How Not to Get a Job in the
Creative Industry, Part 1: The Portfolio
JUSTIN GIGNAC / WNW Co-Founder
You've probably heard all of the advice there is on how to get a job in the creative industry. So I'm here to tell you what you need to do to NOT get a job. Everything you can do to completely blow it. This is based, in part, on what I've experienced and observed both in my years in Advertising and as the co-founder of Working Not Working. But primarily, the following advice, or the opposite of that advice, is coming directly from a bunch of Creative Directors and Recruiters on Working Not Working. They're the people you need to answer to if you want to get through the front door of companies like Wieden+Kennedy, Droga5, Nike, Facebook, Chiat, B-Reel, McCann, Butler Shine, and more. They told me very specifically what annoys them, what makes them skip portfolios, and what nixes applicants right away. I figured this will be helpful for all you students and up-and-comers to know. And if you're a senior creative making these mistakes, they'll be twice as glaring.
Some of this stuff at first glance seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many creatives fail to pass these simple tests. And you may be surprised if you go look at your own portfolio after reading this post. The good news is that a lot of these issues have very simple solutions. So get on it.
HOW LONG DO YOU SPEND LOOKING AT A PORTFOLIO BEFORE YOU DECIDE TO PASS OR DIG DEEPER?
You have very little time to get someone's attention on your portfolio site. Make it count. Or don't.
There are so many overcomplications: trying to do weird flash effects, things appearing and disappearing. A donut over here that inexplicably happens to be what your resume is hiding under. Get rid of all that. There are so many simple-to-read and easy-to-use templates out there now, whether it’s Squarespace or Semplice, there's no excuses. A couple recruiters also stressed that they don’t want to look at your Behance page as a stand-in for your portfolio site. Or Cargo profiles, where the thumbnails are way too small. They just want big simple images, simple navigation, "here’s my "about," here’s "how to get in touch with me." Just be clear and communicative in who you are and what you do.
HOW MUCH DOES THE DESIGN OF A STUDENT'S PORTFOLIO SITE WEIGH IN THE REVIEW PROCESS?
Even if you’re a copywriter or a strategist, it’s no excuse to have a poorly designed website. Especially given all of the aforementioned options out there. If you are not a designer, find someone who is to help you out. If you’re a copywriter, offer your savvy copyediting and punchy vocabulary on a friend's site in exchange for their design chops on yours. Whatever you have to do to make sure people can easily see what you bring to the table.
The most common complaint is creatives just put way too much work in their portfolios. You feel like you have to prove that you have so much work. Except there’s an old adage that you’re only as good as the worst thing in your book. So go get rid of all the stuff that you don’t love, that you aren’t proud of, that you don’t think is going to surprise people. Only show the best stuff that has a clear point of view, even if it’s only a few projects.
WHAT IS THE OPTIMUM NUMBER OF PROJECTS IN A PORTFOLIO?
Hirers don’t have a lot of time. They’re going through thousands of profiles and they want to be really efficient with their time. So the more roadblocks you put in the way, the more you’re setting yourself up for failure. Hirers also complain that creatives often put their best projects last. And I don’t know what that’s all about. Are they thinking, “Oh, I’m going to hit them really hard at the end with the good stuff”? You’re never going to hit anything because no one will ever get to that project. Or maybe you just don’t realize that’s your best project. Which may point to the importance of getting friends and colleagues to give you feedback. Maybe it’s time to focus group your portfolio site. Bottom line, try to post your best work first.
Another complaint is creatives putting in work that they’re not strong at. Work that showcases a “skill” in a field that they don’t actually have professional experience in. Most Designers and Art Directors try to pretend they’re Photographers because they have an iPhone and an Instagram account and a VSCO filter. We're not buying it. If you’re not actually a Photographer, and you’re not trying to get hired as a Photographer, nobody gives a shit about your photography. Don’t sneak that shit in at the bottom of your site. Sorry, but unless it's amazing, nobody cares.
There is no excuse for typos. Most of the copywriters that I’ve worked with are strangely terrible spellers. If you’re a copywriter who can’t spell, I don’t know what your deal is. “Sorry I couldn’t interrupt my process to spell “their” right.” If you’re not good at spelling, have a typo party and look at each other’s sites. Remember that how you do anything is how you do everything. That’s a key company value at Working Not Working. If you’re willing to overlook the detail of making sure something is spelled correctly, what are other details that you are willing to overlook? If you’re not going to take pride in that detail, what else, when I hire you, are you not going to take pride in? It’s really important to pay attention to the details. Again, some of this seems obvious. But this comes up not just in student books but also in professional books. All the time.
Strangely, people don’t put their emails on their sites. I don’t know if you think you’re a celebrity or what the deal is. Hirers hate those in-site contact forms too. Just give them your email, especially if you’re trying to get hired somewhere. If you think you’re a big shot, and you’re actively trying to not get hired, then leave your email off. It'll work.
If you’re writing a bio, people want it to be from you. First person. Talk about who you are, what you do, what you’re passionate about, what gets you excited, what makes you different. Tell people how you see the world and what makes you tick.
Now this is an important question. When should you start writing your bio in the third person? The answer is when you’re at that point in your career when someone actually asks you for a bio. If you’ve done enough cool shit where someone asks you to talk at a school and they need your bio, then you go “Okay, now I have to go write one of those third-person bios.” Sure. Then you go write that bio and you include your background and your accolades and so on. But when you finally get to that point, NEVER make a joke about “Oh, but he doesn’t like to write in the third person.” I just did a search of WNW profiles and there are like forty people who make that joke. And even though a bunch of them won Cannes Lions, I kicked them all off the site. I’m just kidding. But I could have and nobody would have faulted me for it because that joke is super played out. So just stop it.
If recruiters are looking at thousands of portfolios, you want to make sure that yours actually makes them happy they showed up and compel them to hit you up and bring you in. Whimsy doesn't mean that you should bypass essentials like navigation, though. Another recruiter said that they looked at a portfolio and all of the projects were named after flavors of cookies. Don't do that. Just tell me who the client is and what the project is.
That just about covers all the portfolio essentials for how to not get a job in the creative industry. Follow these simple steps to never be gainfully employed again. Next up, I'll be talking about all the creative ways you can manage to screw up and not get a job with the work itself. Stay tuned.