My First Portfolio

I don’t know why, but today I thought about my first advertising portfolio. I think I still have it somewhere in some box in my basement. I remember thinking it was really good. But of course, I was wrong. It was crap. I just didn’t know any better.

I remember the ‘golden rules’ of portfolio creation. Twelve pieces. No more. No less. Three campaigns and 3 ‘one-off’ ideas. This showed that you could not only come up with a great idea, but that you knew how to campaign it.

For my first campaign, I created a series of print ads for a restaurant in my neighborhood named ‘Backstage.’ The entire restaurant had famous movie and theater posters lining the wall. It was a cool place to go. You always felt like a movie star was going to walk in any minute. (Of course, none ever did.) So I created a campaign that borrowed heavily on the golden age of the movies. Images of ‘famous looking’ people eating incredible meals a la the “Brown Derby.” I look back at my tagline in horror (now), because I can’t believe I wrote this line and thought it was good. “Backstage. Where the only star missing is you!”

I even used an exclamation point at the end. The dreaded ‘look at me!’ exclamation point. Why didn’t one of my college professors pull me aside and slap on the head and scream at me? Why didn’t the first person who interviewed me yell at me? Why didn’t I know better?

To be ‘edgy’ I also created a campaign for a sex toy shop ‘The Pleasure Chest.” This campaign was surprisingly good. It still holds up. Well, OK, my art direction still could have used some improvement, but all things considered, it isn’t too bad. Next to a visual of a blow-up doll is a headline “find a sexual partner without any ego, even when inflated.” Another ad had a visual of another interesting device with the headline “In here, when our sales associates tell you to shove it up your ass, it’s considered customer service.” OK – not bad. Considering I probably had never been inside a sex toy shop at that point in my life.

The third campaign was just awful. I interned at a local agency and did a campaign for a community college. The work was bad. But it got produced so I thought “well, it’s produced work, I better put it in my book.” WRONG. The campaign had no idea. No execution. Nothing. Just a photo of smiling college age students with the headline “Learn without Leaving Home.” Really that’s what I wrote. As if staying close to home is really aspirational to a college age high school senior. Why didn’t I just write “If you can’t afford anything better.” Or better yet, “Drive your parents crazy for 4 more years.” Yikes.

The best ad in my book was an ad I did for a HMO in Philadelphia. The visual was of a newborn baby. The headline “36 hours old. $210,341.23 in debt.” This ad actually helped me get a job. The creative director who looked at my book told me it was the only thing in my book worth keeping. He also asked if it was an accident or could create more good work. I told him I was confident I could do more. He told me he wasn’t sure, but would give me a shot.

I learned a lot from this first portfolio. Don’t think you know everything, because you don’t. Don’t forget that your portfolio is never ever ever finished. And that I had to love every single piece, because when some stranger tells you your work is not that good, you have to be able to tell him/her why you think it’s great.

I try to remember my first portfolio when I’m looking at the portfolios of college students. They think their work is great – just like I thought my work was great. But they’re wrong. Most times their work is not completely thought through. I plan to change that. That’s why I’m teaching a portfolio class this spring. I’m determined to make sure this next batch of students are better prepared than I was as a college senior.

I’ve gotten so much from my career in advertising. It’s time to give a little back.

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