Check out the work of Warren Brown.
What do you look for in a student portfolio? And what impresses you?
I look for clarity of thought. I like a combination of logic and madness. We work in an industry where we solve problems, and trying to define what is the problem that we’re actually trying to solve is quite often the biggest challenge. So I like people to have a very analytical way of approaching a problem and figure out what is important and what isn’t. If there’s a logic to the construct of your argument or idea, then you need to deliver it with a sense of irreverence and madness. And not fall into the trap of delivering it in a dry fashion that won’t catch anyone’s attention or get them interested. It’s a very “yin and yang” thing; if the fundamentals of the thinking are sound and given a “sticky wrapping,” then they will engage people.
That’s interesting that the problem is figuring out what the problem is. Is that something that you can see in the finished work? Or do you think it is helpful for students to write a sentence about the problem they are trying to solve? A setup line?
I think that’s key to how powerful your idea will be. There are two important things you need to be successful. First, find something interesting to say. That’s the basis of any great idea. And once you’ve identified that, it is important that you find an interesting way to say it. It’s very hard to be original if you can’t find something interesting to say initially, so I place a lot of emphasis on what that nugget is. I think most people, when they are given a brief, just rush headlong into trying to please the client without stepping back and saying, “What is the real issue here? What are we really trying to address?” The client will give you a set of challenges that they’d like to have met, but there might be an underlying thing that will wipe all those other concerns out and give you a much stronger steer on where you need to go to create a bigger impact or solve a problem that even the client hasn’t quite identified yet.
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What do you think of including personal work that isn’t advertising in a portfolio?
I have this question I normally ask people in interviews who are trying to impress you with how professional and buttoned down they are: “What’s the craziest, maddest thing you’ve ever done?” Because I think you need to know the personality of the person and also how far they are prepared to go to do something quite mad. If they’ve never done anything that is exciting or has gone against the accepted norms and conventions and busted out and done something wild, then I get a bit bored. So I like to think there is a strong personality there that is almost being wrestled into business. It’s like having a wild horse, and you’re sort of breaking it in to work in a more commercial sphere. I think great creative people are a little bit like that. They can be, not wild in their behavior, but really out there in their thinking, trying to commercialize that creativity and make it relevant to brands’ and clients’ problems is a fun challenge to have as a creative director. So I’d rather guide or channel people into that space. Trying to make people who think they are creative more creative is difficult. If they’re too buttoned down and wary of every client concern, then you’ll have a pretty dull creative department. You want a bit of a wild ride with a department that can come up with unexpected, single-minded, and effective ideas.
Can you think of any examples of remarkable junior portfolios?
Not specific examples. But what I normally find is students will have a book of maybe 30 pieces of work—about 10 campaigns with examples of how the idea works across different mediums or platforms. Because you want to see that they aren’t relying on just one good idea to get by. If they get knocked down, they need to show they’re able to get back up. If an idea they think is the best they’ve ever had gets killed, they need to come back the next day with something even better. Good people can do that. Not-so-good people will get crushed. But it’s important to have at the very least two or three things in the book that stand out.
John Hegarty explained [this] to me once when I was a junior in London showing him my book and he got to the end and he just smiled. And I thought, “This interview is going really well.” And he said, “You know Warren, I think you can be brilliant or terrible, but right now I don’t think you know the difference.” I’d rather see a book that is a bit up and down because people are exploring and trying. Just because you’ve got a few terrible things in there…failure isn’t a bad thing. And if you make people terrified of failure early on in their career, they’ll never be any good. People need to be adventurous. Experience in the business will help them to know when they are being terrible or good. But you should never be frightened of failing. They need that unfettered gush of creativity. Don’t rein it in or be too politically correct. But, on the other hand, don’t go out there and do attention-seeking stuff just for the sake of it because that won’t win any votes either.
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Are there any common mistakes that students make?
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Don’t ever give up. Usually you’ll get to a point where you think, “It’s too tough; I tried everything and nothing seems to work and I’m destined for failure.” That’s the time when everyone gives up. And that’s actually the time when you should keep going. You’ve just got to push through that barrier. The ones who keep going that little bit longer are the ones who succeed. No matter how tough you think it is, it’s always going to get tougher, and trust me, once you do get a job it’s way tougher still. You have to have the hide of a rhino. But if you can clearly identify the type of company you want to work in and the type of people you want to work with, it makes it a hell of a lot easier, and then it’s just down to dogged persistence. And if you try hard enough, you should be successful.