9 Portfolio Night Chats Later

Last night was Portfolio Night 7, a worldwide event where young advertising creatives get to show their books to crusty Creative Directors to get advice and criticism. It was my first Portfolio Night. Normally I see portfolios one and at a time and therefore give one crazy monologue at a time. Not last night. I gave 9 lunatic monologues while recent graduates of Seneca, Ad School and OCAD scribbled furiously in little books or stared at me. I suspect that my non-Canadian accent provided some difficulty to the kids from the suburbs (which is entirely my own fault, being a dirty foreigner).


Seeing 9 random portfolios in a row I noticed kept saying the same things. I endeavoured to be original, but there are a couple of realities that needed to be repeated until my brain hurt. I figured I may as well repeat them here one more time to save myself the effort in the future. For the next few days this will be relevant.

Firstly, I have basic disagreement with the way young creatives portfolios are assessed in Toronto. Too much emphasis is placed on tight, developed ideas and not enough on craft. I've had this argument with a few locals. They say that "ideas" are the gauge of a young creative, craft can be learned. I say that you either have "art" or you do not. Idea skills can be learned (ask Gerry Human) but you'll never surprise me if there is no spark. A good idea executed typically is typical. Craft elevates communication (The Copy Book & The Art Direction Book are testaments to this belief). Why would we pressure the most pliable minds in the industry into delivering meat and potatoes ideas? That's what experienced teams are for. Youngsters are meant to play and make things, pushing the old-timers, not doing their jobs for them. Talented young creatives need to be able to MAKE things. Creative Directors are meant to guide and shape the ideas.

  • Repeated Advice 01: More craft. (We create things where there was nothing before. It might as well be stuff worth reading and looking at.) I got great advice when I started: You're an Art Director, Art Direct! Try stuff, make mistakes, play, experiment, surprise, scare and screw up. Sure, have a couple of straight ads and designs to prove you remember where a logo typically goes, but don't rely on the Adobe CS4 tools defaults. Be inspired by everything but ads. And force your will upon CS4. It's desktop publishing design hell. Powerfully easy and it makes us lazy. Be better than the software. And writers, create samples across channels to demonstrate your command of language and tone. The best writers I know all did Literature at university, they read a lot. Read more.

  • Repeated Advice 02: Too many print ads. Yes, that's what school gave you. Print is a good way to learn your craft and now it's time to expand across multiple channels. I have spent the last 3 years selling campaigns with deep social media components. The work we make is designed to be shared, useful, PR-able, conversational. Young creatives eat and breath social and yet none of the 9 people I saw last night applied what they practice to their portfolios. Their idea of digital was limited to iPhone Apps and microsites (a year after Modernista! dismantled the website). I can lay blame on a few doorsteps for this, but rapid understanding of social marketing is the only way to be relevant. Every young creative should be naturally light years of their CD and demonstrate some of that in their book.

  • Repeated Advice 03: Make things that people would talk about, experience or share. It's the Alex Bogusky test and it's a good one.

  • Repeated Advice 04: Lighten up. Work hard off but remember that if you aren't entertained, nobody else will be.

I'm sure there was more bad advice I could hand out but we only had 15 minutes to inspire or horrify portfolio carriers. I find my own output increasingly difficult to categorise and I expect that from the best young talent. Which is the point of Portfolio Night.

If you want to add some insights or obvious advice, please do.