Originally published in The Big Idea, June 1998
As creatives, we are born into the biz with portfolios full of spec work. Condom ads, ski equipment spreads, tattoo parlor black and whites, low res Humane Society puppies looking sad for our cheap 35mm college cameras. It was the sort of work we knew was creative and eye-popping enough to get us into any creative director’s hot seat for an interview. Then came the true test when the creative director said, “Not bad. Let’s see what you can do on a real project.” By real, I suppose he meant paying. A paying project for a paying client – a client whose work must always carry the indelible stamps of expensive research, existing images of brand integrity and moral restrictions. The project probably lacked the luster of spec portfolio creative and took the gleam right out of those hire-me eyes, but paying clients have a way of affording paychecks. And that’s what it’s all about. Right?
Wrong. As time goes by, your book fills up with ads for auto parts, processed meat and low-end retail non-offers presented as extravaganzas of savings to the very same coupon- clipping, chair-bound telemarketers who interrupt your dinner every night. Suddenly, the flash is gone, the creativity sucked out and now your portfolio can’t hold the interest of the same relatives who used to clamor to see your work. What to do? What to do? Your paycheck may not be as plump as you like, but who would hire you with a boring, sub- standard book anyway? What are these creative directors looking for? You have a book brimming with creatively diluted work that’s been produced. After a few interviews you realize, it’s not enough. You’re creative. You’ve got the flash, the wit, the talent and the perspective – but it’s invisible now. The produced work just doesn’t cut it with these people. What are these creative directors thinking? What exactly do they have in mind?
Creating Balance Harvey Gabor, creative director at Simons Michelson Zeive, says it’s better to put great spec work in your portfolio than boring produced work. “Big ideas are what matter,” he says. “Spec work can even be rough, but if it shows creative thinking, that’s what counts. Thinking is everything.”
Myles Rich agrees. The DMB&B senior copywriter reminds creatives just starting out that, “just because something gets produced, doesn’t mean it’s your best work.” There is, however, an important difference between senior and junior creatives. According to Gabor, “A senior writer or art director shouldn’t show a portfolio full of spec work. They should include both produced and spec work. Sometimes produced work doesn’t accomplish personal creative goals for one reason or another. That’s where showing spec work can really add to a portfolio.” For junior and mid level creatives? “If you have produced work that you’re happy with, use it,” says Gabor. “Add spec work to put that extra spark in your book.”
But say you know of a creative director who frowns on spec work in a senior bag. Given today’s advanced technology, it’s easy for creatives to design a spec piece that looks produced. Depending on one’s sense of ethics, it would be rather easy to claim your spec work as a produced piece.
It’s easy to go over the top when producing spec work and that’s the catch-ss. Using celebrities, negativity or the sort of language that would make Martha Stewart blush can be counter-productive because it can date your work as well as alienate certain audiences. Chairman of Graphic Communications at the Center for Creative Studies, Doug Kisor, advises creatives to balance their spec portfolios between the theoretical and the unexpected. “Think creatively and pragmatically,” he says. “Show your ability to integrate market needs with great creative. When students leave school and go to agencies, they are hired to push the envelope of communication, to add freshness to the market. So don’t be afraid to transcend individual fashion. Understand your audience, think through the process and show all of your skills in your portfolio.
What does Budco Creative Services creative director, David Regan, look for in a prospective employee? “First and foremost, I look for creative thinking in a portfolio. But there is definitely a secondary strategic concern. I don’t expect creatives to do their own research or anything like that, but I do look for a certain amount of demographic understanding in spec portfolio work. Always be prepared to answer questions about your spec.
What Makes For Good Spec? So what sort of spec should you put into your portfolio? Is it back to hawking Miguel’s Nuklear Hot Sauce and Rotten Ron’s Railroad Stout? How about a disease of some sort? The more debilitating the better: chronic sweat palms, post-dinner greasy nose or addicts insomnia? Well, if disease is your bag, then be careful. “It’s easy to create ads for cancer or aids and there are already so many good ones,” cautions Gabor. “If you’re going to create a piece on a disease, it should be the best out there or else it will fall through the cracks.” One common practice for gaining spec pieces is to save your best produced or unproduced work from your current clients and personalize it. “Doing spec work is easier that actually creating for a client with creative restrictions,” says Merideth Browner, copywriter at Ross Roy. “There are so many thinks you can’t say, it’s nice to be real.” This, of course, is the easiest way to beef up your book. However, don’t forget that your portfolio offers its viewer a glimpse into your work, but into yourself as well. When choosing clients for spec work, choose a client who represents who you are. For example, a bald man might do a spec on Propecia. Or, if you really want a challenge, try selling something to a group that doesn’t need it – like phone taps to the Linda Tripps of the world. But be critical or your work. Good spec work can land you a new job and a fatter bank account. Bad spec will hold you firmly in place, creating ads for Delilia’s Nose Hair Clippers.
“Spec work us a great opportunity to think out there and be creative and, of course, it’s fun to work on,” shares Darlene Smith, art director at Maritz Marketing. “But the bottom line is always the same. Will this piece get me a new job?” Like any work
you do for real clients, spec work should be well though-out and explainable – then it can get you a job.”
“Everybody who’s already in the business knows that clients suffocate your creativity,” says Eidos Senior copywriter Sue Stephenson. “Someone might look at your ad and a client may have had a lot to do with it.” Because spec work is work that hasn’t been tampered with by the client, whoever is looking at your portfolio will have a clear picture of how your mind works,” she says.
Although we are in the business of creating demand for a product, and eventually everyone will need our clients’ products, putting a few restrictions on your work may prove helpful. Remember that creative directors will ask questions about your spec work. Being prepared to answer these questions means asking them yourself. What am I selling? Who am I selling it to? What’s the best way to get their attention? Why should they buy it? Having the ability to answer four of these questions means you have identified a viable strategy to give your spec work a leg up in the one-legged race for a truly great portfolio.
So what makes for a great portfolio? Some creative directors have a dry wit; others a poetic flair. Some writers only need one word, others require a little over 1,500. Some art directors are polished mechanics while others creative original works of art. The point is that everyone has a unique style. And doing spec work isn’t just good preparation for getting a job – it can help you develop your own personal style. Again, it comes down to asking yourself the right questions about your work. We’ve all critiqued ads we’ve seen in magazines and on TV. The general public will love, hate or be completely indifferent to an ad, while those of us in the business either appreciate the work and creativity or say we would have done it differently. Different is the key. What will separate your work from mine? What will distinguish it from similar work? And, most importantly, what will make your portfolio scream, “Hire me!” to a creative director?
Once you figure that out, you’ll most likely find yourself with a new and improved portfolio, waiting in the wise creative director’s dunk tank seat waiting with your heart pounding out the bass line to “Swing Baby” for some positive feedback. More or less advertising’s answer to the Papal blessing. And, if you’ve done your homework, you’ll hear the magic words: “Well, your portfolio looks excellent. If you have some time, I’d like you to see HR immediately.”
So remember, having a good portfolio with creative spec work can mean the difference between being asked, “When can you start?” and asking, “Would you like fries with that?”