John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
How to take your copywriting portfolio to the next level.

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Whether you want to work freelance or in an ad agency, your career success hinges on your book. This article is aimed at working advertising copywriters who want to advance their careers. If you’re just getting started in advertising, read How to become an advertising copywriter first, then come back to this page.

Here are five steps to move your book from junior copywriter level, to senior copywriter level.

First, eliminate the fake ads. All those killer ads you wrote on spec, for a portfolio class, or for fun? Well, they did their job. It’s time for you and your book to move on. Nothing screams “I have no real experience” like a book full of fake ads. If the ad didn’t run, then it’s time to take it out of your book.

Second, weed out mediocrity. You’ve been writing ads for a while. You should have amassed a small pile of samples, each representing hours of toil. But, by definition, not all of it is your universally acclaimed Best Work Ever. So, skim off your A-list stuff to show.

That’s not to say you should never show anything from your B-file. Sometimes, excellent work can lose its sparkle when seen in the cold, out-of-context light of a portfolio review. Ads for niche trade services, for instance. Or industrial fittings. Or medical equipment. They may be effective, breakthrough ads in their categories. But, because their marketing messages are so esoteric and their target audiences are so exclusive, their quality may be hard to judge. Except by people who work in that category, who can appreciate what you’ve done. So, keep those in your back pocket, to trot out when you’re pitching a client or an agency that lives in that category.

What about your C-list stuff? It took as much work to create as the A-list stuff, often more. You did your job. Presumably it did its job. But it’s not going to help you get your next job. So file it away where neither you nor your potential future employers have to look at it.

Third, think visually. I see lots of student and junior copywriter portfolios that are 98% clever little lines, either all-type or accompanying a generic beauty shot. The words may be strong. But no words can equal the power of a compelling visual. Where’s the concept? Yeah, yeah, the concept is attitude. That works maybe 5% of the time. The rest of the time, it’s just substituting a tone for an idea. Think visually and develop concepts based on strong selling ideas, rather than a few allegedly powerful words.

Fourth, show campaigns. Prove you can think big! Spin each piece into a campaign. Show how one print ad is part of a set (the magic number there is three, so come up with at least three for a series). Then, keep pushing. Show how the big idea was executed in radio or TV commercials. Show how it worked online, as a point-of-purchase display, or as follow-up mailers or promotions. Take your radio and television concepts and show ads in other media that support them. Outdoor. Online. Viral videos. Mobile messaging. Guerilla P.O.P. Got a beer ad? Show how it works as a beer mat. As a poster. As a T-shirt. As a barroom urinal sign.

In a copywriter’s portfolio, well-integrated ad campaigns that use several media are what separate the seniors from the juniors, the creative directors from the copywriters.

Fifth, show depth through diversity. Have a mix of ad campaigns: business-to-business and consumer, products and services. Short copy. Long copy. Aggressive, hard-sell copy. Evocative, soft-sell copy. Plus, marketing pieces that show how your ad concepts and themes turned into brochures, promotions, and sales support materials.

Some writers take pride in having a “voice.” That’s great, for poets and novelists. A copywriter’s voice should be the voice of the target market. It takes study and skill and genuine empathy to pull it off. Your book should prove that you are as adept connecting to 50-something CEOs as 30-something PTA moms as teen-age mall rats.

As an advertising copywriter, your portfolio is your primary marketing piece. It’s also a life’s work. You’ll constantly improve it, building it up here, thinning it down there. To keep working in advertising, keep working on your portfolio.

More advertising and marketing advice.

Advertising strategy and other lies
An advertising copywriter’s bookshelf: recommended books
Brands and branding: a white paper
Do you make these mistakes in advertising?
Free (yes, free) advertising copywriting resources
Four ad copy traps that ensnare even experienced copywriters
How to become an advertising copywriter
How to write a brochure: advice from an advertising copywriter
How to write better ads
Long John Silver on writing ads
More career advice: what’s it like being an advertising copywriter?
Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part I: starting the enterprise
Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part II: the entrepreneurial character
Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part III: growing the enterprise
The ART of repurposing marketing copy (Or, why you shouldn’t use brochure copy as web content)
The economy (and what to do about it)
When you should consider hiring a freelance copywriter
Advertising copywriting mentorship
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