See more in Portfolio

Everything You Need to Make the Perfect Creative Portfolio

6 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
LinkedIn Instagram TikTok 

Years ago, when portfolios were big black, cumbersome binder/folder/briefcase hybrid things, I graduated and decided to dive into the world of art direction and design. I thought I was ready, prepared, even. I was wrong. Oh so very very wrong.

Now, I’ve been working in the advertising industry for over a decade. I’ve even taught it during that time. All in all, I’ve seen hundreds of portfolios, from Don-Draper-Is-The-Most-I’ve-Been-Exposed-To-Advertising junior book to I-Worked-Alongside-Don-Draper-When-He-Was-An-Intern veteran portfolio.

In that range of portfolios, I’ve noticed that I wasn’t alone in my own assumptions of self-preparedness. What I’ve learned is that there are so many things that industry pros pick up along the way that juniors just aren’t taught in school. And when we look at portfolios, we judge them based upon these unspoken qualifications.

So, I wanted to unveil a few secrets you can use when building your book. Because these are the things that agencies just expect you to know...but never tell you about.

NOTE: I admit, this isn’t purely philanthropic. I’m tired of looking at portfolios that contain great work, but make it impossible to detect for some reason. If these secrets can make your life easier by making your portfolio better, then great. But this is probably 95% selfish.

Ok, here we go:

#0. Remember the Basics

I don’t feel like this is a real secret, which is why it doesn’t get a positive number.

It sounds ridiculous. It should go without saying. It should simply be understood. But unfortunately, it’s not.

Your portfolio should always start with: your name, title (art director, copywriter, designer, etc.), email (preferably something you didn’t create in high school), phone number, and the newest addition...LinkedIn url. One way or another, they’ll find you on LinkedIn (please, tell me you’re on LinkedIn), so make it easy on them. It’ll be subtly appreciated.

I can count on both my hands (and a couple friends’) the number of books I’ve seen that are missing more than one of these things. (Why would you submit your portfolio without any way to contact you? Guess you don’t really want the job.)

#1. Keep Descriptions Short

Ads are like a joke: if they have to be explained, they probably suck.

We all hope that our work speaks for itself. And when it’s in front of a creative director, it only has seconds to speak. So, don’t be surprised when that prologue you wrote (outlining every step of the process, the endless stages of revisions, and the countless concepts on the cutting room floor) is not read by...well, anyone.

Yep, that even means you, writers. Creative copywriters aren’t paid by the word. You’re evaluated on your ability to be witty and concise. Can your piece be read on a billboard while driving by at 70 mph? Understood at a glance while scrolling through your news feed? No? Then don’t expect me to sit and peruse the thesis describing your ad.

But it doesn’t matter if you’re art or copy. Advertising is not something most people sit around and absorb for more than seconds, maybe minutes at a time. It’s meant to be bite sized, easily digestible. So, keep your project descriptions short. Give us context and move on.

#2. Show Your Projects in Situ

There are lots of little details that can make your projects stand out from the crowd. Most of them are a waste of time, but a few actually make a difference. Taking a few minutes to comp your project in situ is one of those efforts that subconsciously puts your work on a different level.

Now, here’s a tip to put it over the top. Don’t just find the cleanest, most nondescript billboard or bus shelter to comp your print ad into. Using a photo with people and buildings makes it feel much more realistic.

And don’t forget digital work. Did you make a website? Show it in an iMac. An app? Throw it in an iPhone. Even a banner will benefit from being seen in a Safari window. And notice how they’re all Apple products I mentioned? Cater to your audience, people. 99% of creatives are slaves to Steve Jobs’ vision.

#3. How Many Featured Campaigns?

OK, let’s really get into the questions everyone asks, but never get a direct answer. How much work should you include in your book?

Featured campaigns are the centerpieces of your portfolio. These are the ones that you’re excited about, that you can talk about in interviews, the ones there’s a story behind.

So here’s how many: 2 to 3.

That’s two to three campaigns, because you don’t want to overload your book with too many blown-out pieces, but you need enough to show your ability to concept beyond simple executions.

But besides that, featured campaigns need to be your strongest work. More specifically, these are what you’d call “integrated campaigns” or “360 campaigns” or whatever buzzword agencies are using to describe a campaign that has legs. It’s when you’ve built out not only a single piece, but several executions, in multiple mediums, that are all tied together through a cohesive idea.

Remember, three print ads do not a campaign make. So when it comes to what exactly should be in a campaign, each should have a piece from at least 3 or more of these genres:

  • Print (pretty standard 3-execution series)
  • Video (could be TV or digital video, but identify it appropriately)
  • Digital Display (some kind of innovative use of technology in a banner)
  • Social Media (this could be a campaign unto itself)
  • Experiential (basically, something out in the real world)
  • Design (a pretty broad category, but usually something that looks good for the sake of it looking good)

#4. Show Your Range Projects

Beyond your featured campaigns, you need to fill out your portfolio. That’s where what I like to call “range projects” come in. These are, appropriately, pieces that show your range as a creative.

A good number for this is about 6 to 10 pieces.

You’ll probably note that I said “pieces.” That’s because these don’t have to be campaigns. This is where you throw in that simple print ad series you came up with or the quick long-form video you worked on. Maybe you have an amazing app idea. No idea where it goes? Welcome home, Dinder (that’s TInder for dogs), you belong in “range projects.”

#5. What's Your Passion Project?

But what about that music video you worked on? Or the photography series you shot in your free time? Those have their place, too...but show them sparingly.

These are your passion projects, and you shouldn’t have more than a couple (that’s two) in your book.

These pieces aren’t incredibly relevant to advertising, and likely have nothing to do with your focus as a creative. But what they are good for is showing your passion for creativity outside of your job.

Most of the time, a creative director will take a glance at these and get a feeling for who you are as a person and move along. But every once in awhile, they’ll really gravitate to them. You might have a shared interest or hobby that creates a connection. This could be the difference between you and the next applicant.

However, be careful. You’re playing with fire with these pieces. Use common sense and an outside critic to help decide if your choices are good enough to include. Sure, it’s easy for your parents or a friend to be supportive of your passion for roadkill taxidermy. But something like that could do more harm than good when it comes to evaluating you as a potential member of a creative team.

You Are Your Portfolio

As a creative, your portfolio defines you. Not your resume, not your degree. I’ve seen hundreds of portfolios, but only taken the time to look at a few dozen resumes. I figure, if it’s come all the way to me, the resume has done its job with the recruiter.

I want to see your work. I want to look at it and know what kind of creative you are, and what kind you want to be.

Does your portfolio have a lot of digital work? Awesome, that's where the industry's going, but don’t expect to be employed at a traditional agency. Lots of TV and print? Well, if you’re a junior, that means you only understand the basics and don’t really know about the future of advertising. Half and half? Okay, that’s good for now. But as they say, be hot or cold, but lukewarm and I’ll spit you from my mouth.

Your portfolio will grow with you. Keep it fresh and let it evolve into the type of creative you are becoming. But for now, keep these tips in mind and you’ll be off to a good start.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this, say hello @thejeremycarson. LinkedIn Instagram TikTok