Breaking In

Over 100 Advertising Insiders Reveal How to Build a Portfolio that Will Get You Hired

Interviews by William Burks Spencer

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Interview Excerpt: Todd Riddle, Creative Director, Fallon, Minneapolis

Check out some great work from Todd Riddle.

Interviewed at BBH New York.

TR: …the main thing is breadth and depth. So I can tell pretty quickly if someone is really good at one thing, and usually you assume that, by the time the book gets to you, there’s something in there that’s pretty good. But what really impresses me is someone who has various tones of voice in the work that they have. In other words, they can do something serious, they can do something funny, they can handle something more mainstream or a really tough brand but in an interesting way, and also, say, something that’s really smart. And to give an example: The Economist is a classic example of a really smart brand that’s able to show off a creative person’s ability to write or think in a really smart way. Something like Axe, here at BBH: is funny, guy humor, I guess. The Volkswagen stuff, whether it’s from Arnold or Crispin, is sort of more mainstream, and sits somewhere in between. So that’s just an example of three different kinds of voices that I can pick up pretty quickly if they can do more than one.

So if someone comes in and does all bathroom, guy humor, and the whole book is like that, it is pretty evident. So I’m really impressed right away by breadth. Also, I would say a lot of writers really aren’t very good. A lot of writers who call themselves writers aren’t really good at the craft of writing.

Which is kind of just the ability to write something really insightful or pick up on a truth in the world. Or maybe it’s irony, or a funny point of view on comedy, etc. But you can tell someone who has a point of view in their writing versus just writing a bland headline or digital idea or whatever. So, in summary: breadth of what they do as far as tone, breadth of what they do as far as mediums, whether they do a billboard or a print ad, or something interesting in digital. All those things play a role.

[ ... ]

WS: And you’ve touched on this before but for writers, how important is it to show that you can write, and how’s the best way to demonstrate that?

TR: I guess for a writer, I would be really impressed with a writer who came in with some really, really fundamentally smart print or outdoor billboard headlines, but also thinking really visually. So writing isn’t just about writing words, it’s about thinking very sharply about communicating an idea. And it’s clearly by having command of the language, but it’s also having a command of communication and visual communication as well.

WS: What do you think about putting things in books besides ads?

TR: I think what’s great about technology now is you can build your own website. In the past, if you were an art director and you wanted to share your photography skills or the fact that you can sculpt or the fact that you’re in a band or the fact that you are good at macramé, or whatever you do, it was hard to put that into your portfolio. Just because of the sheer volume of the book. It would be like, “Half of what this guy or this girl does is photography—-why is she sending this to us? I guess she wants to be a photographer.”

Whereas nowadays you can have your advertising portfolio on your website and you can also have a link to some photographs that you took. Or, if you traveled the world with a friend, and did some interesting things, and wrote a blog about it. You can link to that blog also. If you wrote songs or music you could have a link to that-—like if you were actually on iTunes. So I think there is a way now to make it very, very appropriate. And also demonstrate your breadth without being annoying or without looking like you don’t know where your passion is. I think it’s totally appropriate now to say, “I want to be in advertising but I also have these other skills and other passions and this is going to let you know who I am. Besides just ‘number 456’ out of this advertising school.” So it’s a way to personalize who you are and also demonstrate other skills that, more and more, are becoming needed and appropriate, and also just converging with what we’re doing in advertising.

WS: Do you recommend separating the ads from the other things?

TR: Yes. I’ve seen a lot of websites where they’ll have their advertising stuff—maybe a TV idea, some print, and some website designs—and then it will say, “What I do for fun.” For example, there will be a whole thing of photography they shot in India. Or a blog that they’ve been keeping. Or a link to some other website that they made. It helps people understand who they are.

WS: Do you have any other advice for anyone who is just starting out in the business?

TR: Yes, and this is the advice I give to everyone, which is really hard to follow. The key when you’re starting out is to surround yourself with the best people possible, for as long as possible. I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s easier to get any job than to get a job at a really great place.

In the beginning, it’s not about the money, even though money is clearly important, which is why most people go to work. But, long term, your first five years in the business is just an investment. It’s an investment about creating who you’re going to be 10, 15, 20 years down the road. So, just like a child born into one family is going to be very different than a child born into another family, this is different because you actually get to choose the family that you get born into. Think about yourself being born into a creative family. You get to choose who that creative family is. And you’re better off waiting for the right family to adopt you than to just jump in with whoever will take you first.

My first job—I was offered a couple of jobs in the industry making not-much money. But I took a job that actually paid nothing for the first nine months. I interned for free. And that was after a college education. Because the people I was working with were the best people I could find and be around at the time. And I ended up staying there for 12 years. So, that’s a good example of just waiting, because, whether you want it to or not, it will define how you think, how you view yourself, how others view you, what you think you’re capable of, all of your experiences, what you create, and what you will create in the rest of your career. It’s the most critical part of your career. And even more critical than the college or education that you got. Because everyone will forget where you went to college after two or three years—whatever school you went to, nobody is going to care. No one’s going to care about your GPA. No one’s going to care whether you graduated or not. No one’s going to care about anything. All they’ll want to know is what have you done in the past two or three years. And if you’ve been surrounded by really great, smart, bright, creative people, and that’s rubbed off on you, and you’ve become a bit of them, then that’s all you’ll have to have really, in the end.

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