Observations of a portfolio reviewer

After a turbulent year, many creatives are in the process of refreshing their portfolios. But where to start? Here, Clare McNally of McNally Unlimited shares what she has learned from the many, many portfolio reviews she has done online

One good thing to come out of 2020 was the advertising industry’s united effort to help young creatives with loads of online portfolio reviews. As an ardent advertising educator, I did more reviews than usual, gave a portfolio webinar, and created a new Instagram platform called Mission Portfolio.

This bumper portfolio year has given me new insights into the current state of creative portfolios and put what works and what doesn’t into sharp relief. I discovered that portfolio fatigue is real, and it’s more important than ever to stand out from the crowd. Below are some of my observations and suggestions from, literally, days of portfolio reviews.

CREATIVES ARE EMBRACING BEING BRANDS

The days of putting your work out there and staying quietly in the background are pretty much over. Self-promotion is now part of the portfolio game, made easy with new technology and social media. Most creatives are happy to do for themselves what they do for brands – stand for something, do good, start initiatives, get PR, create content etc. Personal branding is especially attractive to younger creatives as they have less real work to show. Who they are is just as, if not more, important than their work.

Note that you don’t have to please everybody with brand ‘you’. Cecilia Mervig and Thea Føge Toft-Clausen, a creative team at Uncommon London and winners of the Cream Portfolio Competition 2019, have had great success with their portfolio and social media presence. They think it’s totally fine to go ‘Marmite’ with your work, commenting that “we think that if someone doesn’t like our portfolio, they probably won’t like us much!”

Having to be a brand can, however, put a lot of pressure on young talent who are still trying to figure out who they actually are before announcing it to the world. But don’t worry. Just as with all brands, nothing is fixed. There’s always room to change. Or, as Sonya Barlow, founder of LMF Network, says: “You will rebrand your brand and yourself repeatedly.”

Cecilia Mervig and Thea Føge Toft-Clausen’s portfolio website

EVERYONE’S ON SOCIAL

Instagram is now as important as your website, if not more. Some creatives just use their website as a business card, directing viewers to the real action on Instagram where creatives are sharing, connecting and getting discovered daily. Stories and live-streaming provide an informal space to experiment and let unpolished personalities shine without worrying about an eternal social media footprint.

Of course, there’s a danger that introverts could feel left out of the portfolio party. Not everybody wants to be all over social all the time. This doesn’t make you less talented. There should be room for all kinds of personalities. At the end of the day, it’s about being true to yourself and letting your portfolio act as your creative matchmaker, attracting the right people, and editing out the rest.

SIDE HUSTLES AREN’T ON THE SIDE ANYMORE

Side hustles used to be optional, but now seem to be everywhere, either within the main body of work or as ‘not advertising’ or ‘fun stuff’. They’re popular as they let you show your values and aesthetic without client, agency or budget restrictions. From an outside perspective, they’re also a refreshing break from the many similar student award cases found in young creative’s portfolios.

Focusing too much on side projects, however, can cause creatives to spread themselves thin and under-perform in their agency work. It’s important to decide where to focus and to work on what gives energy and boosts your career. If side hustles, a social media empire and ‘fun’ projects start to feel like work, then what’s the point? Some creatives might also struggle to reconcile making amazing graffiti at a weekend festival, and cracking a B2B bank brief on Monday.

And, as bizarre as it may sound, some advertising creatives may just want to make great advertising. They’re not interested in being online 24/7, making a ton of side projects or being on Dragon’s Den. Kara Taylor, managing director, USA at FBI Talent Co has this to say of work outside of advertising: “I’ve always believed that ‘artistic hobbies’ should influence and be incorporated into the advertising solutions versus being showcased in the book as something completely separate. Isn’t the ability to utilise one’s inherent creativity a big reason why people get into this business in the first place?”

Freelance art director Helga Askehave’s portfolio stood out for Clare McNally
Freelance creatives Joachim Klintfält and Nicolas Housted’s portfolio site homepage

TEMPLATES NEED TWEAKING

A lot of portfolios have drifted back to boring with standard, block templates. In many cases, the portfolio structure is invisible and all focus is on the work. Some might say this is a good thing as it’s the work that counts. Morten Grubak, ECD of Vice Virtue Northern Europe, cautions creatives not to over-produce their portfolios, but rather to “spend that time on the work. It’s about the content.” Note, however, that he says “over-produce”. You should still produce your portfolio. To what degree you turn your portfolio into its own project is up to you.

The rise of super-accessible website templates means that more people now have portfolios and more portfolios look the same, so just like in real-world branding, you still need to find a point of difference. That might be a more daring portfolio design, some clever micro concepts or powerful words. At the very least, add some of ‘you’ to your landing page. It acts as the portal to your online world, inviting employers, recruiters and collaborators to delve deeper. The ‘artful package’ is as important as the product.

Having said this, you should be careful not to swing too far the other way with a wild portfolio idea that hides your work beneath visual chaos or confusing navigation. Don’t over-produce your portfolio. Don’t not produce your portfolio at all. Find that sweet spot somewhere in the middle.

You could, of course, just ignore traditional portfolio formats altogether and hack the system. Some creatives are transforming platforms that aren’t usually used as portfolio ‘sites’ into just that. Making Instagram navigate like a website, creating Google Doc portfolio pages or even spreadsheet portfolios. Why not?

WHERE ARE THE WORDSMITHS?

It’s surprising how few portfolios use creative writing to add personality or charm. Most copy feels purely functional. There are so many great opportunities to impress with words – your URL, menu, case names, idea intros, descriptors, the bit about you. Copy and storytelling can attract and win people over just as much as visuals.

Copywriter Rasesh Patkar has written a charming piece about himself on his website: “I imagined myself being an astronomer when I was a kid. I pictured joining the Indian Army as a teenager. Being an F1 driver was also something that I envisioned. I then realised that there’s an occupation that rewarded you just for imagining, picturing and envisioning. Perfect.” He also adds some humour to his photo with playful call-outs, like this one about his glasses: “You’ll never see me without them. I’ll never see you without them.” Thus far, his portfolio has earned him internships at Droga5 and Publicis, so clearly, words work.

Freelance copywriter Isha Sharma’s portfolio homepage
Copywriter Rasesh Patkar

GET READY FOR THE FUTURE

Many creatives are currently worried about employment. But there’s good news ahead. According to Campaign magazine, 68% of agencies are expecting to offer work placements or entry-level schemes either at the same level as before Covid-19 or higher in 2021. That’s great motivation to get your portfolio in top shape for the new year.

Some of the smartest portfolio advice out there is still from Austin Kleon’s bestselling book Show Your Work. He says: “Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine.” How wonderful, and timeless. This approach applies to all platforms, takes the pressure off and turns your portfolio into an enjoyable journey. Who knows where portfolios will end up ten years from now?

Clare McNally is creative director of McNally Unlimited. She is a speaker and guest lecturer in branding and advertising and runs the Brand Creation Course at DMJX; Top illustration: Magnus Mynderup Bjørnshave

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