How to Pick a Portfolio School - updated July 17, 2015


Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts about portfolio schools. As Director of Student Affairs for the VCU Brandcenter, my POV may be a bit biased but hopefully some of this advice will be helpful. I’ll start by saying a few quick things about the VCU Brandcenter (I can’t help myself!) and then I’ll focus on portfolio schools in general.

The first thing our faculty, students, and alums will tell you about that Brandcenter is that we don’t consider ourselves to be a portfolio school. The Brandcenter is a comprehensive graduate advertising program focused on creativity, commerce (remember, advertising is a business!), collaboration, and culture. We have five tracks (Copywriting, Art Direction, Strategy, Creative Brand Management, and Experience Design), and while the students work together in cross-functional teams, each student develops an expertise in his/her individual track. Assignments at the Brandcenter are as realistic and practical as possible including actual "real world" assignments from companies like Google, Barnes & Noble, Audi, and HBO who've asked Brandcenter students to work on some of their most challenging marketing issues. Students are supervised by full-time faculty who’ve all had successful careers as Creative Directors, Planning Directors, Agency Presidents, Designers, Directors, and Editors. Most of our faculty members continue to work or consult in their field in addition to teaching. Brandcenter students earn a Master of Science degree in Business/Branding from Virginia Commonwealth University. Our students tell us the Master’s degree is important to them, more for the long-term, as it may give them an advantage if they choose to take on management roles or teach at the college level in the future. All of that said, the VCU Brandcenter is often included in the portfolio school “category" b/c all of our students (brand management, strategy, creative, and experience design) graduate with portfolios that showcase their strategic and creative thinking abilities. Our copywriters and art directors are often competing for jobs against graduates of Miami Ad School, Creative Circus, Chicago Portfolio School, and Portfolio Center. So, if you’re thinking about attending one of these schools, here are the questions I would ask each portfolio school you apply to (and if they don’t have the answers, that’s a red flag!)

Answers for the VCU Brandcenter are below each question so you’ve got one school’s answers already! 

1.) What is your school’s job placement rate? (That’s why you’re going back to school, right? Most students go to a portfolio school to get a job in advertising vs. to continue on with a Ph.D in advertising.)
The VCU Brandcenter’s job placement rate is consistently 97% within 6 months of graduation. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of job placement rate using the Class of 2015 as an example. For reference, they graduated on May 9, 2015.
Job placement by graduation (May 9) = 25%
Job placement by June 1st = 56%
Job placement by July 1st = 83%

2.)  Can I see a list of where your most recent grads got jobs? (It’s important to see which agencies/companies currently recruit from the school. Who will be recruiting YOU when it’s time for you to graduate?)
Here’s a list of where the VCU Brandcenter Class of 2015 is getting jobs. All of the best agencies are on the list but it’s also important to note that brands like Facebook, Apple, Google, IBM, Coca-Cola, Capital One, Nike, etc. are also recruiting Brandcenter students and alums.

3.) What does the school do to help students get jobs? (Your portfolio/work is important but so are the connections your school has to the industry.)
The Brandcenter hosts a Recruiter Session event each April for recruiters to come meet our graduating students. Over the past 5 years, we’ve consistently had 200+ recruiters from the best agencies in the country attend our event. That’s more than a 2:1 ratio of recruiters to students! Check out who attended in April. 

4.) Can I see the portfolios of your most recent grads? (Look at the “end product” of your investment. Check out the graduates’ portfolios. Are you impressed by their work? Are you envious of their  portfolios? Hopefully, the answer is “yes!")

5.) What does the school do to help students get summer internships? (I’m sure most grad programs talk about internships, but how many curate the opportunities and facilitate the application process for you?)
During the summer between the 1st and 2nd year of the Brandcenter program, the school facilitates PAID internships at some of the best agencies/ companies all over the US.  We curate all the available opportunities and our students can search the opportunities by agency/company, location or job title.  You can see where the Class of 2016 is interning this summer here. Internships are a great way to apply what you learned in school in the real world and make valuable industry connections. 

6.)  Who are your faculty? (How many of them are full-time vs. adjuncts who have other full-time jobs? How many of them actually worked and/or continue to work in our industry?)

7.)  Do you have salary data for your alums? (You are making a huge investment in yourself and the school you choose to attend. What’s the ROI (return on investment) going to be?)

8.) Why do recruiters and creative directors say they like to hire graduates from your school? (What recruiters and CDs think about the school is important. They are the “gatekeepers” to your dream job.)

9.) Do you stay engaged with your alumni? (Again, grad school is an investment so make sure you choose one that will “pay dividends” long after you’ve graduated.)
Your relationship with the VCU Brandcenter doesn’t end when you graduate. Being that we are a small, elite program, we stay in close touch with our alums. And, our alums stay in close touch with each other helping one another interview, network, etc. We keep a job postings board for our alums so they have access to the newest job openings from agencies and companies all over the world. We also feature the work our alums are doing and we share their work and accolades with our industry contacts.  Check out a few of these recent projects from our alums.

10.) Why do so many Brandcenter alums end up marrying each other? 
I have no idea but it’s one of my favorite “statistics” about our students/alums. We always joke that we should make our recruiting strategy something like, “Come to the Brandcenter to get an amazing portfolio and job + find your soulmate.” 

Makinads is an amazing resource so keep reading what these guys have to say. You may also want to check out books like Pick Me (by Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin) and Hey Whipple, Squeeze This (by Luke Sullivan) and Breaking In: How to Build a Portfolio that Will Get You Hired (by Burks Spencer.) Good luck to all of you as you pursue careers in advertising! Hopefully, I’ll see some of you at the VCU Brandcenter one day!

Ashley Sommardahl
VCU Brandcenter / Director of Student Affairs and Industry Outreach / 804-827-8874 direct / 103 S. Jefferson Street, Richmond, VA 23284
This year's Cannes Grand Prix Winners have been announced. It's worth checking them out here.

As you view these, here's something to keep in mind: A few years ago, I posted an idea by Gideon Amichay who was the ECD at Y&R Tel Aviv at the time. You can read the post here. But the Cliffs Notes are that while creative is a good thing to strive for, brilliant is better, different better still, and innovative is the Holy Grail.

Volvo's "Epic Split," which won the Cyber Grand Prix and Film Grand Prix is creative, brilliant and different. But maybe not innovative. Same can be said about the Harvey Nichols "Sorry, I Spent It On Myself" campaign, which won the Promo/Activation, Press, Integrated, Film Grand Prix.

I'm not knocking either of these. They're both fantastic. But it shows how incredibly difficult it is to be innovative in advertising. Even the best pieces in the world have a hard time reaching that mark.

This year's Direct Grand Prix is from British Airways. And this year's Cyber Grand Prix is Pharrell Williams's "24 Hours of Happy."

Both of these, in my mind, hit the innovative bull's eye. Pharrell's video especially, because it reminds us that it's not just agencies like Goodby and Wieden and BBH and Jung von Matt that are competing for eyeballs. In the Attention Economy isn't driven by copywriters and art directors alone.

Advertising Lessons from OK Go

This is the new video from OK Go.

What does this have to do with advertising? Plenty.

In this post, I talk about how you need to have something surprising in your portfolio. These guys are always working to surprise.

In this post, I talk about the virtues of being a control freak when it comes to producing great work. You couldn't pull off a video like this without being a control freak. Or putting one in charge.

And in this article, AdAge points out that they're not just a band. They've become a brand. And probably a stronger one than some traditional companies.

#The50 Things Every Creative Should Know

If you're fresh out of portfolio school and looking for work, take the time to read #The50 Things Every Creative Should Know by Jamie Wieck.

The ones I wish I'd known:
#29 Negotiate
#30 Read contracts
#34 Embrace limitations
#36 Boring problems lead to boring solutions

The ones I wish the juniors whose books I see knew:
#9 Curate your work
#11 Make your work easy to see
#13 Time is precious: Get to the point
#39 Justify your decisions

Barbara Tuchman's Craft

Barbara Tuchman is not a copywriter. She is a writer of history. This is the opening paragraph of her famous book on World War I, The Guns of August:
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
This paragraph is her most famous. It took her eight hours to write. How much time do you spend crafting your writing?

Austin Kleon's Books

Read these. They're full of really good advice for people working in a creative industry. It'll take you 90 minutes to get through both of them. The first (Steal) is about how the work of others can help you find your voice. The second (Show) is about connecting with others by sharing your work (your process of work, not just the finished product).

Hating Everything the Most Doesn't Make You the Best

My friend Peter is very opinionated. Sometimes he seems like a crank. I used to think he hated everything. Then I realized he also loved some really bad things. And some really good things. I noticed a method to his madness: he said he liked the things he liked, and he said he didn't like the things he didn't like. It didn't matter to him what other people thought. I respect Peter's opinion. I don't always agree, but I very much respect it.

There are other people I know (who shall not be named) who think that everything is shit. At least, they SAY they think everything is shit. With those people, I don't care about their opinion. Two reasons, really:
1) I already know what they think about whatever. They think it's shit.
2) They're lying.

I don't think anyone actually hates everything. But I do think in a creative industry where it's important to have high standards, there can become a kind of competition. A pressure to have the highest standards. And who has the highest standards? The person who doesn't like anything? They must have the highest standards, right?

It can seem like that person's opinion would become the most important opinion in the room. Because if they ever do like something, it must really be good, obviously. But that's not true. First of all, to my point above, hating everything makes your opinion irrelevant and people start disregarding it altogether. Second, that "everything sucks" attitude is usually the result of trying to win the non-existent high-standards contest, caring too much what others think of what you think, or just an unfortunate psychological predisposition. All of those are bad.

Don't love everything. Everything is not good. In fact, most stuff is not good. Have high standards. But base those on what you think (maybe with some good reasons as to why you think it). Don't worry about what other people think you think. And don't try to impress them with your mythically high standards.  Don't be a hater.

* Peter is not a crank. He's a great guy.

Advice To Juniors

"There's always too much to do in advertising. If you're willing to do anything that somebody asks, you're going to wind up getting opportunities. And if you don't mess up, they'll give you more."
- Alex Bogusky

So you really think it would be cool to live in California?

"Why do you love her?"
"Because she lives in my town." 

This is one of those posts that makes me worry I'm going to come off as some cranky old coot. But I still think it's good advice.

If you're interviewing with an agency, and the person asks you what you're looking for, as in like a job, or what you're seeking in life, that's really another way of asking "why do you want to come work at our agency?" So please don't let your first answer be, "I really want to live in California."

That may be true. California has its perks. But there are 1400 ad agencies in California. There are 26,000 creative companies. And there are 12.2 million available jobs, not including couch surfing. So answering that you want to move to California, while it's a fine lifestyle choice, isn't what your interviewer wants to hear. It's one step above a shrug and a mumbled "Dunno."

Maybe say something work related, for starters. You're looking to go to a place that does amazing creative? You want to learn and grow? You just want to make cool shit? That at least narrows it down a little. It implies something about the why you and the agency you're talking to are a good match beyond its physical location.