Close-Up: Budding adlanders step into the dragons' den

Portfolio Night gave ad grads a rare chance to impress the top creative directors. But did they succeed?

Tonight, you have the chance to have your work ripped to shreds by some of the biggest names in the industry."

Nervous laughter reverberated through Ogilvy's bar area as the agency's acting managing director, Will Awdry, welcomed a group of budding young creatives to Portfolio Night 8, a sort of speed-dating event for aspiring ad graduates.

But for these possible stars of the future, an evening and an opportunity like this really doesn't come along that often.

Launched in 2003, Portfolio Night was the brainchild of the Canadian advertising website ihaveanidea.org. The event has grown up to become the largest advertising portfolio review of its kind, allowing thousands of eager young students and post-grads to have their work assessed by the creative heads of some of the world's biggest agencies.

This year, 35 Portfolio Nights took place on the same day in 22 countries around the world, in cities including London, New York, Madrid, Jeddah and Caracas.

The London event saw 99 hopefuls make their way on specially chartered boats to Ogilvy's Canary Wharf headquarters, where they would present their books to 33 top creative directors, from Trevor Beattie, Brian Fraser and Russell Ramsey to Gerry Moira, Elspeth Lynn and Dave Trott.

The team to make the best impression on the night, earning themselves a two-week paid placement at Ogilvy, was Jin Su and Heidi Tang, a pairing of Chinese origin who recently graduated from Stockholm University and Central Saint Martins respectively.

"I was really taken aback by the breadth of talent on show," Alasdair Graham, the creative director of Ogilvy Advertising, says. "Not just in terms of the different disciplines that students seem to want to get into, but also in terms of the variety of backgrounds and cultures the grads had come from."

But was he taken aback by the quality of the work as well?

"A lot of the work was quite limited, but I think that was something I probably expected and can be changed over time," Graham says.

"The real problem in most cases was that the grads hadn't really thought enough about whether the brief that they had been set was right, so instead of challenging that, they just set about creating what they thought would be quite a cool solution. We really need people who question everything, and I didn't see enough of that."

Being part of such a large event certainly gave creative directors the perfect platform to gauge the new wave of grads coming through. Here, some of the creative directors involved share their views from the night and assess the talent on show.

GERRY MOIRA - Chairman and director of creativity, Euro RSCG London

"Build it and they will come" was the famous advice given to Kevin Costner in Field Of Dreams. The latest man to hear a similar calling was Will Awdry, the general panjandrum at Ogilvy and probably the nicest man in advertising.

Who else would be rash or generous enough to host Portfolio Night 2010 and summon the cream of London's creative elite to Canary Wharf to dispense advice and, in some cases, summary justice to around 100 student hopefuls?

Well, come they did. If the flotilla of boats that left the Embankment on that sunny afternoon had foundered, then it's questionable whether the UK ad industry could have continued.

Also questionable, it has to be said, was the quality of work on show. I know we all got a bit bored with the "all concept, no craft" Watford book, but now it's "all platform, no train".

There's no point expressing an idea in every conceivable Twitteration if it's not very compelling in the first place. That said, you have to admire the courage and tenacity of these youngsters, most of whom do not have English as their mother tongue.

They have picked the toughest time and market in which to find a job. What's more, they paid £20 for the privilege of being judged by London's finest. (Although I did spot Trevor Beattie reimbursing his students.) I hope they got their money's worth and I wish them the best of British.

BRIAN FRASER - Executive creative director, McCann London

Only having ten-to-15 minutes per student meant it was a bit like speed-dating.

Overall, I would say that the standard of the work was a bit disappointing.

I was surprised by how safe the work felt. Not enough danger or originality. If you're putting a book of work together today, you have to stand out and find your own voice more than ever. When times are hard, my God, you have to try even harder.

Talent alone isn't enough - resilience and the desire to keep going again and again is what's required if these kids are going to get a job in this market.

I was also struck by the difference between the UK and the overseas work in terms of presentation. The UK work was just basically books of ideas, while the overseas work was a bit more thought out in terms of tone of voice and art direction.

CHARLIE WILSON - Creative director, OgilvyOne

I thought it was a great night. Although there was a fair showing from people who couldn't speak English and a few who plainly didn't understand the language of advertising either, I found it really worthwhile and occasionally quite refreshing.

It's far too seldom that us creative directors get to see the emerging talent that is emanating from our colleges.

One thing in particular struck me, though. Too many were chasing the latest fashions in our industry without truly understanding the basics. A bit like a chef trying to dazzle you with a daurade royale without knowing how to boil an egg.

I saw everything from apps to websites to well-kerned typography. Some had shot their own ads. Some had even filmed their own ads.

What so many of them failed to understand was that we don't need to see that. We can and will teach them all of those things.

But what we will gladly pay good money for is good, creative, strategic thinking. Evidence that they can solve a problem. In an original, surprising and, above all, simple way.

And all you need is a black marker and a white pad to demonstrate that.

RUSSELL RAMSEY - Executive creative director, JWT London

There was an extremely diverse set of talent on show on the night, which was really pleasing to see. One grad I spoke to had already written 20 radio scripts, while others may have thrived in digital or press.

There was an element, though, of some people almost trying to be too clever. What we really need to see is more problem-solvers, not just people doing stuff because they think they're being smart.

These grads just showed me, then, that they were very clever but that they couldn't channel it in the right way. It's all very well being able to express a message, but not if that message is wrong in the first place.

What did impress me, though, was the complete spectrum of people who came over from other countries because they were attracted to and wanted to work in the UK ad industry - and I think that still says a lot.

You saw it particularly in the girls who were given the placement at the end of the night. They were polished, professional and their work for brands such as Converse was very strong.

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