The student ad portfolio is broken

pulsepointThis is the fourth story in the “New Agency Model” series, which is sponsored by PulsePoint, a leading provider of next-gen programmatic and content marketing solutions.


Every spring, a fresh crop of young ad school graduates make their way to big cities to interview for a handful of open positions. Many bring along freshly minted ad portfolios, now mostly stored on laptops or iPads, eager to show potential employers how they think and what they have learned about the world of advertising.

But what’s in those portfolios isn’t necessarily what the company is hoping to see. That’s because the entire portfolio model — a “book” that contains a sampling across a range of work — is difficult, if not impossible, to translate in a marketing world that is increasingly about building things, coming up with nimble and ephemeral executions across social platforms, and figuring out partnerships in emerging areas like the sharing economy.

That means the portfolio, even modernized with digital ideas, can often leave potential agency bosses in the dark.

“Portfolios now contain app ideas, experiential stunts, short-film scripts and real-time marketing ideas,” said Lars Bastholm, currently the global CCO at Rosetta. “It’s great, but it makes it hard to judge whether a student can come up with long-lasting brand ideas, or just random one-offs.”

Even worse, the multitude of digital channels means many students treat the portfolio like a Chinese menu: there’s one from column A, one from column B and another from column C.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, my portfolio has to have these things in it,” said John Militello, an executive creative director for Google.

Traditional portfolios often required hand-crafted mock print ads or copywriting clips showcasing a “big idea” in order to land a gig. Now, portfolio websites have become the norm, meaning work gets showcased in singular, slideshow-like sequences, often constraining the projects to one format, namely jpeg images.

“You can sense the tools that they’re using to display the work are in many cases what drives the content,” said Jason McCann, group creative director of AKQA. “If it’s on Behance or Carbonmade, it all starts to feel the same because people are using the same template to present it, versus a nice bespoke creation that works for that strategy and that campaign.”

One reason why ad portfolios may seem a bit scattered might be that students are taught to create campaigns in sections — one class for storyboarding television commercials, one class for producing digital media, one class for designing apps.

“You can tell they’re still being taught in channels versus solutions,” said McCann. “‘Here’s a print ad, here’s a TV ad.’ They’re told it’s a social campaign: ‘Come up with an app that does this.’ The work that you see from students feels like a directive from a class.”

Another issue may be that digital campaigns are harder sell than a singular message campaign like a print ad. Digital campaigns often have many different aspects to consider, such as timing, multiple-platform strategies, and different media. The complexity of the campaigns inherently requires more explanation. But they don’t have to.

“Pitching a social campaign or a campaign that has digital at a core might be more challenging — but if you find something that’s compelling about it, that should be just as easy to tell as a TV spot,” said McCann. “Students should just think of it like a presentation and boil it down to its essence.”

Google’s Militello, who is also a professor at the School of Visual Arts, offers a bit of advice for students looking to build a cohesive portfolio: think about the human target and what service you can provide them.

“We want students to go beyond this idea of integration and ask, ‘What purpose does this provide the user and what can I do to make the user’s life better?’ and then get deep into the brief,” said Militello. “‘What is that digital behavior that can help us come up with the creative so that it’s a sound creative strategy?’ That’s how you can go deeper and think before executing.”

Image via Flickr

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