Life Story

What I Learned from Building My Student Ad Portfolio

8 min read

Jeremy Carson is an Associate Creative Director, working in the design and advertising industry for 15 years.

I didn’t know any secret tips, so my college portfolio-building experience was pretty similar to most people at the time. I went through a Bachelor of Fine Arts program with a couple dozen others. Over the course of a few years, we spent most of our time creating the work that would fill our books, but as we approached our final days, it came time to actually putting it all together into that majestic collection that would get us our dream jobs. That process was full of Xacto knife scars, piles of scrap paper and test prints, and wayyyyyyyy too many midnight Del Taco runs.

It’s significantly easier to assemble an actual portfolio these days compared to the dark age, but lots of the same challenges are faced by modern creatives. Sure, you may not have to lug around a 30-pound portfolio case laden with dozens of matte-board mounted ads, but the same questions arise that we all had.

How many pieces do I put in my book? Can I show student work? How do I know my portfolio is ready to send to agencies?

I thought that it might be interesting to explore my process from back in the day, to really understand what challenges are universal and which ones have gone extinct.

Can I Include Student Work?

I had a slightly different start in the industry than most people. See, my father has had a marketing agency of his own long before I was more than a twinkle in his eye. That was lucky for me, because around high school, when I showed a knack for design, he was happy to throw a few projects my way. Technically, I’ve been working in the industry since I was 15.

Sure, those projects gave me some great real-world experience, but they weren’t the most creatively challenging pieces. So, like any aspiring creative, school/student/spec projects became the best representations of my ability. And I was so proud of them. Like a parent wanting to put their child’s art on the refrigerator.

The problem was, you look at student work and you KNOW that it’s student work. Besides the sheer craft, there’s something about it that screams “I had nobody to answer to!”

Now, any agency pro could’ve looked at my portfolio and deduced that I wasn’t really making ads and designing for these clients. So, I took my real-world experience from my dad’s agency and figured out what makes real client work look different from student work.

There were some obvious things: better photography, better lines, nicer design. I did what I could with that, designed my heart out, but other resources were limited. I didn’t even have a writing partner.

(Oh, that was actually important: I had to learn to write better. Sure, I was a designer, soon-to-be art director, but unlike some ad schools, mine didn’t teach copywriting, so I didn’t have a copywriter partner. In the end, I learned to hold my own when it came to headlines, but I’ve found that copywriting, in the creative sense, is a unique and incredibly difficult art. Now I can tell when an art director writes a line and when a writer takes a crack at it.)

Anyway, there were some less obvious things, things that are and continue to be the bane of our existence as creatives. For example, legal copy, body copy, product prominence, product strategy, and directives like “make the logo bigger” are at the forefront of any working creative’s mind. So, rather than scoffing at those, I looked for the truth in them and integrated those thoughts into my own work. After a while, I realized that “product strategy and “make the logo bigger” simply meant “make sure this connects to the brand.” When I realized that there was a reason for those various annoyances, my work started feeling less student-y and more believable.

But here’s the kicker: Once I’d been working for a couple years, I found out that, in the end, every agency pro can tell if your work is not “real,” but they don’t care.

Your student work is the result of you being able to do anything, without anyone telling you what key metrics of success the ad has or what the new product is that we have to push. It should be the strongest, most creative work you will do in the near future.

But, if an agency doesn’t have to teach you the difference between student work and “real” work, then they won’t have to treat you like a student. So, don’t be afraid to include student work. Just don’t make it feel like student work.

What’s My Gimmick?

There’s a story about Lee Clow, one of the godfather’s of advertising. As it goes, he wanted to get hired by Jay Chiat and Guy Day, just like everyone else. So, to get their attention, he bought the billboard right outside their office and posted a simple message: “Hire Lee Clow.”

This was simply one part of his “Hire the Hairy” campaign that supposedly got him his long-term position at one of the most creative agencies out there. Beyond the billboard, it included stickers in parking spots at the office, a bearded jack-in-the-box, and other guerilla marketing tactics before guerilla marketing was a thing.

Now, when I heard that story, I had dozens of ideas pop into my head about how I could stand out from the crowd. Some of the better ones were:

  • Sitting outside the lobby in a kiddie pool filled with Bud Light.
  • Drawing caricatures of every person as they walked in and hand them out when they left.
  • Making business cards out of glass.
  • Skywriting my name.
  • Sending a singing telegram to their office to sing my cover letter.

There’s a longer list somewhere. But, as I ran these ideas by my parents, professors, and a few professionals I knew, there was a unanimous response: are you insane?

Better put, it was pointed out to me that these were just ridiculous ways of getting attention. And that’s what they’d remember me as: a ridiculous attention-getter. Did I want to be that to them? Or did I want to be a potential creative? Someone that didn’t rely upon insane shock value stunts to sell myself, but rather, truly creative ideas.

Lee Clow’s tactics were innovative. Nobody had thought of “guerilla marketing” before. And that showed Chiat/Day that he was someone who could market himself well, so he could probably do the same for their clients. Today, some people are doing it right. (Like the guy who bought all the search terms for creative directors who Googled themselves. So, when they Google their own name, an ad directing them to his portfolio would pop up.) There are ways to do it right, but they’re so very few and far between.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t do any of those things. I wasn’t completely insane. I printed out multiple copies of my portfolio and hit the pavement, dropping one off at every agency I could think of. Did that help me? Not a bit.

How did I get my first agency job? It was a recommendation from someone who believed in my creativity. Not my gimmicks. But that’s another story for another time.

What Should I Put in My Portfolio?

To really nail my portfolio, I took a class called “Workshop” with a great professor: Tor. (Yep, this guy was a surfing, Norse-god-looking, creative powerhouse.) What Tor taught us was a lot of what I’m writing here.

Near the end of the course, Tor showed us the intricacies of pacing and packing your portfolio. What I was really curious about is a question that almost everyone else in the class had: How many projects should I include?

I wanted to put it all in. Because every project was my baby. In my eyes, every single thing I worked on rivaled that of Van Gogh or Da Vinci. So how could it be that I didn’t put every single piece front and center? I mean, wouldn’t everyone else want to see my masterpieces? The answer wasn’t as simple as I was hoping. My mistake was thinking that my portfolio was purely about showing everything I could do.

I took all my work and laid it out in front of me. (Remember, this was during that time when we actually had to print out our projects. On paper. Like animals.) Tor brought me through my entire repertoire, cutting projects here and there, pointing out where I could improve, etc. But ultimately Tor revealed something that only comes with years of experience.

The truth was: what I put in my portfolio had little to do with me and more to do with the people reviewing it.

If I wanted to have any chance of breaking through to an agency, I had to put my ego aside. I needed to take a look from the agency’s perspective and think about what they needed to see, not what i wanted to show them.

Can You Sell Yourself?

Advertising is about selling something. That something isn’t always the product. Sometimes it’s the feeling it gives you or the aspiration that you could change your life for the better, and this thing has some way to help you do that. Ultimately, you have to figure out how to sell something someone doesn’t have to someone that may or may not need it.

So, can you do that for yourself? Can you sell yourself?

By the time I put together my portfolio, it was a great representation of my personality as a creative. It was clean, well-crafted, thought out, and interesting. At least, that’s what I wanted people to perceive me as. That’s what I wanted to sell myself as.

I had to think of my portfolio (and really the whole “getting-a-job” process) as the ultimate student project. I had no restrictions, nobody telling me I had to do something a certain way. I had to take everything I’d learned and apply it in a way that was uniquely me, but took my audience into consideration.

Building my book was an arduous task. My fingers are still scarred from cutting matte board and my stomach never truly recovered from the hundreds of Del Taco feasts we ate. I never got it right. It was never perfect. But that’s fine. Nobody’s ever is. If it was perfect, then I wouldn’t have had anything to learn. I could walk into an agency and they’d hire me on the spot.

Nope, I had a lot of rejections. Even more people completely ignored me. But that was part of the process. I learned from it all. Every step.

And now I’m trying to pass that knowledge onto you. Will you listen? Hopefully. But don’t expect instant perfection. You’ll figure it out along the way.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this, say hello on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, or Email.


Also published on Medium.