, where you take a job as a receptionist and eventually work your way up into the creative department. More and more, internships at top agencies are for portfolio school students in between semesters.

I DON’T WANT TO WAIT: The year or two you put into a portfolio school program will give you more of a jump on your career than taking a menial job at a direct mail shop that lets you put your book together in your down time. Portfolio schools are a launch pad, not a time suck.

Which portfolio school should you look into? That’s your call. Jim and I are both graduates of the VCU Brandcenter, and we can’t say enough good about that place. We’ve also both taught at the Chicago Portfolio School, which we’re big fans of, and Jim’s taught at the Miami Ad School in San Francisco, which is a killer program. We’ve seen great books come out of all three, as well as the Creative Circus, Portfolio Center, and Brainco. If you can get into W+K 12 or the new school from 72 and Sunny, more power to you.

Is this US-centric? Probably. But I gotta be honest, I spent two years working in Europe, and I didn’t see any program that comes close to those I’ve seen in the US. Maybe the Bergh’s School of Communication. They’ve won some notable student awards, but I can’t read their homepage. I’ve also seen some great student books out of Brazil, but, again I’ll plead ignorance in my native tongue. (If you’re a graduate or teacher of a portfolio school outside the United States, let us know. We’d be happy to sing your praises here.) Also, it’s no surprise the number of foreign students coming to American portfolio schools has been on the rise.

[Update 3/22/13: 72U has revised their program. Read about it here.]

[Update 5/16/13: For a comprehensive list of portfolio programs, check out The Best of Makin’ Ads now available on Blurb.com.]

[Update 6/30/14: VCU Brandcenter’s Ashley Sommardahl wrote this great post on How to Pick a Portfolio School, and offers a list of questions students should ask when applying to programs.]

Hey Peggy, Go to Ad School!

Graduation time is coming up, and every year I talk to a handful of students graduating from undergrad ad programs who want to be writers or art directors. Most of them, like me when I finished college, have had maybe 2-3 creative classes in their advertising curriculum and have a shaky book (alright, mine was worse than shaky).

I recommend to these students that they go to one of the many portfolio programs. Their reaction ranges from taking offense to breaking down and sobbing for twenty minutes. Then they say:

Do I have to?

Of course you don’t have to. LeBron James didn’t go to college. He jumped right into the NBA. So if you’re the LeBron James of advertising, go for it. But you know what? LeBron James played basketball his whole life. He had a better jumpshot than God and could flick dimes off the top of the backboard (so they say). If you’ve got that kind of natural talent, heck, skip college.

But here’s the big thing to mull over: agencies will look at your portfolio, and they’ll compare it to the other portfolios of other students and junior-level writers and art directors looking for jobs. Agencies don’t care whether you have a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree or third-degree black belt. They want to see your book. So your book is competing against other books. People who go to ad schools and portfolio programs usually spend two years focusing just on their books. That’s it.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet on the book that’s been in the gym for two years straight, shooting free throws, running gassers, doing squats.

The only undergrad program I know of that consistently turns out books that can compete with the portfolio program books is the University of Texas. Something in the water there, I guess.

Can I get a job at the bottom answering phones and work my way up? You mean like Peggy on Mad Men? I guess, but that’s a tough road, and when you ask around at the agency you’re answering phones for to see if you can work on assignments, you’ll probably be told to go to ad school.

Can you get a job at a not-so-good agency and work on your book there then move on to a better job? Sure. But by the time you do get to the position you want, you could probably have gone to school and would be ahead of where you are. Same goes for money. Though we’ve said repeatedly that money shouldn’t be a consideration when you take your first job, if you can swing a school loan, you’ll be better off in the long run.

So do you need to go to portfolio school? No. Would I recommend it? Absolutely.