BMF creative founder Warren Brown interview published in new William Burks Spencer book

Warren Brown 2013 shot.jpgAn interview conducted between BMF creative founder Warren Brown and Seattle author and copywriter William Burks Spencer has been published in Spencer's book 'Breaking In: Over 130 advertising insiders reveal how to build a portfolio that will get you hired'. Here is the interview.

What do you look for in a student portfolio? And what impresses you?

I look for clarity of thought. I like a combination of logic and madness. We work in an industry where we solve problems, and trying to define what is the problem that we're actually trying to solve is quite often the biggest challenge. So I like people to have a very analytical way of approaching a problem and figure out what is important and what isn't. If there's a logic to the construct of your argument or idea, then you need to deliver it with a sense of irreverence and madness. And not fall into the trap of delivering it in a dry fashion that won't catch anyone's attention or get them interested. It's a very "yin and yang" thing; if the fundamentals of the thinking are sound and given a "sticky wrapping," then they will engage people.
That's interesting that the problem is figuring out what the problem is. Is that something that you can see in the finished work? Or do you think it is helpful for students to write a sentence about the problem they are trying to solve? A setup line?
 
I think that's key to how powerful your idea will be. There are two important things you need to be successful. First, find something interesting to say. That's the basis of any great idea. And once you've identified that, it is important that you find an interesting way to say it. It's very hard to be original if you can't find something interesting to say initially, so I place a lot of emphasis on what that nugget is. I think most people, when they are given a brief, just rush headlong into trying to please the client without stepping back and saying, "What is the real issue here? What are we really trying to address?" The client will give you a set of challenges that they'd like to have met, but there might be an underlying thing that will wipe all those other concerns out and give you a much stronger steer on where you need to go to create a bigger impact or solve a problem that even the client hasn't quite identified yet.
 
What about finish? Can sketches be enough?
 
I think principally it's about ideas that fire the imagination. There's a great quote I heard years ago: "A child's mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." And I look for people who fire my imagination with ideas. The more breadth and scope of the thinking and the greater the creative territory that they've discovered, the stronger the idea--that's what's inspiring. You can transport great ideas into any medium. Into any nook or cranny you like and they are unbelievably sticky. They stay with you. You can't shake them off. And that can be presented on a scrap of paper. I never get seduced by wonderful presentations that are highly finished and may have dressed up something that is essentially quite boring. I always look for "What is the key nugget? What is the leap they've made creatively? What is the fresh insight?"
 
For art directors, do you look for design skills at all?
 
I think you've got to be able to do everything these days, but if you had to put an emphasis on one thing I would make sure your ideas are sound, well thought out, and you articulate or present them in a way that gives the viewer an indication of how you see it developing creatively. And you can do that by getting reference material, if you can't create it yourself. There's enough information out there now on the Internet that you can pull stuff together to say, "Okay, this is the sort of territory I'm in, but it's not going to be quite like that, it will be more like this." Because if you're truly original, what you're trying to present might not exist. So you've got to find a way to fill in the blanks for me with material that is relevant and will help illustrate the idea.
 
If you're a good creative director, you have to have a pretty well-developed theater of the mind anyway. Good creative directors can usually spot something within an idea, and you might find that that should be the focus. Sometimes people come with a fully formed campaign and they believe they've done a wonderful job. And often a creative director will say, "You see this little bit over here? That's the great bit, and you've surrounded it with all this crap." So you need to be quite aware that editing is key to getting a great result. Because it's not what you put in, it's what you leave out that will make your idea stronger. And most people actually think that the more they put in, the more it will enhance their chances of impressing someone. But it doesn't work for me or for anyone I know. It's all a process of reduction and finding the essential bits that will empower an idea.
 
Do you need to see evidence of writing ability for copywriters?
 
I think what you need to see is people who can actually write down an idea that has a flow of logic so you can understand what they are trying to say. I usually get impressed by people who can write a sentence and string together an argument using just the English language even though very few people tend to rely on that these days. We live in a very visual world. I always believed that if you're a really good art director you should learn how to write, and if you're a good writer you should learn how to art-direct. Because you never know how the idea is going to be best expressed. We're in the business of communication, so it's really important that, if the only medium that you've got open to you is words and you want to express your idea, you want to be articulate enough to choose the right words that will empower your thinking. Rather than getting it lost in a spray of adjectives or what-have-you. Or if you're stuck in a visual space and you're a writer, you've got to be able to think visually to find what will work best in that discipline. But I think these days to succeed you have to be the fully rounded article.
 
Understand basic grammar and how sentences work, and then you don't always have to rely on it. Picasso was a classically trained artist and then basically threw it all away to explore a new visual language. And I think it's a lot easier to do that if you understand the fundamentals and what underpins everything, and there may be times when that knowledge is very important. It also helps in presentations; if you can write well you can usually speak well, and if you can articulate your point quickly and succinctly to clients it is very helpful.
 
What do you think of including personal work that isn't advertising in a portfolio?
 
I have this question I normally ask people in interviews who are trying to impress you with how professional and buttoned down they are: "What's the craziest, maddest thing you've ever done?" Because I think you need to know the personality of the person and also how far they are prepared to go to do something quite mad. If they've never done anything that is exciting or has gone against the accepted norms and conventions and busted out and done something wild, then I get a bit bored. So I like to think there is a strong personality there that is almost being wrestled into business. It's like having a wild horse, and you're sort of breaking it in to work in a more commercial sphere. I think great creative people are a little bit like that. They can be, not wild in their behavior, but really out there in their thinking, trying to commercialize that creativity and make it relevant to brands' and clients' problems is a fun challenge to have as a creative director. So I'd rather guide or channel people into that space. Trying to make people who think they are creative more creative is difficult. If they're too buttoned down and wary of every client concern, then you'll have a pretty dull creative department. You want a bit of a wild ride with a department that can come up with unexpected, single-minded, and effective ideas.
 
Can you think of any examples of remarkable junior portfolios?
 
Not specific examples. But what I normally find is students will have a book of maybe 30 pieces of work--about 10 campaigns with examples of how the idea works across different mediums or platforms. Because you want to see that they aren't relying on just one good idea to get by. If they get knocked down, they need to show they're able to get back up. If an idea they think is the best they've ever had gets killed, they need to come back the next day with something even better. Good people can do that. Not-so-good people will get crushed. But it's important to have at the very least two or three things in the book that stand out.
 
John Hegarty explained [this] to me once when I was a junior in London showing him my book and he got to the end and he just smiled. And I thought, "This interview is going really well." And he said, "You know Warren, I think you can be brilliant or terrible, but right now I don't think you know the difference." I'd rather see a book that is a bit up and down because people are exploring and trying. Just because you've got a few terrible things in there...failure isn't a bad thing. And if you make people terrified of failure early on in their career, they'll never be any good. People need to be adventurous. Experience in the business will help them to know when they are being terrible or good. But you should never be frightened of failing. They need that unfettered gush of creativity. Don't rein it in or be too politically correct. But, on the other hand, don't go out there and do attention-seeking stuff just for the sake of it because that won't win any votes either.
 
"Just because you've got a few terrible things in there...failure isn't a bad thing. And if you make people terrified of failure early on in their career, they'll never be any good. People need to be adventurous."
 
Are there any common mistakes that students make?
 
The biggest mistake a lot of them make is to try and produce work that they think the other person will like rather than doing what they like. So they haven't been true to themselves. And it's much easier if you say, "This is me; this is the type of work I can produce; this is the type of work I like and admire." I think it's important to maintain a personal integrity and an honesty. And if the CD interviewing them doesn't like it, that's okay. What's accepted in our industry is pretty wide ranging, so there's nothing wrong with being quite individual. If you're good and talented, you will find a niche within this business that will accommodate you and allow your creativity to blossom.
 
Do you still like to see print ads these days?
 
Not necessarily. I quite like poster ideas because you're forced to reduce your thinking down to very few elements. So that's a good discipline to start with. And most great ideas you could write down in a sentence. A lot of great movies you could write the proposition in a sentence. Whether that turns into a print ad, poster, online film, content, whatever--it doesn't really bother me. But I don't place a huge emphasis on print anymore. A complete print book would not get a job here.
 
Do you have advice on how to actually get in front of creative directors?
 
A lot of people send funny stuff in the mail. That normally ends up in the bin. A well-written email can sometimes work.
 
Pointing you to an online portfolio?
 
Sometimes. But it has to be really good. If they somehow coerce you into wasting your time, you get quite angry, and they've burnt their bridges before they've really had a chance. Referrals are really good. If a friend I trust says, "You really should look at this person," I undoubtedly will. When I was trying to get a job, I just hammered John Hegarty for several weeks--rang him up nearly every day. And came into the agency with a new campaign nearly every day. If you want to get into a particular company or work for a particular CD, persistence usually goes a long way. You can wear them down and they'll give you a shot, and if you impress them enough in that one meeting, don't disappear for three months, come back the next week. And if they don't like your book, come back with a whole new book next week. People love that sort of persistence and energy and creative drive. Because if you're running an agency, you want people like that. It's like striking oil--people just gushing ideas. That's more impressive than a beautiful, finely honed book where the thought of changing anything in it puts the fear of God in them. If your book is preventing you from getting into the agency you want to get into, then chuck it out. Do another one. It's tough, but it shows that you're really keen and you're really sure about what you want. You're actively pursuing a position where you feel you belong.
 
Don't ever give up. Usually you'll get to a point where you think, "It's too tough; I tried everything and nothing seems to work and I'm destined for failure." That's the time when everyone gives up. And that's actually the time when you should keep going. You've just got to push through that barrier. The ones who keep going that little bit longer are the ones who succeed. No matter how tough you think it is, it's always going to get tougher, and trust me, once you do get a job it's way tougher still. You have to have the hide of a rhino. But if you can clearly identify the type of company you want to work in and the type of people you want to work with, it makes it a hell of a lot easier, and then it's just down to dogged persistence. And if you try hard enough, you should be successful.

Spencer, William Burks (2014), "Breaking In: Over 1320 Advertising insiders reveal how to build a portfolio that will get you hired", Tuk Tuk Press: 113-116

3 Comments

Waz said:

What a dude.

Brilliant said:

Even for an old hack like me, this is very inspiring.
Warren Brown is an absolute legend.

stable said:

Interesting interview. I wonder for a junior trying to land their 1st job if it is all worth it though. It is just a job though and not a very stable job at that.

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