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.