Jeff Epstein is the founder of the Chicago Portfolio School. He started out as a History Major at the University of Michigan, with the hopes of becoming a lawyer. He then got into a few marketing classes and ended up applying for JWT (J. Walter Thompson) in Detroit. The issue was that he only had history papers to present during his interview. He realized he needed to put together a portfolio. He took a year off, working as a bartender on the side, and built his own advertising portfolio. He started helping others build their own portfolio through what at first was a few classes, that eventually became the Chicago Portfolio School.
Epstein met marketing and graphic design students at the University of Mississippi, and gave them advice on how to build their own portfolios before entering the job market.
1. You need to pick a goal
Your goal can be geographic. It can be a city you absolutely want to live in, a country, or a state. It can be a specific position, a specific company, or even a sports team you want to work for. But you need a particular goal to focus on and to orientate your portfolio towards.
You need to figure out exactly what you’re interested in and go for it. It will save you time, says Epstein.
2. No one cares about your GPA
“Your major isn’t important, either… You don’t even need a degree. There are no boxes to check off. You don’t have to have an internship. Resumes are not a big thing,” Epstein says.
He is a firm believer that a portfolio weighs way more than prior experience or education when applying for a job, especially in advertising. What employers really care about is what you are able to do.
“Show them what you can do, not what you’ve done,” Epstein continues.
This means focusing on the particular skills you can bring to a company rather than all of your past experiences, that might not be as relevant for the specific job you are applying for. Your portfolio should include a minimum of 5 projects, or “spec” samples, and a maximum of 6. Every project should have a point, a concept.
3. Networking is still important
Epstein believes that networking, when done the right way, can be key to finding a job. He mentions two examples of excellent networking. Someone Venmo requested $50,000 from a big company head, with a link to his portfolio in the message accompanying the money request. He got an interview!
Another example is The Google Job Experiment. Alec Brownstein put up ads on Google aiming at five creative directors in New York City. When these creators would google their own name, the top result was a message from Alec, asking for a job.
“Give them what they asked for but do not do it in the way they expect,” Epstein states.
You will not stand out from the crowd by having a classic resume and cover letter. Epstein believes in bold, audacious ways to present your work, in order to leave a mark on employers’ minds.
4. Don’t underestimate the power of a job you hate
During his years trying to build his portfolio, Epstein was a bartender. As much as he liked it for the first month, he hated it for the rest of the year. But at least, that pushed him to do great work in order to land his dream job. He reminded himself of his goals and the thought of having to work as a bartender for the rest of his life did push him to work hard on his portfolio.
“Attitude counts for more than ability,” Epstein says.
What matters is putting in work and effort towards your goals.
The Chicago Portfolio School
The Chicago Portfolio School a five-quarters (one year) program that helps students build their own professional portfolios.
“My job is to get you a job,” Epstein says.
The school does one thing very differently than other schools: it does not give out any grades. No GPA. All that matters is the work you put into building your own professional portfolio. Students participate in a number of classes where they get to work in groups and alone on different spec campaigns.
Spec campaigns are “speculative campaigns” meaning they are based on a real brand, but without having that brand as a real client. This allows the students more freedom without the restrictions of the client’s desires.
In terms of success rate, about 95% of the Chicago Portfolio School students land jobs.