Friendly advice from the other side of a portfolio

When confronted with a portfolio of samples, intelligent businesspeople typically become less than savvy. Losing sight of the fact that they’re about to make a critical business decision, they scan the contents, nod their approval, then point to an example or two and say, “I really like this one” or “That’s cool!” Then they slide the portfolio off to the side, and smile nervously at its owner.

Please don’t think that I’m poking fun at them. As one of the people whose work is often judged in this manner, I actually feel sorry for them — and a wee bit frustrated that my expertise is so often evaluated in such an offhand, ineffective way.

Without exaggerating, I can say that I’ve watched hundreds of people review portfolios during my career, and only a handful of them have done it effectively. Even managers who have extensive hiring experience aren’t always certain about how to respond to a portfolio. And part of human nature is that when we’re intimidated by a process or just not sure how to proceed, we pretend that we know what we’re doing.

By “portfolio,” I’m referring to any number of ways in which samples of past work may be presented to a prospective client — not just the black leather cases that normally spring to mind. Portfolios are used by any number of professions. In addition to copywriters, the list includes graphic designers, web wizards, architects, and interior designers.

So when you’re confronted with a portfolio, how should you approach it? The key is to review it critically.
Although most of us consider “criticism” to be an inherently negative concept, that’s not really the case. A critical review goes beyond one’s immediate reaction to carefully analyze the thinking and decisions that went into the creation of what’s being reviewed.

For example, when a movie critic reviews a film — whether or not he gives it a thumbs-up — he’ll analyze what the director was trying to accomplish. He’ll consider the role of the screenplay in developing and wrapping up the plot, and he’ll study the believability and likability of the actors.

In business, as in Hollywood, most of us are judged not on how eagerly we try, but on how well we actually perform. By critically reviewing a prospective vendor’s portfolio, you’ll gain significant insight not only into what that supplier can do, but whether his or her approach to work is compatible with your business philosophy and goals.

It’s easy to be wowed by the samples in a portfolio, but you’d be wise to keep two things in mind. First, you’re looking at the prospective supplier’s very best work. It may represent only a handful of examples from a long career that saw more mediocrity than success. Second, appearances can be quite deceiving. Coolness, cleverness, and beauty may all be indicative of talent, but they cannot tell you whether the supplier actually served the particular client’s needs.
Suppose you’re reviewing a portfolio from an advertising creative. While the words and design used in each sample are unquestionably important in gauging the professional’s level of expertise, the thinking behind those words and design is infinitely more important. After all, the samples weren’t developed solely to be artistic expressions; they were created to achieve some type of business or communications objective.

To critically evaluate each sample, go beyond the appearance or the wording. Draw out more information. Ask the creative about the client’s specific objectives, and what led him or her to choose that particular approach in pursuing the goal. Determine whether he or she considered other strategies. Inquire as to how he or she convinced the client that this was the best approach, and what he or she might change given the opportunity to revisit the project.
The more you get the creative to talk about the samples, the more insight you’ll gain into both his or her work style and personality. The latter is just as important, because you want to ensure that you’ll have a healthy, cooperative working relationship. If you hear negative attitudes toward clients and budgets, you may encounter the same with your own projects.

“Listen for candor, enthusiasm, and signs of collaboration.”

Listen for candor, enthusiasm, and signs of collaboration. The supplier should be proud of a job well done, and he or she should speak favorably and respectfully of the client. It’s okay if the supplier mentions a conflict with a client, as long as he or she explains it in a respectful way.

If you want your own project to succeed, it’s also important to ask about results. Ideally, you’ll hear specifics, because there’s a big gulf between “I think it did pretty well” and “my client’s sales rose 26 percent during the quarter.” Only one of those replies reflects a serious interest in the client’s success.

It’s also a good idea to go beyond the samples in the presentation and explore the vendor’s general approach to business by asking open-ended questions. “Have you ever taken an existing project that wasn’t working and turned it into a success?” will offer insight into the supplier’s strategic approach. “What do you do when a client’s wishes seem to conflict with his or her business objectives?” examines the willingness and ability to disagree constructively. “Tell me about a project that didn’t succeed and what you learned from it” will provide a glimpse into the supplier’s honesty and ability to identify positives in tough situations.

If the answers to questions like these make you uncomfortable, or seem to be evasive, you probably haven’t found the right supplier. But if each comment increases your level of confidence, you’re on the right track.

Yes, all of these steps will demand more time and effort than a simple glance at a portfolio. But when you consider the impact having the right — or wrong — architect, writer, designer, web guru, or other professional will have upon the success of your business, it’s time and effort well-spent.

So it really is okay to say that you like the way a particular sample looks. Just be sure that you don’t make such an important selection on looks alone.