The evolution of the portfolio.

It’s now the essential collection of anyone creative’s work and achievements, along with a little ‘about’ section that gives you a delightful window into their career, but also explains that they collect ceramic frogs or enjoy traveling to Chad.

Portfolios weren’t always so elaborate. For a start, they used to be made of paper and contained nothing but the work. They almost always came in a faux-leather case, complete with ring binders that never quite worked, and filling them up required finding laminated proofs of your ads, while TV and radio could be collected on additional cassettes that you shoved into a sleeve at the back.

There might have been a short step that involved putting the work on DVDs, but that was kind of complicated, so the hard copy portfolio was king until maybe 2010, when you pretty much had to have a website of some sort. 

Before Squarespace made life a bit easier, getting that site together was difficult and expensive. They tended to look a bit crap, and updating them to add your new work was a tedious and annoying process. But sending a link around was much easier than lugging a portfolio case across town, and ECDs were much happier viewing ten books via the convenience of their laptop.

Now that a spiffy-looking site is within the reach of us all, a few fundamentals have changed. Instead of simply letting the work speak for itself (and in this brave new world of mandatory case studies), additional explanations are expected. You can give strategic context, production information and results, if you’re so inclined. 

And as with those case studies, that seems to mean finding the most positive possible lens through which to present yourself. A minor pair of social posts can become ‘Client X’s first-ever Instagram campaign, which used the illustrations of sneaker influencer PJQ to set the brand off in an entirely new direction. It gained 341,867 media impressions in the first ten days, on its way to becoming the most-watched carousel for the FMCG market in the month of July’. 

A recent LinkedIn post from an ECD suggested that, ‘If you didn’t write it, go through a dozen iterations, and attend rounds of meetings where it was discussed. If you didn’t pick the director, nor flew to the shoot and fought for that take you thought you needed. If you didn’t spend days in an edit suite, painstakingly moving frames, undecided between V.63 or V.64 while trying 100 tracks on your laptop. If you were not there… THEN DON’T PUT IT IN YOUR PORTFOLIO.

I can see where he’s coming from, but I’ve witnessed enough inside stories of great work to know that the division of labour between members of a creative team is rarely equal enough to ensure that the above would apply to both. One copywriter might have slaved away at the concept, only for their AD to dominate the executional elements. Does that mean neither can claim the finished piece as their own? 

That ECD’s point is that you need to be able to use a portfolio to accurately evaluate its owner’s abilities. What if you’ve been fooled into hiring a CW who will not be great at the post-production stage? Or an AD who can’t come up with a concept to save their life?

But that’s always going to be tricky. For some teams and creatives the degree of contribution can ebb and flow, and sometimes the editor or sound engineer ends up suggesting a better endline, which is then used in the final ad. Does that mean the creatives shouldn’t claim full credit? Where does an ad cross the line between ‘yours’ and ‘someone else’s’?

And what about creative directors? When it comes to their portfolios, some of them clearly delineate between their CD work and their work as a creative foot soldier, but even then, there are CDs who transform base metal into gold, while others make little difference, or even make things worse. If that happens it’s unlikely the CD will honestly cop to a lack of contribution; after all, everyone is the hero of their own story.

Advertising is full of misattributed credit, fluffed-up CVs and rose-tinted glasses. Positive takes are what we create for a living, so it’s no surprise that people use them for themselves. That probably means we should take portfolios with a pinch of salt, perhaps downgrading claims by 10-20% (as I do when I watch a case study).

This is especially true as portfolios are now out there for everyone to find and pore over. Just Google the name of the creative alongside the word ‘advertising’ and you should find what you’re looking for. Then you can see if they list every single award, whether huge or tiny, or just use the low-key, but suspiciously non-specific self-endorsement, ‘I’ve been recognised by all major international award schemes’.

You can also check out the window to their soul: the ‘about’ section, which can be po-faced and self-important, or humorously self-deprecating. I find that it’s often surprisingly revealing, as much for what is omitted as what is included. 

Last is the style. 90% seem to be Squarespace sites, with a fairly neutral and functional design – the closest thing you can get to letting the work speak for itself. But I feel the ADs often want to demonstrate their visual chops more obviously. They are usually the ones that get a proper site done, bringing the design flex with a bit of parallax scrolling.

Just like the rest of the industry, the internet has provided your portfolio situation with many more tools, but also many more choices, so make sure you think though it all with the care you’d apply to your ads. As one wise person’s portfolio says, ‘Ah! The good old ‘about’ section. Time to decide whether to talk about myself in the first person or the third…