A Portfolio Incubator: The Real-World Catch-22 Killer

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So, I need your help  ...

For the past several months, I have been mentoring a University of Central Florida student Julia Harlow (I could spend a whole post about how great she is and how well she will do in the future, just take my word for it) who has her sights on an advertising and design career.

We started with a simple idea: I would funnel some pro bono work her way (using me social channels), and the work would end up being "real" or used for the purposes of actual client marketing. This helps her because all creative students fall into the most evil catch-22 where they can't get a job because they only have student work in their portfolio. However, they can’t add real work to the portfolio until someone gives them a job. Yes, I too fell victim out of school.

Well I'm extremely happy to say she has quite a few "active" real-world jobs in her queue as I write this. It’s good to knowing I'm doing something to help launch her career. But this isn’t about me, or this one student. I think there is a bigger opportunity here for the entire advertising and marketing community.

Imagine a mini agency filled with bright, talented students such as this young woman. The “employees” are eager to start a design and advertising career, and willing to do so for little or no compensation. Clients get passionate work for close to nothing, while students develop portfolios through the challenges and process of working with real clients.

I already pitched the idea to UCF's Nicholson School of Communications, and they are on board at least in concept. Now I need the collective IQ of my audience to turn this into a class/business model.

ALERT - Big-Time Disclaimer Follows:

<blink> How important is this disclaimer? If it was 1997, I would use a blink tag on it. So you KNOW I mean business! </blink>

Here’s the thing. I don't want this “free agency” to adversely affect the advertising and design firms within our community. Therefore, I need to formulate a plan or policies around opening the door to free work for a limited time and within a specific budget range.

Thoughts on this?

Here are a few other things I’m trying to work through:

  1. How would/do you grade such a class? Pitches? Level of work? Engagement?

  2. What is the balance of virtual vs. face-to-face interaction? I think the class should be run through Basecamp initially. Then throughout the semester we would meet in a live environment to "pre-pitch" the work prior to client presentations. Do you pitch the real client in person? Online? And if face-to-face, do you do so at the school or at the client’s office (I would of course be in attendance)? The safety of the kids is paramount.

  3. What are your thoughts about establishing some baseline monetary investment from the client for these services? This money could be rolled back into the Nicholson School. Or it could buy me a motorcycle and some sweet-ass boots. Because lord knows I need to be prepared for the inevitable midlife crisis.

  4. The Nicholson School of Communications at UCF primarily is made up of public relations students. That means there will not be a great deal of "design" services available at least early on. However, I’m going to assume there will be some available each semester.

    The question is, what services should be available for the client within the confines of this agency? Copywriting? Press releases and public relations? Social media content development? Design and implementation? Complete campaign structures? Competitive analysis and research assignments? I realize this list could go on forever, but I need to apply it in such a way that a fourth-year communications student could embrace it not simply as an assignment, but as a service.

  5. How do you convey the nature of this agency and its directives to the outside world in order to get participants on the client side? I know, you're going to suggest advertising. I get it. But give me your thoughts on this as if you were pitching the student-run services to me.

  6. This question is a little bit logistical, but I'm thinking I would make a website with a detailed form that would output a creative brief for the students. Would you see the discovery being mostly digital? Does this seem right?

  7. How do we ensure that the creative is actually used by clients, or at least perceived as real work? Contract terms upon submission? I don't want just another level of student work. Thoughts?

  8. Lastly, have you seen anything like this online? I realize there are advertising and design "portfolio schools." Externally to those types of models, have you heard or seen anything like this?

I see this as a win-win because we all get something out of it beyond the feel-good aspect of giving some students a hand up. At one point or another, we’ve all worked with a rookie agency employee who just graduated. They typically know a lot of theory, but next to nothing about the practical aspects of day-to-day agency life. Let’s nip some of that madness in the bud.

Thank you for any and all feedback. I look forward to hearing your responses.