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.

What Committees Do

Our friend at Graphicology is redesigning the flags of the United States on his blog. This post gives a brief and interesting history on the Arkansas flag. He shows how this...

Became this...

Someone needed to add a fourth star so one group wouldn't be offended. And, of course, the name of the state had to be prominent in case couldn't figure out which state the flag belonged to. It's pretty amusing to see that we're not the only ones who've had clients giving their suggestions and mandates to clutter up clean design.

Jumping to Execution

In the last year or so, I've seen a major increase in the polished case study videos that students do. Pretty professional case studies, for events and programs and guerilla stunts that never happened (though you wouldn't know it from the slick comps and videos). I do plenty of these in my job. They're a pain in the ass to do. So when I see students who can crank them out, part of me thinks "Yes! We should hire this person so I don't have to make these damn things anymore." But usually I think "Nice case study. Too bad the idea's not that good."

This past quarter, after a student presented his first round ideas with full-on comps in a seven-page deck, I asked him, "How long did it take you to build that deck?" Thinking I was complimenting his skills, he smiled and said, "Not very long. Like an hour and a half." To which I said, "That's an hour and a half you could have spent coming up with better ideas."

I have given this advice over and over, and each year I feel like I'm shouting it into a stronger, louder wind of technology and "paperless" schools: DO NOT CONCEPT ON A COMPUTER.

If you don't want to kill trees, awesome. Reuse the back sides of paper. One of my former instructors, a creative Jedi who really loves trees, Jelly Helm, suggests cutting your reused sheets of paper into quarters. However you do it, write your ideas down. Headlines too. Write them. With a pen or pencil or marker. On paper. Your brain works differently when you do this. You're less likely to edit your ideas when you have to turn the pencil around and actually erase something. And that's good--you shouldn't be editing at the beginning. Just coming up with ideas, writing them down, and sticking them up on the wall. Lots of them. Like 100 or more. Then, and only then, pick your best and refine them. Make them better. Generate more.

When you jump to the computer, you're skipping to execution. You're cheating yourself out of the most important part of the project. You're skimping on the idea. And you might end up with a nice looking video or well-executed comp, but if the idea's not awesome, it doesn't matter.


This has nothing to do with ads. But we're always fans of side projects.

I first heard about Jon Chonko's project, Scanwiches a few years ago. But only recently did I hear his interview on NPR's Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal and find out that he'd turned Scanwiches into a book.

Just a nice example of a side-project that built momentum over the years.

How to Spend Your Christmas Break

My first Christmas break in portfolio school was great. I crossed several states to return home. I relaxed. I snowboarded. I read. I didn't think about advertising at all.

Then I went back to portfolio school in January. And I was rusty. Really rusty. Not because I'd taken a break from advertising. But because I'd taken a break from writing. And maybe even thinking.

As you head into the holidays, take a break. You probably deserve it. Step back from advertising. But don't step back from your craft.

If you're a writer, continue to write. Doesn't have to be headlines or taglines or anything for a school assignment. But write.

If you're an art director, draw, paint, sketch, or sculpt some snowmen. Whatever. But keep using your hands, and your brains.

Do ad schools turn out the best talent?

If you're a student in a portfolio school, you need to watch this video on

Sorry I can't embed it. But I've got to say I agree with a lot of what they say. (Craft is often neglected, junior creatives struggle to create "scaleable" work, a lot of schools turn out a vanilla product, etc.)

You should spend eight minutes watching then, then go back and reassess your book.

I'm curious to know what some of you portfolio school students think about this. Love to hear your comments.


I often emphasize to my classes the importance of changing up your routine, particularly when you're in a concepting rut. Take a walk. Work somewhere else. Change the music you're listening to. If you've been writing for a while, try solving your problem by drawing.

Today, I came across this TED video that confirms the importance of doodles. Sunni Brown is speaking specifically about doodling in meetings as a way to enhance your focus, but her point about it engaging your brain in a different way is true not just when you're trying to file stuff away, but when you're digging around trying to get stuff out too.

So the next time you're turning an idea every which way, remember to turn your brain every which way as well. And don't forget, if you're a writer and your doodling produces something interesting, please submit it to Illustrated by Copywriters.

Seven Reasons We Forget The Work Is All That Matters

  1. Client Fear. We think we know the client so well, we kill our own ideas (or allow them to be killed) based on what we imagine they will and won't like.
  2. Organization Fetish. We become more concerned with the presentation of the work than the work itself.
  3. Bullet Points. We come up with a list of reasons to explain why the idea works instead of just letting it work or die on its own merit. 
  4. Production Lust. The client greenlights an idea, and we get so excited about getting something produced that we stop working on it.
  5. Politics. We think it's either our right or our turn to get something produced. Either we're so senior we just expect the work to happen. Or we're junior enough to believe that we deserve to get thrown a bone.
  6. The Internal Editor Goes to Lunch. We're trained early on to produce tons and tons and tons of ideas. And that's very good training (at least according to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule). But sometimes we think that since we came up with lots of ideas, at most of them deserve to be loved.
  7. Technique Love. We confuse a cool technique with a good idea.
Sally Hogshead says brilliant ideas are fragile. Any wonder why so many good ones are extinguished, pulverized, or simply passed over?

Ideas vs. Idea-like Things

I want to give a shout out to my friends at The Richards Group who made the following commercial. I don't normally share work like this, but I want to make a point. Here's the Fiat spot my friends made.

And here's a different Fiat spot. Not sure who made it.

I bet this JLo ad was fun to make. It was probably exciting to sell through to the client. The creative team probably got to meet her. And it was probably cool to shoot all those people running from so many angles.

But a good idea will always, always trump borrowed interest. Always.

And as Luke Sullivan says in his book, it takes just as much time and energy to make a good TV commercial as it does to make a bad one.

On Being Dependable

We had a new business pitch last week. If you've ever been through a new business pitch, you know that it's a strange kind of animal. When I'm asked which creatives do I want on my pitch team, the characteristic that's usually at the top of my list is dependability.

Creatives are cut a lot of slack. We're allowed to be disorganized. Late for meetings. A little flighty. I think this is a disservice to us. We shouldn't be allowed to be those things. And when it comes to a new business pitch, those things can be deadly.

With this pitch, I was fortunate to have a very dependable team. It also happened to be a team with a lot of young people, several who had never been through a new business pitch before. But here's what I saw from them:

1) They followed direction.
2) They kept pushing ideas.
3) They came to meetings. They were on time.
4) They didn't waste time bitching about how f'ed up things were. Maybe this was because they aren't the kind to bitch, or maybe because they didn't have enough experience to know that it was f'ed--new business pitches are always f'ed to some degree.
5) They didn't draw lines as to whose idea was whose. We were all in it together.
6) They often asked, "What can I do?"
7) They didn't draw lines as to whose job was whose. If it needed doing, they'd do it.
8) They kept a good attitude. Even the art director who worked all day Sunday until 7:30 Monday morning, then went home for a shower and came back two hours later to work some more had a smile on her face.
9) They spoke their mind, but realized that once a decision was made, we were all moving in that direction. They didn't take criticism or killed work personally.

Being able to depend on someone to come up with a great idea is important. I'd obviously want that as well. But in a pitch, when half the battle is about process, about being efficient and getting through it all without killing each other, these other nine kinds of dependable are just as important.

How to Double Your Salary

This post isn't really about money. But I'm going to talk about it to make a point.

Years ago I was the writer on a certain campaign. We shot five spots with a man who was (probably still is) one of the best directors in the industry. The ideas were on strategy so the client loved them. The spots were creative so the agency loved them. And the production was pretty high-end with a lot of props and visual effects so they were fun spots for everyone to make.

When we wrapped, my producer turned to me and said, "Congratulations. You just doubled your salary." I asked what he meant, and he said, "Put this stuff on your reel, and wherever you go next, expect twice as much as you're getting now." This was before anything was even edited. We had barely started to listen to music for the spots.

But that's pretty much what happened. The spots were better than anything I had on my reel at the time, and they got some national recognition. So when I took another job a few years later, I was able to ask for almost twice as much.

(Let me pause to say that you should never take a job for money. Never. It can be a factor. It can be something you earn. But never let it be your motivation. Take a job you don't like and no number on your paycheck can comfort you if you're waking up every day thinking, "Crap. I have to go to work.")

But this post isn't about doubling your money. It's about putting yourself in a position to do the kind of work that you and your agency can be proud of. Money is just a convenient metric for determining the value of your work.

I was very lucky to be the writer on that campaign. I was lucky to be at an agency that championed great work, even when the clients didn't. I was lucky to have a partner who wanted to make the work better, and a creative director who knew how to make it better. I was lucky to be on this particular assignment because for every great campaign they let us do, we had to produce eight terrible ones. They weren't Nike. So getting this particular assignment was just dumb luck. And that sometimes happens, too.

But if you're not at that kind of agency, with that kind of partner, and that kind of creative director, it makes it more difficult to double your salary. To say nothing of doing great work.

So give yourself as many opportunities to luck out as you can.


Our friend Brian Thibodeau is currently teaching at The Chicago Portfolio School. (He's a VCU Brandcenter grad who's worked at The Martin Agency and now Ogilvy.) Brian recently launched a new blog called Look@Things for his art direction class. He's got great taste and a knack for seeking out eye candy and inspiration. So give it a peak.

(Brian's also the guy who sends us new headers for the blog. Check out his latest.)

Where Ideas Come From

Just a fun reminder that new ideas are really just unexpected combinations of existing ones.

What Occupy Wall Street Could Learn From Ad Folks

I wrote a post on my other blog over the weekend about the Occupy Wall Street's lack of clear messaging and how they might improve it by asking themselves the questions we ask ourselves each time we're trying to sell something. Greg asked me to post it here. Here's a link to it: The Message has an Occupy Wall Street Problem.

European Advertising

Here's a presentation I gave a few months ago. Hope you enjoy it.

And if you're interested in working overseas, click here to check out a free ebook that might help you get started.

Warning: Your Portfolio May End in 2012

I've been reviewing a lot of student portfolios lately. And I have seen a lot of student campaigns about how [insert product here] will help you survive the end of the world that the Aztec calendar predicts will happen in 2012.

Let's all move on.

No more student campaigns about armageddon in 2012.

I Can't Say Negative Words Aren't Bad

There are those who believe you shouldn't use negative words in advertising because it will repel the audience and decrease sales.

This philosophy isn't concerned with subject matter, but actual words. Words like not, shouldn't, don’t, and even but. These words, some believe, should be strictly avoided.

This is nonsense. Don’t buy it.

Here is a positive statement: I LOVE to hurt puppies and kittens.
Here is a negative statement: People who hurt puppies and kittens are NOT good people.

Generally, I think sentences are more interesting when you replace the word “but” with “and.” But as the following statements demonstrate, it doesn’t always work.

Here is a positive statement: I lost all of my money, AND I had to declare bankruptcy.
Here is a negative statement: I lost all of my money, BUT I won the lottery the next day.

Since the One Show’s book, Advertising’s Ten Best of the Decade, 1980-1990 is within reach as I write this, let's go old school for a minute and look at some classic ads that never would have survived the Don’t Use Negative Words philosophy. (Apologies for the Dutch-angle scanning.)

Chances are, had you not been looking for them, you never would have noticed the "negative" words in these ads. You'd merely have seen them as clear and interesting pieces of communication.

Some may say, Fine. But isn't it better to try and write headlines that don't use negative words just as a precaution? Maybe. But your job as a writer shouldn't be to avoid using certain words. It should be to write clear and compelling copy.

How's Your Bookkeeping?

Someone calls today. They have an opening for your dream job at your dream agency. They want you to send your book tonight. Is your book ready to send? I'm not talking about "ready" as in having all the fantastic, award-winning campaigns you plan to do in the next couple years. I mean "ready" like do you actually have something tangible to send. A link? A pdf?

Unfortunately, this scenario, where a person has to quickly put their book together, happens more frequently when there are layoffs. After the shock, denial, and anger, there's the panicked, mad scramble to call editors, art directors and whoever else might have the files you need to put your book together.

This is very easily avoided with some simple organization. After you finish a project, get the files. Get them in the format you need for your book or reel. It's not hard, but it's surprising how many people don't do this. And it should go without saying, keep a backup of your portfolio somewhere.

Aside from your portfolio pieces, I'd recommend keeping records of a few other things. Not all the work you do will go into your book, but that doesn't mean it's worthless. Here are a few things I'd keep on file or in a document:

1) Awards. Which awards, what year, for what project.

2) Productions. What have you shot and who did you shoot with? Or which developers did you work with on a website? You might want to work with them again, or recommend them to someone else in a couple years. Some people can remember all this stuff. I'm not one of them. I have a list.

3) Projects. Just keep a running list of every project you work on. It might seem excessive, but when you're 10 years into your career and your agency is working on bios for a pitch, you might need to remember that you do in fact have some soft drink experience--you did a promotional print campaign for Shasta six years ago.

4) Job titles. When you get a promotion or switch jobs, just note the month and year. Again, seems like something you would obviously be able to remember. Then all of a sudden you've been working in the industry for 12 years, have held seven different job titles at five different agencies and it's all a little mushy. It helps to know specifics when you put your resume together.

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.

Cool = Surprises

We all want to make cool ads, right? Cool digital stuff. Cool TV stuff. Cool print, packaging, and even letterhead and table tents (if they're cool enough). Cool goes viral, gets talked about, gets rewarded. Cool will be the difference between a book that gets hired and one that gets sent back.

But what does cool mean? How do you create cool?

For me, cool = surprises.

When you see something you weren't expecting, something you hadn't anticipated, that's pretty cool.

When the mundane suddenly becomes fresh and interesting, that's pretty cool.

When something you've seen a million times before (say a marching band or a Rube Goldberg machine) is presented in such a way you think Why didn't I think of that?, that's pretty cool.

You've probably seen these three videos from OK Go. Just like you've probably seen their latest video All Is Not Lost.

But go ahead and watch them again. And notice how many things you find genuinely surprising. It's those surprise that make these videos cool.

2011 Mercury Finalists Announced

Finalists for the Radio Mercury Awards were announced today. To listen to the spots, click here.

Here are just a few things that continue to fascinate me about radio:

  1. You can do anything. Anything you want the listener to see, they will see. And because they're creating the images, they'll see it perfectly.
  2. While it's fun to collaborate with a director, a line producer, a full film crew, cast, an editor and a music house to produce a piece of film, it's just as fun to work with a sound engineer, and some talented actors to make something just as memorable.
  3. There's no medium where a writer can have this much control and this much fun.
  4. That said, the very best art directors I've worked with knew how to make great radio, cared what it sounded like, and had their names on the credits.
  5. You get about 80 words for a :30, and 155 for a :60. Radio was Twitter before there was Twitter.

Perspective in Advertising

Ten years ago, I went to bed really bummed that one of my ads didn't make it into the Communication Arts annual. The next day, it was September 11, 2001, and getting into CA didn't seem like a big deal.

Advertising can be a lot of fun. And we're lucky to be in this industry. But it's important to keep things in perspective.

For a more detailed post on this story, click here.

It's the Music Stupid, Part V

Art directors, writers, learn how to use music. The right track is usually the thin line separating prettying good from great.

Created by London-based Johnny Kelly.

Two Ways to Be Great

As far as I know, there are really two paths to doing great work:

1. Be great at what you do.
2. Surround yourself with people who are great at what they do.

In my experience, most people (but not all) who pick Path #1 end up coming across as prima donnas, douches, and tyrants. People who follow Path #2 (and genuinely try to contribute) seem to have more fun, more opportunities, and produce the best work. Ultimately, they end up in the place the Path #1-ers wanted to be anyway.

Tor Myhren on Radical Collaboration

In case you haven't seen this (it's currently on the home page of Creativity), it's worth 18 minutes - especially since those of us in the U.S. have a three-day weekend. Grey's President and CCO isn't the smoothest orator. But he's got a message worth hearing. And I love the success story of the E*Trade baby.

Four Quotes from Steve Jobs On Advertising

1. Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. (from Wired)

2. That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. (from BusinessWeek)

3. When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. (from Newsweek)

4. Innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea. (from BusinessWeek)

Props to Fuel Lines for compiling the full list.

Breaking In

I just came across this great resource if you're interested in getting tips on "breaking in" to advertising from some of the best creatives in the world.


Threadless by Jake Nickell

I have a book recommendation for you: might be the perfect example of how to launch a dot-com company in the post dot-com bust era. It was founded on a simple idea and a strong community—the idea of an “ongoing t-shirt design competition” in which the winning designs, selected by the community, would be produced. It also allows for community input—people can comment on submissions, make suggestions for improvement, etc. And the profits are shared between the company and the winning designers.

This book tells that story, from the early days in which the founders of Threadless were just a couple of design students, through the current state of the company, with a global following, 80 employees and a bricks and mortar store. But as Seth Godin puts it in his short description of Threadless, “This is not about t-shirts.” To him, it’s about an attitude, “about being willing to fail and relishing the idea of being different…If you page through this book, you’ll see example after example of love, art and joy…but not a lot of fear.”

In addition to capturing the Threadless history and philosophy, the book is a retrospective of some of the best designs, along with stories behind those. And this is where I find the most inspiration—flipping through and seeing all of the brilliant concepts.

I have an assignment that I like to give students in my advertising class once they have figured out how to do ads: Now make a t-shirt for your brand. Because beyond conveying a message, a t-shirt has to be something that people want to wear. Something they love enough to want to wear as a part of what identifies them. That’s a hard thing to do. But page after page in this book, I see dozens of examples of t-shirt designs that make me laugh, smile, or that I’d like to wear. And that’s inspiring.

Will I Have a Yoda?

When I started my career at Leo Burnett, I was fortunate to be assigned a great mentor. At Burnett, they called the mentors Yodas. My mentor, Dave, has a voice that sounds a little like Yoda, so that was a bonus (You can hear him in this spot for Heinz ketchup).

Greg wrote awhile back about The Mentor Effect. And as a part of Ad Age's series on the best places to work, they ran this piece by Celeste Gudas the other day. In it, she points out how important mentors are to creating a great place to work. She also points out that the more senior person can learn from the junior person, which is important.

So as you're looking for a job, maybe add to your list of questions, "Will I have a mentor? Who will it be?" The agency might not assign someone officially. If they don't, see if you can find an unofficial mentor.

Dear Sir: How Not To Approach Me

About once a week, I get an email from someone asking about job openings or looking for feedback on their portfolio. And back in the spring, I sifted through over 170 applications for our internship program. Through all of this, I've made a short list of ways not to approach someone when you're looking for a job. Check that--ways not to approach a creative kind of person. This probably doesn't apply if you're looking for a job at a bank.

1) The overly formal approach. "Dear Mr. Bosilajjajemcinavac, I am writing to request an informational interview with your firm. I believe I have the necessary skillset and experience to benefit your creative department blah blah blah." Yeah, this isn't a bank. Your job here will be to relate to normal people. Talk to me like I'm normal and you're normal.

2) The artist statement approach. "I burn with an passion for self-expression. Since my mother first handed me a box of crayons, I have never ceased to explore new avenues of art, performance, and creative thinking. I believe that we can touch souls with blah blah blah." To be honest, this person kind of scares me a little. Passion is good. Put it in a portfolio.

3) The crazy-ass weirdo approach. "I collect marmot figurines. Because if there's one thing I've learned, it's that you can never have enough marmots around. I will tell you this, though, do not feed them peanut butter. blah blah blah" I don't like weird for the sake of weird. Not in ads, not in introductions.

4) The overly egotistical approach. "My creativity is off the charts. If you're looking for a real go-getter who's ready to turn the ad industry on its head, you've found him. I was born for advertising. I lust after gold lions. blah blah." It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn't: Don't tell me how awesome you are. Let me see it in your book.

5) The blatant kiss-ass approach. Listing every ad my agency has done and then telling me that they're all tied as your favorite ads seems, well, like a big steamy pile of bullshit.

I'm not saying this to be a dick. Even when someone sends me an email that takes one of these approaches, I'll usually give them the benefit of the doubt. When I was in college, I submitted a short story to a magazine along with a letter telling them why it was perfect for their publication. The editor wrote a letter back that started something like: "Because you seem sincere, I'll give you this constructive criticism." He then went on to tell me the many ways my letter made me sound amateurish. That's all I mean here. Don't shoot yourself in the foot before you've stepped through the door.

So what do I like?

Again, an email that talks to me like a normal person. Tell me who you are or how you found me and a little about yourself. You can mention some of my/the agency's work if you truly do like it. It's nice to hear, but I don't give points for it. And then tell me what you're looking for--a job, feedback on work, whatever. If I was writing to Greg, I might say something like this:

Hi Greg-

I hope you don't mind me contacting you. I'm a regular reader of your blog and thought I'd reach out and see if you had a moment to take a look at my portfolio. I've just graduated from the copywriting track at VCU Brandcenter and am starting my job search. If you have a moment, I'd appreciate any feedback you can give. And if you like the work, I'd love to talk further about any openings at The Richards Group. Here's my link:

Thanks for your time.


Former Student Showcase: Troy Burrows

I met Troy Burrows about three years ago when he was a student at the Chicago Portfolio School. Now he's doing videos like these for Sharpie at DraftFCB in Chicago. (These were recently featured on Adweek's Ad of the Day.)

Pretty inspiring pieces. And pretty inspiring that you can go from student to this kind of work in such a short amount of time. High fives, Troy.

Should I Look For A New Job?

One of the trickiest of the questions I get from students and former students is "How do I know when I should find a new job?" It's an easy question if you're miserable at your current job (or if you've just been laid off or fired). But let's assume that you're happy at your current job. It can be hard to jump from a big comfortable ship. Let's also assume we're talking about really looking for a job, not just being open to new opportunities. I don't care how great a job you have, or how much they tell you that you're family, you should always be open to new opportunities.

But let's say we're talking about actively looking to set off for greener pastures. How do you know when it's the right time?

People will tell you various things. Find a new job if you're not producing anything. If you're not making enough money. If you're not selling good work. If you're not adding things to your portfolio. If you're surrounded by incompetence. If you're surrounded by assholes. If you're not getting the good assignments. If your office isn't big enough. If you have to work too many hours. If nobody else wants to work as hard as you.

I have a very simple answer: Find a new job when you've stopped growing.

Growth can come in different forms. Because I like diagrams, I've drawn out how I look at growth.

LEARNING. Are you in an environment that is helping to educate you? Are you regularly exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking? Do the people around you stimulate your curiosity? Are people in the agency good about sharing cool things they come across? Does the agency bring people in to give talks? Do they send you to conferences and award shows?

PRACTICE: Do you have enough work to keep you busy? And do you have enough time to really work through the problems you're working on? If you're a writer, do you have enough time to write 800 headlines? To come up with 100 concepts? This is sometimes a luxury you won't have, but making ads is like anything else--practice makes you better (and sitting in pointless meetings does not). Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, talks about how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to really master anything. How many hours are you spending actually working?

EXPERIMENTATION: Doing the same things over and over will make you better--at that one thing. Does your agency push you to try new things? Do you have opportunities to push yourself? Do you have the freedom to fail spectacularly? There's only one way to find out what you're capable of.

CREATION: Are you actually selling ideas and producing them? Producing ideas not only builds your portfolio (assuming you're producing good ideas), but it allows you to hone the skills of your craft. To fine tune. And having a finished product is good for the creative soul.

Ideally, you're firing on all cylinders. But there will be dry spells. There have been two times in my last eight years where I've gone an entire year without producing a tv spot. But during both of those times, I didn't jump ship because I felt like I was growing in other ways. That said, if you find that you've gone that long with nothing to show for it, meaning not the right kind of practice, or no chance to try something new and you don't feel like you're really learning anything, then it might be time to start shopping the ol' book around.

"Because I'm the Client."

There will be multiple times in your career when the client does not go with the agency recommend. They'll choose another director. A different illustrator. The execution they feel a little more comfortable with, even though the one you're recommending is all but guaranteed to get you a Lion at Cannes and have the country tweeting about their business.

To be fair, agencies should always be prepared for this. If we don't show bad work, our clients can't buy bad work. But sometimes we have a campaign, or director or promotional partner we're just dying to work with. And the client chooses the runner up. Or the runner up to the runner up. Ideally, we'd be happy with that. Because if it's on the rail, it's for sale.

But there might be times when the agency pushes back just a little. "Really? Are you sure you want to go with that campaign? Can you tell us why?"

A good client, who sees the agency as a partner will explain themselves. Even if they're not very clear, they'll try. "I just feel more comfortable with this director because he's got a lot more experience in our category." Or, "I think this campaign will resonate better with our target market.

But when the response is, "Because I'm the client," watch out. That's not too far off from a husband telling his wife to have his supper ready when he comes home from bowling with the guys "because I'm the man in this house."

"Because I'm the client."

Those are dangerous words. Because they state the obvious, explain nothing, and are an attempt to put you in (what they perceive to be) in your place.

Excavation Skills

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says creating a story is like uncovering a fossil. You uncover a little bit at a time, not really knowing exactly what you've got until it's unearthed.

I think the same could be said for headlines. Or TV scripts. Or even layouts and social media ideas. It's not just about writing. It's about going to work and excavating the thing and see what's there. You can't just assume that because you stumbled upon a bone there's a whole colony of plesiosaurs just below the surface.

Using the fossil metaphor, here's how I see a lot of students and junior teams presenting their ideas:

JUNIOR TEAM: We've found this dinosaur bone sticking out of the ground over there. It looks like it could be a cool dinosaur. But we'd also like to run around and look for more dinosaur bones.

CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Have you excavated the one you found?

JUNIOR TEAM: No. But we imagine there could be a whole skeleton underneath. It could be really cool.

CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Well, why don't you try excavating that dinosaur, since you've at least got a bone there.

JUNIOR TEAM: Okay. But we'd also like to run around looking for more bones.

Two skills that will make you a stronger creative are the ability to recognize a potentially great idea, and the ability to develop it to the point where you can prove that it's a great idea.

Speculation and hope only get you so far.

Negotiating Moving Expenses

A friend of mine recently asked my advice on negotiating moving expenses for a job. This advice won't help you build your portfolio, but it could be helpful if you're looking for work. So I've included sections from my email to him here:

I've received moving expenses three times in my career. The first was when I moved to Chicago for my first job. I think they gave me $2000, and I think I had to ask for it. I had no idea how or what I would be using it for. It was just kind of free money.

When I moved to Europe, it was a little more complicated, naturally. They paid the airfare for me and my whole family, another $7500 to move my stuff from Chicago, and fronted the money for the downpayment on my apartment (local laws required 3 months, so it came to  about $9000).

When I came back to the States, my current agency put me up in corporate housing for a month, but typically they would have only done it for a week (I was their first transocean move). I paid $5000 to move all my stuff from Europe to America, but negotiated to have the agency move my furniture from our old house in Chicago to our new place. (We'd rented our house in Chicago and kept it furnished.)

I think the key is to figure out what you need and then tell them and negotiate from there. Go on and get a quote on moving to your new city. If you're driving, figure gas money, and maybe even one night in a hotel. Just make your plans as if you were paying for it yourself, and ask the agency if they know any way to make it less expensive. I gave my current agency an estimate from, but they had a corporate account with a moving company that was less expensive, and I was fine using them.

When I moved to Europe, the agency offered $5000 to move, which I didn't think was going to be enough. I wrote to them and said, "Since you've flown me business class twice for interviews, I assume you'll fly my entire family business class when we move. How about you fly us all coach, and give me half the difference in moving expenses, which will be about $5000." The CEO wrote back and said he had planned to fly us coach, but could offer an additional $2500 to move, but no more, which was totally fine with me.

Be honest. Be fair. Negotiate for as much as you can. And realize that however much they're giving you is probably coming out of someone's Chirstmas bonus or the office holiday party.

Meditate On This

A recent article in Fast Company suggests that our ability to think creatively flows much better when we spend 12-20 minutes a day meditating. I'm no guru, but that's not hard for me to believe. Meditation has long been a daily ritual for David Lynch. And every how-to-be-creative book in the industry will tell you that part of the creative process is walking away from your projects and letting them stew in your subconscious.

I'm going to give this a try for the next few days - maybe even a few weeks. I'd like to see if I notice a difference in how creative I feel. Even more, I want to continue to fight the notion that I'm way too busy to take 12 minutes (0.833% of my day) to do absolutely nothing.

Fast Company lists some tips here that seem practical and not too hokey. If you give it a try, let us know how things go.

New Header

After four years, we've got a new header on the blog. Big thanks to its designer, Brian Thibodeau.

(We don't make any money off this site, but our fingers are crossed that the brands on the shield don't repay us for the high honor with a cease-and-desist order. We'd hate to be sued by a unicorn.)

The Creative Ham

Here's something I wish I'd had when I was graduating from portfolio school. It's a site called The Creative Ham, which is a working list of ad agencies by city. Everyone knows Goodby's in San Francisco and Wieden's in Portland. But if you really, really want to work in Denver or Philadelphia or Houston, their Forever Incomplete List of Agencies will give you a good start. There are great shops everywhere.

The Creative Ham was designed by Alex, a portfolio student about to graduate from The Book Shop. High-fives to Alex.

Four Years

Thanks for all your support. Considering most people don't stay at one agency this long, we count turning four a big achievement.

Something To Think About

This post from a fashion blog is interesting to me for two reasons.

1. I think it's true when it comes to fashion.

2. I think it's incredibly applicable and convincing when it comes to why execution of ideas matter. Ideas may matter more, but execution is not to be underestimated. (Please note, this applies more to working folks than students.)

Meet Your Competition

The Lürzer's Archive Student of the Year Award is open for voting. Check out the nominees. And if you're a first year portfolio school student, start trying to figure out how you're going to be nominated next year.

Want a promotion? Give yourself one first.

An alternate headline for this post could be, "Think for the job you want, not the job you have."

One of the best ways to make yourself invaluable and worthy of a promotion is to make your creative director's job as easy as possible. How do you do this? By thinking and working beyond your years.

When you get an assignment, tackle it as a team a level above you would. Take ownership of it. Solve problems before you see your CD rather than looking to them to solve them. An example of how to do this: "The client had concerns about X, and here's what we think is the best solution. What do you think?" An example of how not do this: "The client had concerns about X. What do we do?" (There are times when the latter is perfectly acceptable, like when you truly don't know what to do or there's a problem you don't know how to solve. If you already knew everything, you'd already be the CD. Because clearly CDs know everything.)

This may sound obvious, but trust me, saving your CD time by being a problem solver will get you noticed. And probably promoted.

A word of caution, however: do not overstep your bounds. This advice applies to your thinking, not to granting yourself authority you don't have.

Radio Mercury Awards Workshop

If you're a writer, and you'll be in the LA area on July 14th, you should go to this.

I went to one of these workshops as a junior writer. Well worth the money. Especially, since my agency paid the bill - something you might want to look into yourself.

Are You Part of the Talent Crisis?

I think the interviews coming out of Cannes are just as interesting as the winners. They might be more important, too.

Here's an interview with Ali Ali, the CD at Elephant Cairo. You've probably seen his "Never Say No to Panda" work.

He's got some interesting things to say on talent. Granted, it's an Egyptian view. Not everything he says will translate to job markets in Chicago or New York or LA. Or will it? Here's one of his more interesting quotes:

"Agencies need to downsize...You can't have a creative department of 40 people. I think that immediately means that 30 of them are not good."

What do you think of that?

Mike Cooley on the Creative Team

This quote is from Mike Cooley, guitarist in one of my favorite bands, Drive-By Truckers. It originally appeared in an interview with the Toronto Sun here.

How does the band function? As a democracy or with you and Patterson calling the shots?

There's not a lot of effort to it. We're all on the same page naturally. Most everybody's genuinely happy with what we're doing. And we're all mature enough to just roll with it and not inject our egos into the decision-making process unless it really does matter. I've found the quickest way to screw something up is to be too hands-on. There are people in this business who are complete control freaks, who can't stand for anything to go on without their presence and seal of approval. But I've never seen any evidence that being that way produces better results. Ever. In anything.

Go Brazilian

My friend Luis is a CD who's worked in the US and Mexico. Just the other day he told me the following story...

When he worked for a WPP agency, Neil French was the Worldwide Creative Director, and would have biannual creative reviews with agencies region by region and would select the best work for the agency portfolio. When the Mexican team presented their work, Neil picked one of their campaigns and commented on another. Then teams from other Latin American countries presented, and Neil would also choose one or two ideas. But when the Brazilians presented their ideas, he picked almost everything they had.

After the meeting, all the teams wanted to know how the Brazilians came up with so much great work. They said it was the way they concepted.

The Brazilians said they started off internally with a round of blue-skying the idea. Several teams came up with as many ideas in as many areas as they could. But then they narrowed that field down to their four best ideas, and set every team to work on those four. No team was coming up with new areas; they were mining what they had, even if it wasn't their idea to begin with. After that round, they narrowed it down again, picking their best four, and setting all teams on those. So what Neil French chose was a bunch of ultra-refined gems, not lucky strikes.

I think a lot of times when we concept, we start off just like the Brazilians, trying to come up with as many fresh ideas as we can. But I think that's where we tend to part ways. In rounds two, three and four, my experience is we're all still trying to cast our idea seeds broadly, hoping we come up with some news ideas that will be even bigger and brighter than the first ones.

Most creative departments in most agencies aren't going to revamp how they review work. But what would happen if you, as an individual CW or AD went Brazilian. What if you and your partner took the three or four most fertile ideas you had and then said, "Okay, what else can we do with these stories? How can we reach the same conclusion in a different framework? How else can this story be told?" Rather than coming up with a bunch of new ideas that may or may not fly, you could be refining and exploring areas you already know have merit.

Give it a try on your next few rounds. We'd be interest to know how it works for you.

And check out this older post from Jim. There's some interesting overlap with what he learned at SxSW and what the Brazilians are already doing.

Boutiques vs Behemoths

Jim Lansbury, a CD at RP3 Agency has some advice for portfolio grads on Big agency vs small shop was something I debated when I left school. There are pros and cons to both. Here’s one of Lansbury’s pros…

“Why think small? For starters, you’ll build your book a lot faster. Small agencies don’t have the luxury of putting multiple teams on every project. They don’t mine their juniors for ideas that don’t go anywhere, or worse yet, for ideas that someone else ends up taking credit for. They expect everyone to produce. And everyone does.  In a small shop, there are no bad groups or tough accounts to get stuck on. Everyone works on everything. (At least that’s how we do it here.)”

I've worked and had success at both big and small agencies. Which would you rather work at as a first job?

Funny is Hard

A lot of us get into advertising to make people laugh. We want to do funny spots like the moose ad for or the shark spot for Snickers. Check out Adweek's 18 Great Skittles Ads by TBWA, and you can't help but want to be on the funny wagon.

But I'm always reminded of something Luke Sullivan (a really funny guy) said. In his book, he says humor is a dialect, not a language. It's more important to be interesting than just funny.

Funny is good. But it's also really, really hard. And when you miss, it can be painful. Saturday Night Live hires some of the funniest writers in the country, and the show is still wildly hit-and-miss. Lots of weeks it's miss-and-miss.

In this article, Gerry Graf tells Creativity his thoughts on humor. If you've got an account, you should really read it.

Conan O'Brien's Guide to Creativity

Conan O’Brien has some great tips on creativity in this article from Fast Company. Worth reading in its entirety, but here are some of the highlights:

"Rehearsal is really key, because rehearsal is where everything is put up… I can look at some things on paper and say it's going to be great. But you see it on its feet and you just know it's not there. … That's the thing I can't stress enough."

"I'm very open to when things don't work. That becomes the fun."

"One of the qualities people like about what we're doing is that it can feel very loose. That's the biggest comment I get from everybody on this new show: You look like you've having so much fun. And the truth is you can't fake it."

"I do sympathize with how the batting average for writing good material is really tough, so at the very least I’m trying to create an atmosphere where failure is inevitable."

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.

New take on an old theme

This image was found here. A while back we featured a similar post here. We used triangles. But you get the idea.

Free Lobotomy by Tom Monahan

Just browsing around on issuu, I stumbled upon Tom Monahan's book The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy. This book is a classic, and I'm a little floored that Monahan's offering it for free. (For those who don't know Tom wrote the Advertising section for Communication Arts for years before passing the torch to Ernie Schenck.)

Enjoy the book. And pass on the good news. You can read it here, or on the official issuu page. Should be some great summer reading.