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PATTERNS IN THE PORTFOLIOS OF ASPIRING CREATIVES. What’s good? What’s bad? What’s missing?

Recently, a progressive tutor at a college emailed me with a bunch of questions about how their advertising course (and the aspiring creatives it produces) could be better.

The reality is, I still see myself as a student…

(Certainly not a samurai who has any right to decry advertising courses.)

I attended a creative advertising course (Lincoln) and it gave me what I needed to get into the industry. The tutors had a profound effect on me and I carry many of their lessons with me every day. In work and in life.

I’ve also heard endless amazing things said about Tony Cullingham at Watford.

So… I’m hesitant to criticise. Even if constructively.

But he persisted and I caved.

I thought long and hard…

About the things I hear again and again from friends in the industry…

The things Laura and I find ourselves saying to almost every team we see…

The things we wish someone had told us earlier...

The result is the answers below.

It’s all opinion. Not fact.

It doesn’t apply to EVERY aspiring creative.

It doesn’t apply to EVERY creative course.

But, if you’re trying to get a creative job in advertising and marketing, hopefully it helps.

What one book should aspiring creatives absolutely, positively read

How To Win Friends and Influence People

(Mark Denton agrees)

What current positive patterns do you see in aspiring creatives and their portfolios?



-Eager to learn

What current negative patterns do you see?

Massive caveat…

Bearing in mind what an abomination our portfolio was when we first headed down to London…

-Naivety in thinking — ads for ads sake.

-Not getting to the route of the problem.

-Not thinking long enough or critically enough about the reality and context of the product, the market or the customer.

Maybe that’s the same point three times?

It’s certainly not profound to say that “ads can’t do everything”.

Ads for cereal can’t un-write the book ‘The Paleo Diet’.

Or stop laziness prevailing and stop people grabbing a bagel with their commute coffee.

But there’s a lot of people with these briefs in their portfolio and the response is ‘ads’ trying to give me a reason to eat cereal.

Ads aimed at people we’re pretty certain aren’t seeing ads.

Aimed at people consuming media on platforms that doesn’t even allow for ‘ads’.

TV ads aimed at people we know are consuming the majority of their “TV” content on Netflix, or Prime.

Nothing wrong with ‘ads’. Provided the people you’re trying to communicate with are actually seeing them, not blocking, skipping or fast-forwarding them.

But if they are…

Then an ad is a tree falling in an empty wood.

And the solution to the marketing problem is likely bigger or more lateral than an ‘ad’.

These people are definitely consuming something.

And if your ‘ad’ is truly amazing, they may even end up seeing it somewhere, like their social feed.

But isn’t this exceptionally wishful thinking?

Occam’s razor; if we want people to see/ hear/ listen to/ engage with what we do…

Why would we put it where they aren’t looking/ listening/ engaging?

Farmers selling eggs don’t put their “Fresh eggs, £1.99 a box” sign in their back garden…

They put it at the side of the road, where you see it.

We don’t expect aspiring creatives to solve problems like the decline of an entire category (cereal) in their portfolio…

But taking that brief on and then responding with a poster hints that they do not understand something quite fundamental the business that they are getting into.

What skills do you think an aspiring creative should acquire?

Knowing what makes people tick. A la ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People’.

The ability to think critically and ask the right question.

If “Creativity” is asking interesting questions in order to get interesting answers.

i.e. Duchamp’s “Who said art has to live on a canvas? Couldn’t it live on/ in a toilet?”

Here, the WHAT is the most important thing.

Then what we do is applied creativity. Business + creativity.

In this case, it’s about asking the right question, in an interesting way.

This provokes an interesting answer to the right question.

Here, the WHAT is important, but the WHY is critical.

See Toyota’s “5 Why’s” principle.

If you could, what would you change about higher education?

More exposure to industry and sooner.

Making people run before they can walk does so many things.

-Helps people realise if they actually enjoy the reality of something. Rather than just the dream.

-Rapidly accelerates learning curves

-Shows employers the people who “really want it”

What are the mission-critical skills for being a successful advertising creative?

-Understand the context;

>market context

>product context

>customer context

-Understand where the client’s brand/ product/ service/ platform sits amongst those three.

-Understand where it needs to sit in order to achieve what the client wants.

-Understand what is necessary to bridge that gap.

-Be able to create an idea that achieves this in a way that people will:

>tune into, not stick the kettle on for

>love and remember


-Have a basic understanding of new, exciting and emerging technology and attempt use it in a relevant way.

-Make ideas look, sound, read and feel beautiful.

How might these skills differ from 10 years ago?

The UK has one of the highest rates of ad-blocking worldwide, with over a third (39%) of page views blocking ads. (This rises to 63% for 18–34 year olds.)

18–34 year olds will spend millions throughout their lives.

Where they spend it and who they spend it with, depends on who is keeping up.

‘Ads’ are increasingly shouting into an echo-chamber.

People are increasingly living lives where they are not consuming or engaging with media that allows you to interrupt them and put things in the way of what they want.

If they are, many of them are intentionally blocking advertising.

Or skipping it.

Of course they are.

They are sane human beings who want to watch videos of surfing dogs and grumpy cats RIGHT NOW! Not after your advert.

The reality is, decades ago, when people were watching Saturday night TV…

People didn’t tie themselves to their sofa when the ads came on.

They made cups of tea.

They went to the bathroom.

All while, the ads would run.

And people would see and be influenced by the odd one.

But now, on many platforms, people can completely block ads.

Or skip them.

So that small chance that someone might see or be influenced by your ad has become zero chance.

Worse still… computers and code are increasingly able to perform human jobs.

We have seen a program that can churn out offer-based filmic advertising for a client within 90 seconds.

These films are truly hollow, soulless and simply hold a mirror up to the recipient’s online behaviour.

But one upon a time a human got paid to create them.

They might have been better when the human created them. But they weren’t Shakespeare, or Tolstoy. Plus, the computer program is faster and cheaper.

So which is the client going to pick?

Code and automation will potentially shrink the human element of our industry by up two-thirds.

It’s not all doom and gloom.

The re-assuring news is that companies are always going to want to sell things.

The humans that remain employed in our industry will be so because they know how to solve business problems within the reality and context of modern life.

For example…

The only media I’ve consumed so far today is a podcast.

Within that podcast was a promotion…

I was happy to receive said promotion because it was relevant and valuable to me.

This is because it was promoting a product that makes the very topic of the podcast I was listening to simpler, easier and better.

What if the client had decided to run that promotion as a YouTube pre-roll?

I’d likely have skipped. Just like you’d skip.

(The first 5-seconds would have had to be ludicrously gripping for me not to.)

How many of history’s best, most critically and commercially successful ‘ads’ pass the 5-second skip test?

It’s painful to think about.

But it does show you just much the media landscape has shifted and will continue to shift.

Despite only consuming a podcast.

I have heard about a thing Burger King has done in Peru.

Apparently, cinemas in Peru will allow you to bring ‘purchased-outside-of-cinema’ food into the cinema, provided that they are like the thing you can buy in a cinema. (Popcorn, Chocolate etc.)

Burger King created a popcorn box (complete with fake popcorn) that hides a Whopper and Fries in the bottom of the box.

So, Burger King got in front of me.

Because a friend told me about an idea that they had created.

My friend read about it on a blog. Most likely something like Buzzfeed.

And Buzzfeed decided to cover it because it was newsworthy. Or remarkable, as Seth Godin puts it.

What subjects would you like to see being covered on advertising courses?

Critical thinking. Behavioural economics.

What type of media would you like to see in portfolios? Is there a proportion of one type over another?

I imagine I speak for a lot of people when I say I’m pretty agnostic here.

I just want to see in folios that people can solve problems. Crack nuts. Get to the root of something. Then solve it in a lateral or unexpected way. A way that in hindsight, seems so obvious.

Whilst there isn’t always a “dyer brand problem”.

There’s always a “nut to crack”. Something to solve. Something in the way of the client’s success that the right idea could get out of the way.

Even if the client wants “awareness”, “affinity” or “recall”.

These all basically translate as wanting some kind of impact.

Some kind of client-shaped dent made in the world.

It doesn’t matter what media the idea is in, if it doesn’t make the dent, it’s just more white noise.

What are the intangibles of people who get hired?

They care more, think harder and work harder.

“Outthink. Outwork. Out care”. As McCann Global CCO, Rob Reilly once put it to us.

People hire in their own image.

90% of creatives who have jobs in good, forward-thinking agencies have shed blood, sweat and tears to be there.

There’s nothing worse than trying to help someone who you know just doesn’t care enough.

If you could add a module to existing creative courses, what should it try to achieve?

Teach critical thinking.

Teaching looking for the elephant in the room.

Teach being the person that’s brave enough to point it out.

Teach asking the right question…Asking the hard question… Before asking the interesting one…

The realities of modern CGI mean that, the limits of your execution visually are often the limits of your budget.

So great ideas can always be polished into exceptional executions. And it works down the chain;

-Good ideas into great executions.

-Average ideas into good executions.

-Poor ideas into average executions.

Therefore, the industry will never be short of things that look alright..

But it will always be short of people who actually solve business problems.

Because this is hard. It’s uncomfortable.

You have to ask stupid questions. By default, this means risking looking stupid.

You have to be a pain.

You have to keep asking “why?” No budget in the world can buy that.

What are the realities that aspiring creatives need to be prepared for?

There are no lines anymore between media.

It’s all just screens, devices.

It’s dangerous for students to be thinking in terms of TV, digital, social, content.

It’s all the same.

It’s all ideas.

The good ones cut through the clutter.

The crap ones are the clutter.

What are some truths that need to be “taught harder” to aspiring creatives?

Laziness will always prevail.

As a customer, if I can get it faster, easier or cheaper, without compromising quality, I will. No matter the method.

Hasn’t spelled good things for the High Street. The High Street needs an idea. The pop-up economy looks like an idea that’s tackling this…

Doesn’t spell good things for parabolic advertising. (The cotton in the shirt is not as soft as a cloud. Can we please move on now?)

Doesn’t spell good things for brands that don’t want to be transparent in their communication.

Every great piece of advertising and marketing is one bad online review or angry tweet away from having not just no effect, but a negative effect on its client’s sales curve or affinity measures. There’s nowhere to hide.

How do you feel about the ability for students currently to transfer between courses like Graphic design and advertising?

The ability to solve problems…

The ability to ask questions that turn problems you can’t solve, into ones you can…

This is a valuable skill in any job. Also in life.

As long as you are teaching plenty of that I don’t have any problems with the above.

If the best agency in London ran a degree course, what do you think would be its most critical lesson?

Asking the right question. Then the interesting one.

How do you define effective research for reaching a creative idea?

(Cue the can of worms).

Personally, big fan of data, right here.

Data’s a great tool.

You can use it to make really interesting things.

But it’s not the worker. You are.

Bricks don’t build houses. Builders build houses.

(Soon, that builder will probably be a robot. But that robot is still a tool the building company is using.)

So yeah, bring on the data.

Just don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the answer. The answer is usually hidden within it. Written between the lines, so to speak.

Sometimes, you don’t need data.

You just need an honest conversation.

Why the product/ brand/ service/ industry is shit and you don’t buy from it/ into it.

Then take those flaws/ pain points/ shortcomings and solve them.

That method, combined with a pretty hefty passion and some serious grit gave birth to Rapha.

It also helped AirBNB on its journey. And many more like it.


Why do the people that do buy into/ from it continue to do so? How can you make more of that in order to get more people to buy into/ from it?

If possible, do it in a way people will tune into, love and share.

How would you define an insight and how do you go about gaining insight?

To me, an insight is a piece of information that if used correctly, gives me an advantage.

Comedians use insights to gain an advantage over their audience.

i.e. We all know this thing is true (insight & set-up) and I’ve thought about it in a way that you all haven’t (punchline).

Sometimes insights are like bombs. They’re big, loud and broad.

“Person type X exhibits behaviour X because Z.”

Sometimes insights are like bullets from a distant sniper-rifle. They’re small, quiet and pointed, but they go deep. Sometimes they cut right through you.

“The real reason that Person X exhibits behaviour Y, that they don’t want to admit, is that deep down, they Z”.

How would you define a strategy?

A way of winning.

In our job specifically, a way to help client X win.

Advertising is a zero-sum game. (For team A to win, team B has to lose).

If a mum buys her son Nike football boots…

Nike not only sells their own football boots. They prevent Adidas selling a pair.

Someone has to win.

And there has to be a plan for winning. There’s your strategy.

What are the common mistakes you see people making on placement?

They’re too quiet.

No one knows that they are here, that they are on placement and that they will walk through walls to get a job.

Introduce yourself to everyone on day one. Nice and simple.

Would you advise aspiring creatives read up on Behavioural Economics? If so, what is a digestible way to do this?

Absolutely. Rory Sutherland — The Wiki Man, is fantastic read that makes BE very understandable and fun to learn.

Anything else aspiring creatives should read?

Because so many people are telling me to read it and the first few chapters are so amazing…