How to make your creative portfolio stand out

A guide from London creative leaders on what they look for in job applicants' portfolios.

Portfolio: can be any shape, size or form
Portfolio: can be any shape, size or form

Your creative portfolio is crucial when searching for a job in advertising. A portfolio or book can come in any shape or size, but the best ones demonstrate inventive thinking that stands out in the crowd. 

So how do you make a portfolio that could get your foot in the door? Campaign asked the decision-makers at London agencies what they look for when hiring creative talent. 

Prove your ingenious thinking 

Stu Outhwaite-Noel, chief creative officer, Creature

The title "advertising creative" is confusing and never helps when attempting to explain what we look for in a great portfolio. "Problem solvers", "lateral thinkers", "professional empathisers", "behaviour adjusters" get us a little closer. But for the sake of word count, let’s crack on with "creative thinkers". For the very best student book showcases your ingenious thinking. Thinking that delights, surprises, amuses. Thinking that comes from the left field. Thinking that I’ve never thought of before. The kind of thinking I want thinking in my agency. 

So how to prove you’re full of great thinking? 

Well, in theory, anything goes. A book can come in any shape or size with any kind of idea expressed, but after 16 years of doing book crits still nothing beats a bunch of strategically stonking and creatively delightful campaigns for eight brands of your choosing.  

Go online or walk around a supermarket or high street and write down every brand you want to have a think about. Think of ways of making people reappraise them and bring that thinking to life in inventive and emotionally manipulative ways. Make people cry, laugh, pause for thought, but at the very least care. Do that about eight times over, put it all in a leather-bound book or PDF or website, and bring it in to show me. I’ll tell you it’s mostly all rubbish, but also tell you why. And then you just go away and do it again and keep coming back until your book is good enough (for good enough is as good as it’ll get) to get you a placement, where you’ll put all that ingenious, mischievous, unexpected and delightful thinking to work on real briefs. It really is that easy. Promise. So go get thinking and get in touch –

Don’t be precious

Ben Heap, head of creative resource, Mother London

If the idea is strong, then a pencil and paper are enough to get it across. Craft skills develop with time and experience, but no amount of glitter can disguise a bad idea.   

Don’t be precious. Today’s portfolio will evolve the more agencies you see. Different people have different tastes; one person might love an idea and someone else hate it. Use feedback as a way to feel out agencies. It’s a two-way street – you’re looking for a place that brings out the best in you. 

Be creative in how you get noticed, but show you understand your audience too. And never forget your portfolio still needs to be up to scratch once you get the chance to show it.

Bring your point of view. We want to get to know you as much as we want to see your ideas. Dial up the confidence; you’ve little to lose and lots to gain. Think about what makes you different when presenting your work. Something that sticks with people can be a shortcut for making you and your book memorable.

Make it yours

Steve Howell, creative partner, Dark Horses

A good book is now a good website, so don’t underestimate the need for a polished site.  Those that look bad or are too hard to navigate ultimately reflect on the creativity of the person who made it. Make your site as memorable as the work it contains. 

As for the work itself, I still look for great strategy, unexpected thinking, a passion for craft and work that makes me jealous that I hadn’t thought of it myself. A campaign of three print ads is still the fastest way to demonstrate all these criteria, but I want to see other media as well. 

Finally, if you’re seeing lots of creatives and they’re all giving their critique, your portfolio can quickly become a maelstrom of other people’s ideas. Listen to the advice you believe makes your work better and ignore the rest. Because I want your portfolio to be yours. 

Be the candidate we didn’t even know we were looking for

Raph Basckin, group creative director, Droga5 London

It wasn’t my portfolio that got me my first job in advertising. My employers were more impressed by the fact that I owned my own laptop. But let’s assume you aim to work somewhere that has plenty of computers already. Here are three tips to make sure your portfolio gets you there.

Be honest with yourself
Your book full of ads is actually an ad for you. And the best ads tell you just enough to make you want to find out more. Or, to put it another way, the worst portfolios are a chronological assembly of every assignment you scraped through at college on one URL. Getting your book ready for the market is one of the few chances life offers to reinvent yourself. Go back and fix up projects you feel you could have done better. Re-edit all the films. If you haven’t studied advertising, then speak to people in the industry about what they would need to see before you ask them for a job or set you a brief. Remember, we don’t care what marks you got at ad school. Frankly, we don’t care if you even went to ad school, high school or puppy school, as long as you show us that you know what good work is. 

Get the insights out for us to see
Good agencies want people whose thinking is distinctive. That applies to young people in particular. The deal is that you get a foot in the door and the occasional stuffed-crust pizza and we get a human who sees the world in a way that’s unique. The concepts are the most important thing in your book, but what we love seeing is what you realised before you arrived at that solution. What were you thinking about that made you laugh-sneeze Diet Cherry Coke all over your keyboard? What did you say that made your partner look up from their phone? To solve any problem creatively, you have to reframe it. Show us how you did it.  

Make it as easy as possible for us to get through
You may think we casually flick through your book on our phones in the amount of time it takes to eat a yoghurt at a red traffic light, but let me assure you, at Droga5 Shelley [Smoler] and I take portfolio viewing deadly seriously. We are a young agency that relies heavily on discovering fresh talent, so we are going to read through everything. Do us a favour in return and get to the point quickly. Make the book user-friendly and easy to navigate. A good reference for how to present information when you’re not around to explain it yourself is to look at how agencies enter their work into award shows such as Cannes Lions. You need your site to be distinctive enough to be remembered, but neutral enough so that it shows off your work. I admit, it’s a tricky balance. On the bright side, proofreading is easy.