I talk to lots of people early in their careers who want to get into copywriting at an advertising agency but don’t have any experience. Of the many pieces of advice I have for them, one of my favorites is to create a portfolio of fake work.
Fake It Until You Make It
When I say “fake work,” I mean coming up with ad campaigns for brands and products that they aren’t paid for and that will not run anywhere.
And when I say “fake work,” most of these people say something along the lines of, “Isn’t that shady?”
It’s not. It’s really helpful for you and for the people who may ultimately hire you.
To make myself perfectly clear, I’m not suggesting you create a portfolio of fake work and try to sell it as real work. That’s shady.
What I’m suggesting is that you create a portfolio of work to show what you’re capable of doing - the way that you think and write - while fully acknowledging that it is not actual, paid client work.
Lots of Talent, Little Experience
Here’s the thing: if you are interviewing for entry-level positions, the creative directors and HR people that you would be talking with wouldn’t expect a lot of experience. So they understand that they’ll be seeing candidates without robust portfolios, and likely no experience working on big campaigns. What they want to see is how you think and how you write.
RELATED: How to find out what kind of writer you are
You’re probably thinking, “I’m a writer. How do I create a portfolio without any design skills?” Well, read on and I’ll show you.
Step 1: Pick a product you love
It will be easier for you to write about a product that you use, understand, and love. If you’ve ever found yourself talking to friends about something that they should use, make that your product.
The passion that you already have for it will make it easier for you to sell it to others.
Step 2: Do your homework
You may think you know everything there is to know about the product you chose, but you’re wrong. There’s always more to learn.
What do you need to know?
I always feel that it can be helpful to know a little bit of your product’s history as well.
Step 3: Find (something like) a designer
You’re going to have to figure out how to bring your words to life visually. If you know an art director looking to break into advertising, or just one that’s willing to help, you have a great headstart. The two of you can work together, which will also show potential employers that you’re able to work in a team.
It’s okay if you don’t know a designer. Like I said, the people who will be viewing your portfolio really just want to see how you think and the quality of your writing.
You can get by with designing print ads in a Word or Powerpoint document, using pictures you find online or even your own sketches.
You could build web pages online for free on sites like Wordpress, Weebly or Squarespace. Just use their themes and imagery you find online.
And if you’re writing a TV script, you can just provide descriptions of what we’re seeing, along with the copy that will be read.
Step 4: Give yourself a goal
In advertising, the creative brief is the document that lays out the objectives of a project.
At its most basic, it tells you “After seeing this ad campaign, we want people to do this: _____”
To help give direction to your work, decide what you want people to do when they see your ad. it could be as simple as become more aware of the product, or of a certain feature of the product. It could be more specific like signing up for a promotion or sharing something on social media. Or just to visit the website or buy now.
I find this is helpful, because when you first know where you want your target consumer to go, you can then figure out how you’re going to get her there.
Step 5: Come up with a big idea
This is the part where the real creative work gets done. How do you want to talk to your audience, and what will they respond to? What will get them to stop, pay attention, and then act?
Many great advertising campaigns are built on one big idea. That means that they are not just one-off print ads or TV spots. The idea that informs the TV spot carries over to the print ad, which carries over to the website.
A great example of this is the “Mayhem” ads for Allstate Insurance. This big idea lasted for years across almost every conceivable type of media and never failed to surprise and delight.
Step 6: Execute
Once you’ve decided on your idea, come up with a bunch of executions based on it.
Come up with a couple of print ads, showing off your headline writing skills.
Create the landing page that your audience will go to find out more. You can really show off by coming up with a vanity URL that relates back to your big idea.
Write the TV spot that really brings your idea to life. If you’re feeling it, write a :60 spot, then cut it down for a :30 version.
Really loving your idea? Come up with a bunch of :15 pre-roll videos and show off how you can communicate a strong idea in a limited amount of time.
I used to recommend coming up with online banner ads, but I’m not sure that anybody wants to see those anymore.
Step 7: Get feedback
The one thing about advertising is that your work is going to be evaluated, edited and redirected by a long line of people with more experience than you. If you are serious about working in advertising, you need to get used to hearing people taking apart your work. Even more important, you need to get used to responding to their concerns, criticisms, and direction and making sure that it improves your work.
So share your campaign with someone who’s opinion you trust. If you know someone who works in advertising or in marketing, then be sure to get their opinion.
Getting feedback will almost always result in better work. As humans, we are cursed with only a single viewpoint. Listening to someone else’s viewpoint will open your mind and your work to be more inclusive and result in more effective work.
Your potential employers will be glad to hear that you sought out feedback and were able to incorporate it. One thing ad agencies worry about is bringing on people who don’t work well with others. It’s a collaborative industry and even a creative genius would find herself without a job if she didn’t think she needed to work as a group.
Step 8: Do it again
One campaign is good, but if you can fake another campaign, that will really show off your skill.
Go back to Step 1 and pick a different product. This is a great chance to show off your range, so you’ll get extra points if you choose a product in a different category or with a different audience than your first campaign.
After two campaigns, you have a portfolio that shows off your writing skill and how you would think as an advertising creative. Now you’re ready to show them off.