How Ad Students Can Hone Their Skills and Build Their Portfolios in Quarantine

Making the most of your time at home

You're frightened. Woefully unprepared. Unsure of what the future holds. And this was all before the Great Pandemic Panic of 2020 started grinding our world to a halt.

College advertising students everywhere have always shared the same feelings of dread about their creative portfolios and hope for landing their first agency job. Yep, that special brand of self-doubt is the evergreen kind. But with classes canceled or moving online, internships disappearing, and senior years unexpectedly cut short, here are some things you can do to make sure you're making the most of your time inside.

Embrace your cabin fever and let's get personal.

Personal projects are often the most interesting, revealing projects in a portfolio. They show agency creative directors and recruiters a side of you that your ad campaign work doesn't. It's a chance to put all your different skills on display and show future employers everything you're capable of.

Start a podcast, shoot a short film, take up painting, record some music. This is your chance to do that thing you've always wanted to do. The only limitation? Start small. Don't set out to write an entire screenplay or something that's incredibly ambitious. Set a realistic standard for yourself, be methodical, and do a little bit each day, then look at where you've gotten after a week. You'll feed off that progress, and it will push you to work even harder and faster. 

Oftentimes as an agency creative there comes a point where we switch from being a thinker to a maker. Now is the perfect time, while we're all confined to our homes like a former child celebrity with an ankle monitor, to be making anything and everything that's not advertising. 

When I was starting out as a comedy writer in Chicago, I got great advice from one of my teachers at the Second City theater on how to put together a comedy writing packet. He told me to write one small thing each day, seven days a week, and don't stop. Force yourself to do it, even if your mind is blank, so you can fill your quota of one piece a day.

So when I began writing my submission packet for The Onion, my dream job, this is exactly how I approached it. I spent about an hour each day writing one short article. The first week was incredibly hard and everything sucked, but I pushed through. The second week was a little less hard and eventually, a few months in, I was a machine. I could sit down and easily pump out several articles in one quick sitting. And not only that, they were getting funnier. The more I did, the better I got.

Finally, after doing this for nearly an entire year, rarely missing a day, I had a gigantic archive of content. I pulled together all the strongest pieces into a submission packet, sent it off, and that's how I got in as a headline contributor.

When it comes to creativity, the key to getting better is putting in your reps. The more you do, the more you learn, and the better you get. If you're just spending your social distancing time sitting around the house doing nothing, then you're missing out on valuable time you could be growing as a creative. Put yourself to work every day on a small task, work those creative muscles, and in no time you'll start to see those gains.

Connect with others … at a safe social distance.

Not to brag, but I've been self-quarantining long before it was considered cool or medically appropriate. But if you need more human interaction in your life than a season of Love Is Blind and a giant bag of peanut butter M&Ms, here are some great virtual resources that can get you feeling connected with other creative people:

Make Ads With Me
A cool group of agency people in NYC started this, something akin to a matchmaking service, that pairs up solo copywriters and art directors to work on portfolio projects together under the guidance of a mentor.

Fellow
An awesome woman-to-woman professional community for advertising that's a great resource for young female creatives to connect with and get mentorship from female creative leaders in the industry. They also started a Google sheet where young creatives can drop their portfolio link to have it reviewed by an industry pro. Check it out here.

Fishbowl
There's no better tool for creatives at all levels to have some real talk about the industry and connect with fellow advertisers. Get active in the Advertising bowl where people are discussing trending news and campaigns, connect with other young creatives in the Junior Creatives bowl, see what's going on in your local ad scene by visiting your city specific bowl, or drop your portfolio link in the Portfolio Review bowl and get tons of feedback on your work.

MasterClass
Really cool online tutorial classes, each no more than 5-10 minutes long, on just about every topic you can imagine. Especially relevant to creative people like us, check out the classes from Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein on advertising, Joyce Carol Oates on writing, and director David Lynch on how to be creative. They're not interactive, but they are surprisingly intimate for a tutorial class and offer an amazing window into the minds of some of the most interesting people in the world.

Denver Ad School
We're introducing an all-new online campaigns class specially designed for young creatives who want to keep adding to their portfolios. Led by one of our many creative director friends from big agencies all over the country, a virtual class of art directors and copywriters will pair up to work on campaign briefs over an eight-week session. The classes are run on-demand as they fill up, so read more here and sign up whenever you're ready.

Start your own personal portfolio school program.

The core of your portfolio needs to be ad campaigns; that's what agencies will have you work on, and that's what they want to see you can do. Most college students can expect to end their university career with one to four portfolio pieces. Generally, these pieces land everywhere on the spectrum from "It's OK, I guess" to "Everyone in the room is now dumber for having read through this idea." Which is to say, just about every student could stand to add a few more good campaign pieces to their book before showing it to the agencies they want to work for.

If you're absolutely adamant that you want to be a lone wolf and go it alone instead of attending a portfolio school, go on LinkedIn and search for the senior creatives at your favorite ad agency and find their portfolio links. Study their website layouts, how they organize their work, how they present their campaigns, how each execution is done, etc. Most successful people in this business organize their portfolios in roughly the same way, so identify these trends and make sure you're doing things in a similar fashion.

The absolute worst thing you can do as a student is look at other student books. Student books are inherently shitty—that's why they're student books. It's not just you, that's how we all were! Everyone's first book is in one way, shape or form an absolute mess. Look at what the best people in the business are doing, and try your best to mimic that. Always look upwards for inspiration, not down.

After studying their portfolios, send a message to those people you just low-key stalked on LinkedIn. Tell them your deal—you just finished school and would love to chat about the business and get some advice. Ask them anything and everything—how they got into advertising, what they look for in a portfolio, what some of their favorite ads are. You could even run one of your concept ideas by them for some quick feedback. 

Realize your own personal portfolio school program might suck and look into a real one.

At a certain point in your education, especially if you're going into advertising, you'd really benefit more from taking a deeper dive into your future career and learning from some pros. This is precisely why portfolio schools came into existence—to give students the specialized training and professional guidance they didn't get in college so they can create an industry-standard portfolio that ad agencies will actually take seriously.

The problem with most portfolio schools, though, is they're not really set up for everyone. A big reason why the advertising industry is facing a diversity problem is because of the gatekeeping that's going on at the point of entry. For the longest time, there were only three places to pick from if you wanted to go to portfolio school and they all cost $40,000 or more and took two years to complete. That's bullshit, right? Don't they know you just went through four years of college and already dropped that much or more in tuition? (They do, they just don't care.)

When it comes to the major portfolio school programs that offer a comprehensive curriculum and job placement help, here are your choices to check out:

Chicago Portfolio School
Creative Circus
Denver Ad School
Miami Ad School
VCU Brandcenter

The drawback to most of these is that they're long programs—two years—and can be very expensive—the most affordable starts at around $40,000. But the schools in Denver and Chicago follow a different model that's shorter and considerably less expensive, with a curriculum that's just as comprehensive as the others.

Of the major portfolio schools, however, only one currently offers online classes. And here's the point in the article where I tell you that—surprise!—I am the owner and founder of that one school, the Denver Ad School. In fact, as a direct response to what's going on in the world right now, we've decided to step in and help out by offering an online version of our popular campaign class. It's a cheap, easy and fun way to work with fellow creatives and working professionals that will leave you with some new work to add to your portfolio-in-progress.

If you look beyond the bigger, more comprehensive portfolio schools you'll find a lot of smaller programs that are offering similar online sessions. Look around and see if any of these are more your speed:

Adhouse Advertising School
Book Shop LA
Brainco
Denver Ad School
Portfolio Masterclass
School of Visual Arts

It's important to remember that when you go out to start interviewing for your first agency job, you'll be competing against other young creatives who most likely did go to a portfolio program. Their portfolios will be reflective of the smart feedback they got from their agency instructors, the talent from their project partners, and the job-hunting help from the school's placement. If you can find a portfolio school that fits your needs, it will no doubt make you a better creative and help you start your career off just like you envisioned. 

The ad industry isn't getting canceled, maybe just your internship.

Seems like everything is getting shut down now. College classes, agency internships, my punk mosh pit aerobics business. It's important to remember during all this, though, that the advertising industry is not going away. Sure, agencies contract and expand with the economy, but that client work is always going somewhere—it rarely ever evaporates completely. If an agency loses a client and lays off creatives, that just means new jobs are opening up at the agency who nabbed that client. And if the work goes in-house, they'll still need creatives to come in and run it.

Creatives at all levels are lucky in that no matter how much the business changes, we'll always be needed because we're the ones creating the work. But you guys are in an even better spot compared to the rest of us. Interns and junior-level creatives are always the most in-demand roles at any agency because you'll always be an agency's cheapest source of talent. So no matter what's going on in the world, good or bad, it's always a decent time to enter advertising if you're young.

So what to do if your internship gets canceled? Stay in touch with the agency as best you can. Connect with everyone on LinkedIn, make sure that when things go back to normal they remember you and your portfolio. Like any good brand should, you need to stay top-of-mind. That said, don't bother the recruiters every week asking for updates. This staycation from hell that we're all currently on likely won't be measured in weeks but in months, so you need to practice patience. The worst thing you can do right now is be annoying.

In the meantime, the best thing you can do is keep working on your portfolio. All the tips above apply to you; just because you had an internship once doesn't mean you're guaranteed another. A portfolio is a constant work-in-progress, and in the event the industry gets back to normal but your internship spot doesn't come with it, you're going to be looking for another job and your portfolio is what will get you hired.

Only worry about what you can control.

So yeah, you're a little worried that your half-finished portfolio isn't going to land you the job you had hoped for. But that's just doubt, and in your case, doubt is actually really great. The more you know, the more you realize you don't know. That's what pushes smart people to become smarter. The student who thinks their shitty student book is awesome just doesn't get it. You're going to be the one that gets better because not only do you know you need to get better, you want to get better.

And therein lies your motivation. Use this quarantine as your time to better yourself creatively. Let go of all that self-doubt and focus on what you can control. Create. Make. Fail. Then create and make even better things. So when we all come out of our caves—and we will... eventually... (maybe)—you can re-enter the post-pandemic world with some newfound confidence, creative skills, and a killer portfolio that sells the new-and-improved you to your future agency.

Profile picture for user Jesse Alkire
Jesse Alkire
Jesse Alkire is founder of Denver Ad School.

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