Rehashing Portfolio Night

I attended Portfolio Night 6 last night with Sonya Grewal, a creative director / art director here at Y&R Chicago. This afternoon we had the following conversation:

So what did you think about Portfolio Night?

SONYA GREWAL: Out of nine people, none of the portfolios were very memorable. Now that said, I think it was a good idea to bring students from the Chicago Portfolio School who were in their third quarter who had a fourth left. I thought that was smart to see where they’re at and be able to guide them to their final book. So hopefully, I helped a few people.

GREG: I wonder if there wasn’t a better showing in New York simply because the One Show’s going on. If you’re from Miami or Richmond or Atlanta, I think you’re more likely to go to New York because top creatives from around the country are also in town at the same time. I even know a couple people from Chicago who went to the New York show for that reason.

SONYA: If I were a student, I’d go there. I think that makes sense. Not that there aren’t top creatives in Chicago.

GREG: It’s not that New York has more talent. It’s just that more talent goes to New York for the One Show.

SONYA: Right.

GREG: I think Portfolio Night was kind of a microcosm of what you see in advertising anyway. There were a handful of good books. A ton of just okay books. And a few that were not very good at all. I even sat with one guy who had put his book together on his own as an undergrad, and wasn’t even sure that he wanted to be in advertising. But I didn’t see book after book after book that stunned me.

SONYA: I saw one good campaign. But that was it. It was as if you spend all your time and you get one good idea and one good campaign, but your other work just doesn’t match up. Conceptually, visually, everything. It was surprising. I saw at least three books where I’d think “That campaign’s good,” but the rest was “What were you thinking here?” So quality consistency I didn’t see. Granted, they’re students, but if you’re capable of doing one great campaign, then I would think that you’d be able to do many more. Most of them started their books off with the ad they thought was the strongest creatively. So I was expecting to see more of that and then the quality just suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately for all the students today – and I think I was a harsher critic than I’ve been in the past – there’s just a lot more competition than there was 10 years ago. So you have to have a solid book. There’s just no room for even one slightly mediocre campaign. It brings the whole book down.

GREG: One thing that I found interesting was that more and more, we’re seeing alternative media. Which is good. Student books used to just be print piece after print piece. And now students are trying to give some depth and breadth to their ideas. But I saw a lot of books last night where alternative media was included, but there didn’t seem to be much thought behind it. It was almost as if they said to themselves, “Okay, I’ve done my print campaign. Now I’ve got to do them as banners,” without ever questioning whether banners were appropriate or not. The alternative media included, but it wasn’t connected.

SONYA: I have to say, one thing I was very happy with was I saw a lot of copywriters, and a lot of campaigns they had in their books were headline driven. And that was refreshing. Considering the past few years I’ve seen the big visual, conceptual campaign with a small line. And I would think, “Okay, but can your write?” So I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of headline-driven campaigns, and I think that was very essential.

GREG: Well, I saw a couple of writers’ books, and the art direction was pretty poor. So if you’re looking at a writer’s book, if the lines are good and the thinking’s good, are you able to forgive shabby art direction? Or do you feel the writer should have done a better job?

SONYA: I would probably forgive them 40%. I feel like I would have been more generous six or seven years ago. But now I feel like we all have to learn how to write copy, how to do good art direction. I mean, a copywriter should know what a good layout is. And an art director should know what a good line is. You just need to know those things. So I’ll let you off for a bit. But if every ad is poorly art directed in a copywriter’s book, then that tells me he or she can’t think visually. That’s a problem.

There was one writer last night who said, “I don’t like any of the art directors in my class, so I’m going to art direct my book.” And actually, he’d done quite a decent job. But that’s an exception. You also need to be clear on whether you’re an art director or a copywriter. When you start off the conversation with, “I wanted to be an art director, but I moved over to copywriting,” that’s not good. You need to say, “I’m a copywriter.”

Again, there are schools around the country that are pushing their students to produce more finished work, and you have to remember you’re competing against them.

GREG: What advice would you give the students who attended Portfolio Night?

SONYA: Send your pdfs to all the creative directors you met last night. I will definitely give you feedback. I will always give you feedback because I met you and I’m vested in you, and that’s my responsibility. That’s why I do these things. Choose a few people who you admire. Because ultimately the student has to decide what to put in his or her book, and they’re going to get tens of thousands of people giving them advice. Just keep updating your work and keep showing it. What would you tell them?

GREG: I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from getting into advertising. Especially if they really want to get into the business. But I think a lot of times I’ll see a student book that’s just not as polished as it could be. You could be forgiving and say, “Well, they’re students, they’re young, they’ve maybe only been at this for a year or two.” But the truth is, I’ve seen student books – kids that are coming out of portfolio school this very month – whose books are amazing. There’s already been a standard set in my own mind of what to expect from a student book in 2008. Even Richard [Fischer] and Evan [Thompson], the guys we hired out of school last year, set a standard. I mean, why would we hire anyone who is less than a Richard or Evan or Michelle [Nam]? And I’ve seen a small handful of students of that caliber coming out of this class. So if I’m looking at a student book on Portfolio Night, I’m already judging them against the team we hired out of school last year, and I’m judging them against the books that if it were up to me, we would have already hired this year before graduation. So, I don’t ever want to be discouraging. But sometimes you just find yourself saying, “You’ve just got to work harder.” And as a student, when someone would say, do such-and-such and change this ad, I’d frankly think “I’m not going to. It’s finished.” And I guess that’s okay. But you should still keep doing ads.

SONYA: Exactly.

GREG: I think the best thing a student can do, if they feel they have a finished portfolio is send out your pdfs, see who bites, and follow it up two or three months later with an updated portfolio. Even if they’ve only added one new campaign. Because I’ll see the new campaign, and seeing all the old ones will refresh me on who this person is.

SONYA: I think it’s also important to talk to the more junior creatives like the Richards and the Evans. Ask them how they went about it. Because it’s been a while since I was a student. But talking to people who’ve just done it is very wise. Because they’ve got fresh information. When I graduated no one was sending out pdfs.

GREG: And now my entire book is on Keynote.

SONYA: Or on websites.

GREG: Anything else?

SONYA: Should we talk about Lost now?

GREG: Absolutely.