On Writers, Copywriting and How to Build a Portfolio

The utter audacity to call yourself a writer! Now that takes cojones. Writers are born with an acute sensitivity to the human condition (in this way, they are “chosen”) and then they are self-made through reading, studying and, well, writing (then, rewriting). You must “invent” yourself as a writer. To think that you can play with words enough to massage them into something interesting and entertaining (and in advertising, sell something at the same time) requires a certain insouciant naiveté.  And at the same time, it requires a willful dedication to language and style as well as devout discipline to practice the craft daily.

Writers are a rare breed, like southpaw pitchers in baseball. I’ve placed more writers than any other type of talent — hundreds and hundreds of them. I don’t know why. Maybe because the good ones are so rare. I’ve noticed an alarming de-emphasis of writing in the advertising industry in the past decade. I’m not sure that’s a result of the declining literacy of today’s audiences or the slow extinction of the breed providing less written content (or both). But, it’s almost odd to see a “writer’s campaign” today. Everything is so visually driven — hinging on a “concept” (usually shock value or a slapstick gag — like the Betty White spot).

I’m not just referring to the Print medium. It’s also TV, Radio (how can radio be so poorly written and dependent on cliched sound-bite gags?) online and outdoor (all you have to write is 7 words). I’m also not necessarily referring to a lot of body copy or words. Take the Google Super Bowl spot — it was a delightful narrative; a coming of age story allegorical to all Google users (that would be everyone with a computer and an internet connection). Not one spoken word, just three and four word “googles” [Google Super Bowl Spot]. And I’m also not referring to nostalgic Neil French/David Ogilvy exhaustive Print tomes drawing upon Noel Coward drawing-room humor. But more along the lines of the recent Avis “The Other Car” television campaign Avis \”The Other Car\”. Brilliant. These days, a writer’s campaign sticks out like a boner in a lesbian bar.

Before I forget, just a second while I digress on radio. It’s not going away. People drive to and from work — most of America does (check out the HOV lane). Yes, the dork in the Beamer has Sirius — but most of America listens to the radio. Every day. Even with iPods and iPhones — radio remains a viable medium. I can’t think of a better way for an advertising writer to prove they can write than to author an entertaining and sustainable radio campaign. Think Tom Bodett. The Folgers Coffee Couple. Molson. I know as a fact that agencies discourage radio from their clients’ media mix because they can’t fulfill the creative. I once sent a young writer to interview with Lee Clow in Venice. He turned the job down and subsequently founded a successful radio scriptwriting agency. That’s how rare the skill set is — they don’t need Chiat/Day. As an aside, I listen to 1690AM Atlanta WMLB “The Voice of the Arts”. Stream it into your agency, set it on your laptop at work. It is guaranteed to inspire you and increase your creativity. To stream them in from anywhere: 1690wmlb.com.  Don’t trust me, trust your ears.

I’m often asked by writers for assistance in constructing their portfolio. What’s most striking about young writers’ portfolios is the absence of evidence that they can actually write. I visited the Creative Circus not too long ago and reviewed several dozen student portfolios. WHAT ARE THEY TEACHING THEM THERE? Certainly not how to write interesting or entertaining copy. I can’t tell the difference between the copywriters and the art directors. I can’t find the headline (“oh, there isn’t any headline”). The body copy (if there is any) reads as if it were written by Jeff Spicoli. No radio scripts to be found anywhere.

Here are some tips to help guide you in building a writer’s portfolio:

1. Provide examples that you can actually write. Show us you can do more than just think visually in advertising terms. That you are actually a writer, as you purport to be. See the paragraph above. Headlines that inspire, compelling body copy, radio scripts, TV scripts with dialogue. You get it.

2. Provide examples that you can sell something. I recently ran a search for an ECD at one of the Southeast’s largest and best-known agencies. We reviewed a dozen or so candidates’ portfolios. There was a lot of humor (really funny shit), pathos (Goosebump City, near Rineytown), whacked out weirdness (half the stuff we saw we didn’t understand until the 3rd or 4th view). But there was very little selling happening. I am not just referring to price/item dreck retail formulas but basic brand/product/benefit advertising that is interesting and entertaining. Sell me something, dammit.

3. If it’s not great, there’s no place for it. This especially applies to TV. One of the hazards of Digital books (web sites, microsites, links, etc..) is the temptation to over-indulge in your own work. Treat it the same as an actual hard case portfolio. It only takes one mediocre campaign to get someone to click away from your site.

4. Be interesting, but not too cute. Tell us a bit about you WITHOUT actually telling us. Hell, you’re a writer. Figure out a way to make yourself entertaining without trying too hard. Use music, film, theatrics or something topical to augment your work. Don’t overdo it, but using a snippet  from an obscure Monkees tune as intro music is a nice touch.

5. Yes, show digital, duh. Everyone shows websites, banners and promos. Very few show cool applications, videos, games and original content written for websites (beyond basic yada “Who We Are” stuff). Live links are okay but remember, they take people AWAY from your site.

6. Order your work so it tells a story. Make it a “book within the book”. Make it a narrative. Leave ’em laughing or crying.

7. Stay away from spec unless you have nothing else. Sell an ad, man.

8. Be a headline machine. If someone puts 50 cents in, give them a case of headlines. There will always be a place in this business for a headline machine.

9. Radio. See my digression above. This can be spec if you have none produced. You can produce your  own on basic Mac apps — like Garage Band. I’m waiting for the young writer to produce a radio campaign for himself — just to show me he can do it.

10. Keep the gimmicks to a minimum. Be interesting and entertaining, not weird. We all know you’re weird — you’re a writer. Don’t rub our nose in it.

I’ll close with some of the infamous CP+B Copy Test. Devised by a writer I placed there about 15 years ago — Bill Wright, employee #28. Bill is now the Creative Director on Burger King. He noticed some of the same disconcerting trends in young writers that I  mention above. So Bill implemented a copy test as part of the hiring regimen at Crispin.

  • Give a short, persuasive argument on letting Pluto remain a planet.
  • Pen a haiku about prairie dogs.
  • Describe toast to a Martian in 50 words or less.
  • Describe the color red to a blind person
  • “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work” is such a boring sign. It’s ubiquity has rendered it useless (a sobering thought). For all humanity, please rewrite it.
  • You might be redneck if:
  • Write a really awful pun.
  • Match the airline with its hub airport:
  • What’s your favorite oxymoron?
  • What’s your favorite retronym?
  • Write 12 synonyms for the word “Go”.
  • Now write 12 antonyms for the same word.
  • Extra credit: Diagram the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

17 thoughts on “On Writers, Copywriting and How to Build a Portfolio

  1. Jimmy Gilmore

    Your rant on radio makes me smile. In my years as a writer I haven’t met to many copywriters begging for the radio brief. I swear a lot of folks, even ECDs, that are scared of the medium. There’s no art direction for your writing to hide behind. Plus you need to know how to cast, produce, and direct to do it well. This makes it one of my favorite mediums. Good to hear from you, Jimmy

  2. Dan


    I agree. I want to see more (and better) copy, too.

    To answer your question: At The Creative Circus, we teach headline writing and we still emphasize print and radio. But unlike the early 90s, when every awards book was filled with intelligent writing, there is very little out there for students to emulate.

    In an industry that (justifiably) awards a Cyber Grand Prix at Cannes and One Show gold to “Chalk Bot” (a robot that spray paints user-submitted messages on the road of major cycling events), it’s hard to convince a student to put in the time to write copy.

    Are you seeing strong copy in student books from other ad schools?

    Dan Balser
    Advertising Department Head
    The Creative Circus

    1. mikepalma Post author

      Thanks for the note, Dan. I always thought Cannes was for poseurs who buy their way in. CA and One Show are laden with copy-rich work. In all media. But rather than focus on what wins awards — I just wish the schools taught effective communications sans robots.

      Ironically, the best Student copy still comes out of SVA.

  3. Ashlyn St. Ours


    Thank you for this.

    As a young, aspiring copywriter, I appreciate your advice about portfolio compilation.
    I have experience with advertising, and I have materials with which to create a portfolio — but you’re absolutely right. My portfolio is probably indistinguishable from what an art director’s must look like. There’s very little actual WRITING.

    Having read this will likely be the difference between remaining an aspiring copywriter and being recognized as a legitimate writer who can actually WRITE.

    Thanks again.

    Ashlyn St. Ours
    Boston University
    Advertising major
    Creative writing concentration

  4. sosaic

    This is a wonderful blog, and I clearly caught it much later than what it was intended, but it spoke to me deeply.

    Yet, I am a little afraid and confused because my portfolio pieces accentuate smaller parts from bigger campaigns I have created which showcase my abilities as a copywriter. But, when in interviews, I keep hearing that they want something more visually stimulating.


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  7. Patrick Scullin

    When I was a young copywriter, many art directors and account people would give me shit about sweating over writing the body copy. “No one reads copy,” they’d say.

    I’d counter with this: “They do when I go on interviews.”

    Write, write, rewrite. Repeat as necessary.

  8. mikepalma Post author

    Great insight, Patrick. I wonder what the clients would think if they thought their account people believed that nobody reads body copy. thanks.

  9. anne mccoll

    mike this is great stuff. It certainly is a different market. My first 10 years ad a writer I barely wrote more than two paragraphs at a time as a writer. Now I actually write a lot on websites but the ability to think visually and conceptually makes it easy to stand out. VERY hard to find good younger writers.

  10. Gilberto

    Greetings! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting
    a new project in a community in the same niche. Your blog
    provided us useful information to work on. You have done
    a outstanding job!

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  12. Michael Sinclair

    Michael, you’re dead right about the lack of writing talent today, but I’m not surprised, given the production of students over my last two decades at WFU. My wife is weary of my daily “proofreading” of the local “newspaper” (someone has to do it) and my outbursts at radio and TV announcers who cannot speak grammatically but rely on God-awful cliches such as “a road game, in front of a hostile crowd” etc.

  13. Scott

    I like to think I’m a great writer. A writer’s writer. Have penned a few ebooks too. Talk about “long copy.” Didn’t seem to matter much at the Circus. Granted, I didn’t quite catch on to the whole “say it straight” then “say it great” concept of creative copywriting. It was never taught to me, just assumed I’d pick up on it by looking at ads? I get it now, but once you cross over to corporate writing it’s tough to go back to agency land. That’s been my experience, but maybe the gods will grant me another go-round. Regardless, nice to see actual writing still admired by a few folks.


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