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When 20 recent graduates of the Miami Ad School peddled their skills during a portfolio review at Merkley Newman Harty & Partners’ New York office, there was almost unanimous agreement about who stood out. Tracy Sachs had conceived of and designed an environmentally themed campaign for Duracell: In a cross-promotion with Walgreens, consumers would be able to buy as well as recycle the batteries—packaged to look like insects sitting on a leaf—at the drugstore chain.

Recruiters and creative execs say too few portfolios show that sort of big-picture thinking, consisting instead of the same old fare: three print ads and...

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