D&AD: Me and my portfolio

As an aspiring creative, your portfolio is the first impression an agency gets of you, so having a good book is essential. Three creative pairs tell Lucy Aitken how to shine.

Showing your first portfolio to time-pressed creative directors is a daunting process. Here are those brilliant ideas that you've sweated over, and there's a creative director flicking through your book as if it were a discarded magazine that they picked up on the Tube.

That's why it's crucial to have strong ideas that leap off the page. And who says ideas have to be presented in a two-dimensional way? Challenge your audience by being inventive.

The idea, of course, is everything. But an original way of executing it will show that you have got an imagination and that you're not afraid to use it and this can only boost your chances of standing out from the crowd.

It's worth bearing in mind that the choice of products in your portfolio will speak volumes about you. The teams here who have given the benefit of their varied experience recommend ditching the ideas for obvious products (for example, Duracell, condoms or Marmite) in favour of the kind of bigger-spending, bread-and-butter clients that most agencies have business from (soap powder, cars, pet food). It's solid advice.

A look at the client list of the top 30 London agencies will show you where most agencies earn their money: note the common sectors (FMCG companies, telecoms, supermarkets, banks) and use them as a springboard for ideas.

Finally, having a first-class portfolio means you don't need gimmicks.

Gimmicks won't make up for a boring book and are more than likely to test the patience of a busy creative. It's all in the book.

STEVEN MOSS 31, JOLYON FINCH 31 - AMV BBDO

We were 30 when we were hired by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO - ancient as far as first jobbers in this industry go. If you're old gits like us, putting a portfolio together and getting a job presents certain challenges.

First of all, you'll need a partner. But how do you get one if you've got a mortgage to pay? You can' t tell your boss to stick it and enrol at St Martin's or Watford.

Thankfully, D&AD runs an education programme where you can register to be sent competitive briefs for their workshops. The top 20 or so entrants get to spend six evenings presenting work at agencies in London or Manchester. While on the D&AD workshops, we heard about BaByDO, a project set up by Peter Souter, AMV's executive creative director, which offered a paid six-month placement for six hopefuls.

Here is some advice we found useful when putting our book together: start and end with a show-stopper.

Don't Mac up work. Ideas will get you hired. Polish won't.

Don't pick products such as "the longest-lasting battery" that sell themselves.

How would you advertise soap powder?

Try to include something different. We had a "what if?" section at the back which included things such as an invention to eliminate odd socks.

Pick a few agencies you think you'd like to work at and visit them again and again. Be persistent. Our portfolio got us an interview for BaByDO.

But our creative director was worried that because we were older, we might dominate the other BaByDo creatives. He was also worried that, because we'd already been working for a few years, we wouldn't be able to get by on the money he was offering. The next day he found a cut-out of Stanley Matthews on his desk. On it was written: "Stanley Matthews was a team player until he was 50. And he never earned more than £50 a week."

Don't be too tricksy. We heard of one guy who turned up for a book crit with a bunch of helium balloons, each with an idea inside it. He handed the creative director a pin and expected him to pop each balloon: not great if you're trying to impress someone short on time.

BaByDO gave us the opportunity to break away from our jobs and the space to learn and grow. Without it we would have had to go on the dole to make ourselves available. At other agencies, we'd be given a desk if someone were on holiday. At AMV, we were introduced to everyone and made welcome.

We were given our own office, proper briefings and presented work direct to clients. Unfortunately, there aren't many agencies out there offering similar schemes.

Finally, don't give up: it is worth the stress and late nights. Nine to five-ing sucks. Daydreaming rocks.

ZAC ELLIS 30, RICHARD LITTLER 31 - RKCR/Y&R

In 1996, we left Staffordshire University and headed for London, armed with a portfolio of what our tutors considered to be great ads.

They, however, taught graphic design. After spending ten minutes with a senior team at Ogilvy & Mather, we realised that the best place for our book was in the bin, so we started again, this time getting advice from people who do ads. After 90 book crits, (yes, 90) our portfolio was shaping up nicely.

Go to see teams whose work you admire. Read D&AD annuals, Viz and Woody Allen. Go to The Tate, listen to comedy and visit a strip club. Soak it up. It makes that blank piece of layout pad slightly less daunting.

So, what makes a good portfolio? We think killer strategies do. Take the most mundane product and find something relevant, interesting and fresh to say about it. Don't pick things you'd find in the Gadget Shop, pick stuff that agencies actually advertise, such as a car, a soft drink, a cereal or an airline. Then surprise, engage and entertain your audience.

If a piece of music or a novel changes the way you feel or think, then you'll probably remember it. The same applies to ads.

Keep things simple. Our spec book contains seven poster/press campaigns, all drawn up by hand, most of them in black and white. And it's fast.

Ads have to communicate quickly and, after all, no creative director has the time to browse leisurely through a student book, reading every piece of lovingly crafted copy.

When teams give advice, listen and take notes. Go away and digest what they've had to say and soon you'll work out who's talking sense.

We remember a junior team who were asked to give advice to a group of students on how to get a job in advertising. The talk went well and shortly after, the team were called into the creative director's office. They marched in confident of a hefty pay rise, only to be told they weren't cutting it and to collect their P45s on the way out. Turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us.

JO FOREL 22, PETTER LUBLIN 26 - MOTHER

Go to see creatives at agencies. Loads of them. Don't put it off until the final term of your third year just because it's scary. You're going to have to do it eventually and we found that it was ten times better to see teams throughout our final year. We didn't have the pressure to get a job right that second as we were still studying, meaning we could just gather all the advice we received and then decide what to do with it.

That's another thing: the more people you see, the more advice you get, and the more confused. We wrote everything down.

You will get a load of different opinions: a book of ads is a really subjective thing. Obviously, if everyone you see hates one campaign, it might be good to take a hint, but generally, look at the people who are giving the advice. Go for the agencies you like, the people whose work you look up to, the places you can see yourself working at.

It's hard to get to see a creative director, so start off by seeing a middleweight team, the people with enough influence in the agency to recommend teams for placements. If they like you, they will get your book in front of the creative director.

We had a mix of brands in our first book, from bookstores and coffee shops to dog food and the RSPCA. To be honest, though, we don't think it makes much difference what you choose to advertise, it's how you do it. Just don't go for cliched, studenty products such as condoms or Marmite, or products with a really obvious USP, as you'll only cause yourself unnecessary grief.

We found that doing work that wasn't solely TV and print ideas really worked for us. We came up with ideas for wallpaper, tablecloths for cafes, packaging for tablets, a snow-spray stencil kit for a snowboarding store.

We did a lot of ambient work, made some of them up and took them around with our book. Some of them became business cards, which we left with the teams who gave us crits. Just imagine how many books teams see every week. Do something they'll remember.

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