Lay Off the Astroturf

Wrapped in a diaper. Covered in Astroturf. Constructed out of trash cans. When it comes to creative portfolios, recruiters and creative directors have seen it all.

Dana Moscovici, a headhunter at Greenberg Kirshenbaum in New York, remembers receiving one that came encased in a very heavy metal. “It would have been ridiculous to send that around,” she says.

The portfolio is just about the most important element in a young creative’s job search. It’s the face you show the world. Recruiters and creative directors say that while the quality of books has gone up along with ad-school attendance and more accessible technology, they still see several common missteps in juniors’ submissions. This is what turns them off the most:

Trying too hard. Kirk Souder, president and executive creative director at Publicis & Hal Riney in San Francisco, was the recipient of the Astroturf and trash-can portfolios, both of which left him more dubious than impressed. He warns creatives not to “make the portfolio more creative than the work itself.” Instead, craft something that “shows your personality a little bit, but don’t try so hard.”

Moscovici, who reviews as many as 20 portfolios a week, understands the need to clamor for attention. Several of her clients have fur-covered portfolios, for example. “Only when it gets too flashy”—like the metal portfolio—”is it a problem,” she says.

Getting bigger won’t help your case either, it will only make you appear old-fashioned. “A minibook—8 1/2 by 11 inches—is the biggest I’d go as a junior,” Moscovici says. And anything larger than 11 by 17 will look positively outdated, she says.

Focusing on style over substance. “Some books come from schools and are very slick and polished,” says Belinda Pruyne, svp and global director of creative management at Grey in New York. “But our job is to take a look beyond the polish and shine and say, ‘Where’s the idea?’ They’re trying to make it look like it’s produced, but it’s not, nine times out of 10, and we’d know that.”

Instead of aiming to get points for technical achievement, pour your energy into showing how creatively you think. “What we’d really love to see is more branding, more really big ideas—ideas that go beyond just a print ad and a TV ad and go into other media,” says Kara Taylor, vp and associate manager of creative recruiting at Leo Burnett in Chicago. “So many of the books just have the campaign that will fulfill the assignment they had at school. They’re not really thinking about brand life in the marketplace.”

Taking the easy way out. Your friends may love your funny or funky work for offbeat clients, but the person who hires you wants to know how you’ll tackle the least-inspiring projects. “I prefer to see hard subjects, like insurance, rather than a piercing or tattoo place,” says Monica Buchanan, a recruiter at BBDO in New York. “I like to see good body copy from writers. And from art directors, ads that really show me how they can art-direct long copy. But the most important thing is fresh thinking.”

Adds Nick Cohen, co-chair of Mad Dogs & Englishmen in New York: “When you go through someone’s book, you judge it like a diving contest. If they try something really hard and do something imaginative, you are going to hire them pretty instantly.”

Piling it all in. You may have a soft spot for dozens of your projects, but now is the time to cast a more critical eye. “It’s better to have a portfolio of five great ads than a portfolio of 10 ads, eight of which are great and two are mediocre,” says Souder. “You are only as good as the worst piece of work in your book.”

If you’re in any doubt about what to keep in, get an expert’s opinion. Says Souder: “I always think it’s a good idea to bring your book to someone who you really respect, the person whose work you covet the most, and ask them to edit your book for you.”

Anne-Marie Marcus, partner and CEO of Marcus St.Jean, a New York headhunting agency, has a strict limit to the number of ads she wants to see in a book. “You should not have your history in your portfolio,” she says, advising that a reel include a maximum of 10 spots and print samples be limited to five. “You should be able to say, ‘This is the best work I’ve done.’ “