Navigate / search

Advice to Students on Putting a Book Together.

Interview Hell, extra crispy
(INTERVIEW HELL, extra crispy version)

Your portfolio is the only way an agency knows how good you are at solving problems creatively. You get one shot.

That said, I’d like to dole out a little advice on the kinds of projects I think prudent to put in your first advertising portfolio.

First off, no public service stuff.  Sorry, I wanna save animals as much as the next guy, but it’s just too easy to do wowzer ads for clients with names like “Let’s Stop Stomping on Kittens.”  (And yes, I know, back in the ‘80s, I did some ads for PETA and won awards for ‘em, but …  but … that was just different. Anyway, shut up.)

Next, don’t do any work for brands that are doing great work. Even if you do come up with a cool concept, your interviewer will likely compare your work to the famous work, which isn’t good. So, no Nike, no VW, no Apple.

Choose instead a real brand that could use some great advertising. Some middle-of-the-road product or service, one that’s running a lot of mediocre advertising. Like, say PetSmart. Or an airline or a bank or a line of power tools.

I’ll also caution you against picking products that are already interesting, in and of themselves. Sure, it’d be fun to do ads for, say, PlayStation 19’s Direct Retinal Control system but as my old friend Bob Barrie says, it’s better to “do something interesting for a boring brand.”

Choose also a service or product that you don’t have to explain. (“Well, ya see, it’s this thing shaped like a dodecahedron that attaches to the…”) If you first have to explain your weird niche product, you’re already playing catch up.

And lastly, don’t work on brands that scream “I’m a campaign in a student book!” Energy drinks, no. Hot sauces, no. Duct tape, no. Every single student in the space-time continuum is doing ads on these. Also, I implore you, please, no pee-pee jokes, potty humor, and for the love of God, no condoms. All of these things have been done to death. You won’t just be beating a dead horse. You’ll be beating the dust from the crumbling rocks of the fossilized bones of an extinct species of pre-horse crushed between two glaciers in the Precambrian Age.

(I stole that last paragraph from Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. Sue me.)



If there were no ad schools, the One Show annuals still just might be enough.

Hall of Fame copywriter Tom McElligott hired me as a copywriter in January of 1979. (Insert age joke here. “Ha, ha, that was so funny. No really, that I’m old and everything.”)

Aaaanyhoo, Tom didn’t have much work for me during that first month, so he parked me in a conference room with a three-foot-tall stack of award annuals; books full of the best advertising on the planet: the One Show and Communication Arts awards annuals (the December issues).

He told me to read them. “Read them all.”

He called them “the graduate school of advertising.” He was right, and I say the same thing to kids trying to get into the business today. You need to study these books. If you purport to be a student of advertising, you need to drop everything right now and go get a three-foot-tall stack of your own and read, read, and read.

Yes, I’m aware this is a business where we try to break rules, but as T.S. Eliot said, “It’s not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.” More on that later.

Fact is, it’s entirely possible you could circumvent ad school entirely and create an interview-ready portfolio with nothing but these books and a whole lot of coffee.  Because you’d be studying The Masters, studying people way better than you are right now, people who have their craft down to an art and are at the peak of their creative powers.

The books are in fact expensive and so you’ll have to find them at libraries, used book stores, online, or through friends in the business. And while it’s possible to peruse the One Show’s archives online, perusing is defined popularly as “looking over in a casual or cursory manner.” I want you to peruse People magazine; the annuals you need to actually read.

Yes, you could see much of this work online, but to study it the way I’m talkin’ about, looking at stuff online this long will kill your neck. By studying I mean total immersion; curling up with a One Show annual for hours and hours and just inhaling the work. Concentrating on the work so hard that when the phone rings you come back from a daze, blinking as you adjust from the brilliance you’ve just left in the land where things are done perfectly, where spectacular ideas live one next to another. After swimming this deep and this long under a sea of brilliance, it starts to soak in and when you come out of the perfection, your fingers are wrinkled with creativity. This is how we learn. I don’t see any short cuts.

Now, there are people who say you don’t need award books and sometimes I’m one of them. Once you’ve learned the basics of the craft, once you’re in the business, well, at a certain point it is good to unmoor and sail into the unknown. I know plenty of ad superstars who disdain looking at books. All I can tell you is how I learned the craft, back when there were no ad schools. It was with these books.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

NOTE: The best awards shows in my opinion are the One Show and Communication Arts (its December issues), as well as the British D&AD annuals. For digital inspiration, you can peruse work at, the Webby’s and the SxSW interactive awards.