Writing Down the Page

I encourage my writing students to really experiment with their process.
I find that things like the time of day that I write,
what kind of mood I'm in,
where I am,
what kind of music I listen to,
whether I'm writing or typing, whether I'm writing with a pen or a pencil or a crayon--
all these things can influence how I write and bring out different voices.

Sometimes I write down the page.
Just one thought per line, kind of like a telegram.
It's not a magic trick, but sometimes it helps me focus on each sentence.
Evaluate each sentence on its own merit.
Cut out the fat.
And get the transitions right.

That's all I got today.

ADC Young Guns - Call for entries 2010

If you're 30 or under and have an awesome portfolio, you should really, really, really, really enter. Really.

And if you do well, please let us know. Always happy to sing the praises of our readers.

Side Projects

Today's post comes from my friend Leslie Buker, an art director in Seattle:

Two years into my advertising career, I keep getting the same feedback about my book – I need to show more art. So, I recently dug out an old camera with a half-shot roll of film inside and headed to a Seattle park to finish it off. When I got the pictures back I was blown away by two things – The first half of the pictures were snapshots from five years ago (five years!) and those I had just taken weren’t snapshots at all – they were actual compositions with a thought behind them.

It was five years ago when I decided to focus on advertising instead of eking out a career as an artist. But as I look through the viewfinder for the first time in a long time, I can’t deny it. I see things in so much more detail now. And as an art director, it has been essential to learn the difference between what looks good and what looks bad.

So, what can I say? Advertising has made me a better photographer. And maybe if I work at it, that’s something I’ll be able to show in my book.

Quarter 2

In his book First Things First, Stephen Covey says we can put our "to do" list into one of these four boxes.

Most of us spend our time in either Quarter 1 or Quarter 4. We're either rushing to meet deadlines, or we're burnt out and recuperating in front of American Idol.

The trick is to put more focus on Quarter 2 - the things that are important to us, but we don't get around to them because there are no deadlines attached.

My experience is that Quarter 2 is where you build your book. This is where you start really tweaking and refining the ideas you've come up with for your paying clients. It's also where you seek out pro bono projects that let you stretch creatively. It's where you figure out a way to bring an amazing piece of digital creative to a willing client when they only asked for a print ad.

Very rarely can you build a strong book waiting for the perfect brief to land on your desk. Or delivering to the client precisely what they asked for. Your book grows or withers based on what you do with Quarter 2.

More Experienced Partners

When I started my career, I was fortunate to be partnered with an art director who had a couple years' experience. My first assignment was tv spot, and about a month into my first job, I was on a shoot. I would have been completely lost had it not been for the help of my partner.

The learning curve is pretty steep when you start at your first agency, but it will be steeper if you work with more experienced people. If you have an opportunity to partner with a seasoned vet, take it. Don't be intimidated. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to look foolish.

Agencies often pair juniors with juniors. This, I think, is a mistake. Juniors will grow much faster if they have someone to show them the ropes.

Specking It

This is a post by screenwriter Steven Pressfield. He's talking about writing scripts for Hollywood, but it applies just as much to copywriters and art directors.

If you're in a portfolio program, you're doing this automatically.

There are worse things than being wrong. Like not working.

Sometimes students ask me if I think their ad needs a tagline. My answer: I don’t know.

Sometimes they’ll ask if I think another visual might work. Again, I don’t know.

I don’t know because this is just talking theory. It's like asking, “If I did an ad with a great headline and an awesome visual, would it be good?”

You have to explore. You have to write headlines and taglines that might not be used. You have to try different layouts and typefaces that may not work. You have to risk spending an hour or two, a day or two, or a week or two going down a dead end street. You can’t be afraid of that.

Joseph Chilton Peace said, “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”

Sending Emails to recruiters and CDs

In a recently posted comment, Mankan asked if we would “show a format how a good email to an agency should look like?

There are probably better, more effective examples, but I’ll share mine with you. Below are three emails I sent to a recruiter before being invited for an interview. The names have been changed for privacy.


Hi, Jill.

My friend Bob Frapples tells me AGENCY #1 may be looking for some senior creatives.

I've spent most of my career in Chicago, but a couple years ago I transferred to MY CURRENT AGENCY to get some experience on international accounts like CLIENT #1 and CLIENT #2. Well worth it, but I'm looking at returning to the States in 2010.

You can see my work here: LINK TO MY WEB PAGE

I've followed AGENCY #1’s work for years. If you think I'd make a good fit, I'd love to talk about the possibilities. Happy to Skype if it's easier. Please let me know.


Greg Christensen


Hi, Jill.

Just thought I'd reach out and see if you had any feedback on my work.


I didn't realize Nicky Nickson had returned to AGENCY #1. We worked together in Salt Lake City years ago. I was just an intern, so he might not remember me. But I always liked the energy he brought to the agency. Does he still have a dentist chair in his office?




Hi, Jill.

I just wanted to let you and anyone else viewing my book know that I added a new digital section to my home page:


You can still view the main page here: LINK TO URL MAIN PAGE

I've followed the agency's work over the years, and hearing Bob Frapples tell me how much he enjoys working there, I'm really hopeful you'll see me as a good fit.



A few things to note:

  1. This wasn't a complete cold call. A friend of mine at the agency let me know about the opportunity. Never underestimate your network.
  2. I included my URL in every email. Never assume the people you're talking to know exactly who you are and what work you've produced.
  3. If I hadn't been overseas, I probably would have tried calling as well.

Feel free to post questions and comments. Portfolio school professors, creative directors, and recruiters are also great resources for this question.

How I Got Hired: A Case Study

I recently accepted a new job, and I'm very excited about it. I start in May. Without going into self-serving details, I'd like to share my timeline of job hunting with you. It might give you some insight, and maybe even a little hope. A few things to keep in mind:

  1. I contacted far fewer agencies than I normally would have - especially if I were a student looking for my first job. I was tapping into my A-list of contacts first.
  2. These agencies are all over, geographically. I wasn't looking in a single city.
  3. I think things moved unusually quickly for me. I was very lucky.

Here's a color-coded, week-by-week look at my most recent job search...

Week One:

Serendipitously heard from two different friends at two different agencies telling me they might be hiring.

Asked for contacts and sent my website to AGENCY #1 and AGENCY #2.

Week Two:

Christmas vacation. Everything closed.

Week Three:

Heard from AGENCY #1, who thanked me for sending my work.

Followed up with an email to AGENCY #2, but heard nothing.

Week Four:

Contacted a headhunter who said he knew people were hiring.

Contacted a friend at AGENCY #3. Received the recruiter's contact info and sent my website to her.

Followed up with an email to AGENCY #1, who responded immediately saying they’ll get back to me within a week or so.

Gambled and sent an email to the ECD of AGENCY #2. No response.

Week Five:

Asked a friend at AGENCY #4, who said they were definitely hiring, needed someone exactly like me, and it was a “sure thing.” Sent email to a CD and recruiter of AGENCY #4.

Week Six:

Very excited about AGENCY #4, I contacted several friends who work there. All tell me they will talk to their ECD and recommend me. AGENCY #4 is sounding very good.

Heard from one of the recruiters at AGENCY #4, asking if I’d be available for freelance. Because of distance, I thank her, but tell her I’m looking for full-time work only.

Got a response from AGENCY #1, asking for a Skype interview. Had a very nice Skype session with the recruiter from AGENCY #1.

Week Seven:

Gambled and sent an email to the ECD and his assistant at AGENCY #4. No response.

Received a call from AGENCY #1 who wanted to ask what my salary range is.

Received a LinkedIn invite from the ECD of AGENCY #3, and traded messages with him, but nothing substantial.

Week Eight:

Received an invitation from AGENCY #1 to fly out for an interview.

Week Nine:

Flew out for an interview at AGENCY #1.

Week Ten:

Received offer from AGENCY #1.

Week Eleven:

Accepted offer from AGENCY #1.

Heard from a recruiter at AGENCY #2 saying they will keep my book on file, but that they are currently focused on hiring women.

Week Fourteen:

Still haven’t heard anything AGENCY #3 or AGENCY #4.

A few things I'd like to point out:

  1. For a few weeks, I honestly thought Agency #4 was a sure thing. It sounded perfect, and I had at least four people pulling for me internally (always a huge advantage). But I simply never heard from those in power. Sometimes this just happens.
  2. Some might say, "Well, you only went for Agency #1, because they were the only ones showing interest." That's partially true. If someone is showing interest, it raises the chances of you being a good fit exponentially. But it was still my choice. Even after flying out, I could have always said, "No, we're not a good fit." (Or if I were stupid, "No, because even though it's a great fit, I want to see if I get an offer from another agency, just so I can have the illusion of choice.")
  3. I don't fault Agency #3 for wanting to hire women. It sounds silly, but it's probably for a particular account, or even at the request of a client.
I hope this is helpful. Especially to those of you who will be going through this in a few months after graduation.

The Playlists Trick

Here’s a trick I sometimes use. Not always, but it’s worth trying.

Usually when I sit down to write, I realize I have a range of voices to explore. Say I’m writing headlines for a chocolate company (or playing with layouts, if you’re an art director). Here are three areas off the top of my head that I could explore:
  • Chocolate is an almost sinful indulgence.
  • Chocolate is something I enjoy alone when I’m feeling content.
  • Chocolate is something I share with friends during the good times.
Here are three very different ways of writing about chocolate. And depending on the brand, they could all be valid.

That’s when I make my playlist.

Even if I’m only dealing with print, I’ll take my areas and make a playlist for each area. For the three areas I’ve listed above, maybe I’ll do a Genius playlist on iTunes based on the following:
  • Sinful indulgence = “Justify My Love” by Madonna
  • Alone + feeling content = “Peng!” by Iron & Wine
  • Friends + good times = “Suddenly I See” by KT Tunstall
Then I’ll listen to these playlists as I write. This does two things for me:
  1. It keeps me from falling into a rut of writing a certain way. For years, I would write almost exclusively to jazz. No matter the assignment, I’d break out Miles Davis or Chick Corea. But I've learned that if I were writing lines for a motorcycle videogame, “Kind of Blue” might not put me in the same frame of mind as “Wildflower” by the Cult.
  2. It lets me stumble upon (and steal) ideas. While doing this playlist exercise a couple days ago, I was listening to an Iron & Wine song and heard the lyrics “the Pearly Gates have some eloquent graffiti.” I’d never really noticed that line before, and the word “eloquent” fit really well with what I was writing. Not sure I would have stumble upon it if I hadn’t been listening to “The Trapeze Artist.”

James and the Giant Red Cube

We're always happy to showcase work from former portfolio students on this blog. This comes from James Wood, a copywriter at EnergyBBDO in Chicago.

It's a fantastic effort, and I hope it's inspiring to students that they could have something like this in the books within a year of leaving portfolio school.

(Full disclosure: I was assigned to be James' mentor during his second year at the VCU Brandcenter. And the creative director on this piece was my first boss, Kevin Lynch.)

Is your concept...

I was reading something the other day and wrote down these three words on a sticky note. I really wish I could remember what I was reading so I could give the person proper credit. I think it was about fiction writing. Maybe. I must be getting old. Anyway, whoever's thoughts these were, they're good.

When you're judging your concepts, trying to decide if they're good or not, ask yourself these three questions:

1) Is it Concrete?
Is it clearly communicating? Is it tangible? If you're doing a radio spot, can you picture the scene? If it's a headline, is it sharp? Does it conjure an image? Specifics are what make something concrete.

2) Is it Unexpected? This should be obvious. Don't be derivative. And don't be weird for the sake of weird, but your concept should be surprising in some way. Surprises tickle the brain (that's a good thing).

3) Is it Emotional?
This doesn't mean it has to be a weeper. But it should conjure some emotion--humor, amazement, nostalgia. Emotional and logical are not mutually exclusive. A surprising fact or logical twist also tickles the brain, and that's a type of emotion.

Control Freaks, Part 2

A few posts ago, I wrote about the virtues of being a control freak (a humble, respectful control freak, that is).

You've probably seen the new OK Go video "This Too Shall Pass." If not, take a look. You'll enjoy it.

Be sure to check out the four-part making-of video featured below. Damian Kulash is definitely a control freak. I'm betting in a good way.

Kulash did everything from write the two paragraph synopsis to buy trophies at the flea market. He could have handed the idea over to the Syyn Labs people, who obviously knew more about the process. Instead, he got all control freaky.

So why is he a control freak in a good way? Well, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. But the clue for me is that he's collaborating. He seems willing to learn. He's surrounding himself by really smart people and listening to their ideas. Plus his dad seems proud of him.

Take ownership of your ideas. Immerse yourself in the details. Be respectful and open-minded. Listen, but take responsibility. I think you've got to be a control freak on hand to pull off something of this magnitude, whether it's a music video, a double-page spread, a :30 spot or an iPhone app.

Permeating Pop Culture

A few posts back, I wrote about the Old Spice commercial. Here's how you know you've made it big.