I Want In: DBB Interview with Laurence Minsky [Part 1]

Valentine’s Day has just passed and here’s our way to show all our DBB readers some L-O-V-E.

Introducing our new series entitled “I Want In”.  It will feature interviews and guest blog post, with tons of advice from top creative professionals in the industry.  First up, we interviewed Laurence Minsky, a award-winning marketing professional, professor at Columbia Columbia College, and author of How to Succeed in Advertising When All You Have Is Talent (Second Edition) and his most recent book, The Get A Job Workshop. 


DBB: How can juniors prepare their portfolios to get ahead of the game so to speak?

LM: The great leveling tool of the industry is the creative portfolio. When you apply for a job, you are not being compared to other beginners; rather, you’re being compared to everyone. Your work needs to be as good as the winners of the One Show, ACD, Communication Arts, and other top contest as well as the examples in Luerzer’s Archive.

Use this work as the basis for judging the samples in your portfolio.

Here’s the catch, when I say that you need to judge work against the best of the best, it obviously can’t be derivative.  Rather, your samples need to be fresh and they need to make the target audience stop and think.  A long out-of-print book by William Wells called Planning for R.O.I. has, I think, the best strategy for judging creative working: “Each one must be relevant, original, and impactful ” – the R.O.I. of his book title.  Miss one of the three and the resulting work is lacking. I’ve seen lots of work that is relevant and original, but it’s boring; I’ve seen lots of work that is original and impactful but is way off target; I’ve seen work that is relevant and had some impact (still), but is not very original.  You need all three to be successful. And, not to keep repeating the industry cliché, that comes from finding the right, unique insight and building from there.

Another way to set yourself ahead in your portfolio is its executional level.  Almost every creative in a hiring position says he or she is looking for ideas – and they are – but one is also judging candidates by the level of execution.  As ADC Executive Director Ignacio Oreamuno pointed out in his essay “The Portfolio of the Future” in The Get A Job Workshop, it is no longer good enough to put a storyboard in a portfolio.  It needs to be produced – and be of high quality.  The same goes for radio scripts.  You name it.  Of course, I’ve heard of exceptions in the executional arena, but those are rare and the overall thinking displayed in those books is generally considered amazing.

So, echoing Ignacio and others, I would partner up to create my portfolio.  Those wishing to become advertising art direction need to work with those wanting to become copywriters.  Perhaps ask a graphic designer to join the team, too. This is not new or unique advice; it’s the industry standard and it’s how it’s done at most schools.  They should then partner with a film student who want to create sample TV commercials or web videos; voiceover and production students to create radio or audio spots; interactive students to create websites, apps, and more; and photography or illustration students should create the images.

The industry works like a team sport and hiring authorities want to know that you can work as part of a team.  Plus, this approach helps everyone get better samples as well as increases your reach.  I heard of people who have been offered jobs because the hiring authority liked their contributions to the samples in someone else’s portfolio.

Beginners have an advantage in another way: I have heard that lots of senior creatives are afraid of juniors because they tend to know more about the digital world.  If you can bring the new insights and thinking about digital into your portfolio then you’ll be ahead of the game when you compete against professionals with more experience.

Finally, this biggest way to set yourself ahead is to have a great portfolio. As a contributor to The Get A Job Workshop, Frank Blossom, wrote in one of his essays, “it’s a job getting job.”

You need to understand the creative marketplace, identify the type of place you want to work – such as big, small, digital, general, B2B – where you would be best fit, and the value you have to offer an employer. In fact, knowing the answers to these questions could even help you assemble a better, more targeted portfolio. After all, while clearly there’s an element of luck – it helps to be in the right place at the right time – you still need to be prepared to take full advantage of an opportunity and people need to know you exist.  As Nancy Rice said in my book How to Succeed in Advertising When All You Have Is Talent (Second Edition), “make sure you merchandise yourself in your early years. Making people aware of your unique qualities and strengths is really important.  If you don’t do this for yourself as well as you do it for your clients, then your career isn’t going to go far.”

DBB : Is it true that creative directors looking for new talent are tired of seeing the same old “portfolio-school” portfolios? 

LM : Making a hiring mistake can be very expensive and there’s safety in hiring a portfolio school graduate.  Students from these schools tend to have very well executed books and they’ve proven that they can out in the long hours.

But, with some schools, there can be a feeling of sameness to many of the student portfolios they help produce.  And I’ve also heard a few agency creative directors complain that some of the students coming from these schools having a sense of entitlement.

Here’s my standard advice: If you can develop a professional-quality portfolio by yourself or with a partner, then great – go for it. In this scenario, I recommend you find a professional creative in your area to serve as the sounding board; many are truly willing to serve as mentors.

And you must keep working on spec work until you find a job (and even beyond).  After all, you will want to keep your portfolio fresh, especially when you get called back.  As I learned early in my career and wrote in How to Succeed in Advertising When All You Have Is Talent, “even if a spec ad is new and truly great, because it has been seen before, it won’t seem fresh the second time around.”

If you get stuck, find the going too slow, need more guidance, or need a more structured environment, however, then you might want to go to a portfolio school.

DBB: Besides creating awesome ideas, what other skills should I have to be an awesome rock star? 

LM : You need to think creatively and critically, to innovate, to execute across channels, and to have “curiosity about life in all aspects,” as Leo Burnett pointed out and Brett Robbs reminded us in his essay “It’s About More Than It’s About” in The Get A Job Workshop.

And, just as important, you need to keep a level head as you move up.  People don’t like working with prima donnas.  Again, Brett Robbs in his essay reminds us, “as one advertising executive points out, ‘Generally the final two or three candidates are all at about the same level. So, to decide which person to hire, he asks himself this question: ‘Who do I want to sit next to on a plane from LA to New York? In short, he hires the person he finds most interesting.”  I have heard this sentiment from others as well.

And you need to be willing to work hard.  Being a copywriter or art director is not a life of sleeping late and afternoons filled with pool or foosball. Rather, it’s a life of long hours on the job mulling the problem.  As Cabell Harris said in his essay “Work” in The Get A Job Workshop, “I would rather hire someone with a strong Work Ethic than talent.  I have seen too many individuals with talent and potential be surpassed by one who is not easily satisfied and will just keep working.”  And, remember, if you love what you do, it won’t feel like work.

These are not technical skills, but they’re just as important.


This interview is filled with a tons of HEAVY advice  –that all juniors creatives can learn from.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of I Want In: DBB Interview with Laurence Minsky.

Get your copy of  How to Succeed in Advertising When All You Have Is Talent (Second Edition) and The Get A Job Workshop (Kindle edition/ITunes) books today.

Signing off,

Dear Andre 2.0


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