Creatives Should Build Knowledge, Not Books

When Looking at Prospective Hires, Business Savvy for Real Clients Trumps Flashy Portfolios

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Mike Wolfsohn
Mike Wolfsohn
"Mad Men" may be a TV show, but some themes -- such as the importance our industry places on portfolios -- hit close to home for creatives.

When last night's episode of "Mad Men" opened, we saw an aspiring copywriter presenting his portfolio of ripped-up magazine ads and page after page of monotonous ad copy to a disinterested Don Draper. And earlier in the season, we saw a scene in which an art director, referring to a publicity stunt on behalf of a client, posed an all-too familiar question: "How am I going to put this in my book?"

My experience with the process began in 1995 when I graduated from a small state college in New York and decided to pursue a career as a copywriter. After a few informational interviews, I quickly discovered the sense of utter worthlessness that came with not having a "book."

A book, I learned, was synonymous with a portfolio, which, from what I could tell, was an antiquated term for an expensive case that contained oversized, laminated, felt-backed prints of ads that had never been produced. Of the several thousand words of wisdom I was able to extract from the handful of creative directors who were kind enough to meet with me, "spec" and "book" seemed to account for nearly half.

After nine months of rejection, I landed a job at a small agency in Syracuse. It wasn't my paltry spec book that enabled me to secure the position, but rather an assignment given to me by the shop's creative director. He was the first department head who seemed more interested in my thought process than my lack of a monogrammed metal case. Naively, I thought the days of obsessing over my book were behind me; in reality, they had just begun.

At the time, portfolio schools were beginning their rise to prominence. My first two years of real-world experience were, in the eyes of most creative directors, less compelling than the two years of output recent portfolio-school graduates could display: books filled with spec ads for indigestion remedies, contraceptives, athletic shoes and snack foods. My work for the No. 2 manufacturer of electrical outlets and switches was, by all accounts, boring. It appeared that if I wanted to advance my career I would have to afford myself all the competitive advantages enjoyed by portfolio-school graduates.

In the years that followed, I met countless creatives who similarly feared that their books, though filled with real work for real clients, would limit their career opportunities.

Consequently, our collective efforts began to shift from doing what was best for our agency and its clients to doing what was best for our books. We rushed through full-day photo shoots in the hopes that there would be time to sneak in a shot for a spec ad. We sped through commercial edits so there would be ample opportunity to cut a longer version for our reels. We tore through client work so we could tend to spec campaigns for famous brands or local bars.

And when we had ideas that didn't involve traditional forms of media, we asked ourselves the same question Peggy's partner did: "How are we going to put this in our book?" After all, we had been trained to believe that our experience had no redeemable value if it didn't fit neatly in our portfolio cases.

Five years into my career, I realized that my pursuit of the book that would get me a position at a big-time agency had deprived me of learning the skills I would need to actually succeed at such a job. Not surprisingly, when I began focusing on what was best for my clients, the work was more frequently approved and more frequently produced. In the process of creating more real-world campaigns, I learned all the things that get overlooked when doing spec work-things that impact how a target audience other than agency creative directors responds to advertising.

By and large, though, creatives today continue to be obsessed with -- and corrupted by -- their books (which, of course, are now websites). And it's an obsession that continues to be counterproductive to creatives, agencies and clients. The good news: We have the ability to change that behavior. All we have to do is start prioritizing the steak over the sizzle.

Now that I'm in the position of hiring creatives, I'm convinced there's no correlation between the quality of a creative's website and his or her ability to contribute to an agency and its clients. Of all the freelancers I've hired, the ones with the best books have often been the least capable. Perhaps that's why they've invested so much time erecting a facade of talent.

And given the current economic climate, I'm probably not the only one who's less impressed by an art director's Flash intro or industry award than an art director or copywriter who can intelligently talk about a client's business. Sure, I love stunning typography and a clever headline as much as anyone, but they have no value in this business unless they're part of a thoughtful response to a brief. Someone who knows how to shift media strategies to reach new customers; reposition a brand in response to category trends; decrease the overall cost of an acquisition -- that's where the real value is.

Admittedly, many of the well-rounded, business-savvy creatives I've described have mediocre websites; but often it's because their portfolios are not their No. 1 priority. I recently spoke to a creative director friend who's looking for a new job. In my 15-year career, he's among the smartest and most talented people with whom I've worked. "How's the search going?" I asked. "Not well," he replied. "I've been told by numerous ECDs that I need to hire a stronger web designer for my site."

Bottom line: Let's not dismiss talent in favor of candidates who count a polished website among their top qualifications. After all, it's the person, not the website, that an agency hires.

Mike Wolfsohn is founder-chief creative officer at High Wide & Handsome.
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