Copywriters live or die by their portfolio. Whether sent speculatively out into the ether or in response to a tender, your portfolio will make or break any pitch.
A CV isn’t enough. Those commissioning copy don’t care which fancy university you went to. Even if you’ve got experience with respected agencies and household-name brands, the only thing that matters to the client is cold, hard evidence of what you’ve written and how that makes you the perfect fit for them and their project. That’s what your portfolio has to show.
First off: the basics. Your portfolio is not a CV. It’s a collection of samples of your writing work. Think of it as a series of case studies of different writing projects, explaining the client’s brief and your creative solution to it, across a range of media.
Your portfolio should always, always be tailored to the client or project at hand. Whatever you do, do not indiscriminately send the same portfolio to every creative director, marketing manager, and commissioning editor. You wouldn’t give the same answers in every job interview, would you?
In fact, you can think of the portfolio as a kind of job interview. However, instead of answering questions like ‘Have you done this kind of work before?’ ‘How well do you know the sector?’ ‘Why should we choose you for this project?’ ‘How do you tackle a tricky brief?’ your portfolio does the talking instead.
Before we get onto what a good copywriting portfolio looks like, however, it’s important to know what not to include.
Essays you wrote at university
University coursework is completely irrelevant to copywriting—sorry. Your ingenious link between Protestant individualism and soliloquy in early modern drama may have earned you a pat on the head from your tutors, but it does not prove you can come up with a killer strapline. Nobody wants to read your dissertation. Your Mum probably didn’t even read it.
Don’t have any copywriting experience? Get some. Look up small local businesses with terrible copy (that’s most small local businesses) and offer your services. Can’t find a cheap and easy client? Just make it up. Write a fictional copy brief for a real or imaginary brand and show how you’d respond.
Your life story
A portfolio is a highlights reel, not an autobiography. Do not mention Scouts, your two-week work experience at Dorothy Perkins, or your primary school attendance certificates. No-one cares what you do in your free time, so don’t mention your hobbies. The portfolio is where you sell your copywriting talents and showcase written work that’s directly relevant to the client and their project. Bin everything else.
Here’s what you should include.
I call this my ‘spiel’: a short, punchy sales pitch near the front of the portfolio. What makes you and your mix of experience different to other writers and perfect for this project/client? Remember: brevity is the soul of it, so don’t waffle.
It may seem obvious, but the way you narrate your portfolio is crucial. Every sentence is a chance to show off your writing ability. Don’t just list clients and paste in the copy you wrote for them. Inject some wit, elegance or gravity (as appropriate) into the way you describe yourself and your work.
A broad but relevant range of samples
Okay, it’s showtime. You’ve introduced yourself and showed flashes of your percipient wit and august lyrical range. Now it’s time for your work to shine. It’s tempting to frontload your samples with household brand names and big-ticket jobs. But remember: the client wants to see work that demonstrates that you would be a good fit for them and this project. If the client is a small business owner looking for a strapline, that 100-page annual report you wrote for a multinational beverage giant might not convince them you’re the right person for the job.
Copywriter Stephen Marsh told me: ‘The perfect portfolio tells people what they need to know — and nothing else. Nobody wants to wade through a mass of material looking for the diamond in the rough. So keep it lean and, if you’re sending it to someone directly, pluck the most relevant pieces of work.’
There are, however, some canonical types of work any copywriter worth their salt should be able to demonstrate, skills like tone of voice development, strapline & positioning copy, emails and direct marketing, adverts, web copy, the basics of SEO, and content writing. Keep it relevant but demonstrate versatility: no-one hires a one-trick pony.
Make sure you show your working out. Clients are just as interested in your creative thinking as your final copy. That’s why it’s useful to frame each sample as a case study. Explain the client’s brief in a snappy way. So, instead of relating how you were ‘tasked with developing product copy for a range of high-end washroom fittings’, say the brief was ‘to make taps, sinks, and hand dryers sexy’. Then reveal your solution: ‘borrow from architectural and design vernaculars’, ‘personify the product’, ‘use elevated, Latinate language’—whatever. That way, when the client reads your copy, they’ll understand how you got there, and think you’re a clever clogs to boot.
If you’re pitching for a branding or advertising copywriting gig, at least one designer or art director will assess your portfolio—so it needs to look shit hot.
I spoke to a designer who regularly reviews copywriters’ portfolios and works closely with writers in the studio. ‘Writers often overlook the design of their portfolio,’ he said. ‘But if a designer reviews your portfolio, they’ll reward an attention to detail, because it tells them: “this is a writer who cares about the small things”, like the designers who you’ll be working with do.’
You don’t have to sweat over kerning and rivers, but get the basics right: a decent typeface (nothing says ‘lack of imagination’ like Calibri), sensible typographical hierarchy, high-res images, breathing room at the margins, that kind of stuff.
Don’t just toot your own horn, let blissfully happy past clients and employers do it for you—but keep it relevant. A gushing testimonial about the tenacity and drive with which you completed your morning paper round just won’t do.
For example, if you’re pitching to the copy chief of an advertising agency, include a testimonial from someone with the same job title or who works at a similar company. Testimonials should always come from big, relevant, decision-making fish: Creative Directors, Senior Marketing Managers, Editors-in-Chief.
A call to action
Tell the client what to do next: hire you. All good copy ends with a CTA (a call to action), so your portfolio should conclude with a final flourish of wit to win hearts and minds—and your contact info so they can get in touch to seal the deal.