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Warning: Portfolio revamp may cause existential crisis

...or the moment Kate Kemp realizes that reducing her 16-year career into six pieces won’t be that easy. This is the fourth in a 13-part series on her life after a layoff.

Warning: Portfolio revamp may cause existential crisis

In January, Kate Kemp lost her job as a creative director in New York due to a corporate restructuring. Monster asked her to write about her life after a layoff (we’ve all been there, right?). This is the fourth in a weekly series that will chronicle how she went from crying into a hot dog in Times Square to moving cross-country for a new employment adventure.

On the third day of my unemployment, I had buried myself in Fallout 4 to trade the reality of corporate restructuring for the similar-but-different fiction of waking up after a nuclear war. Although I did have a few business-related revelations while playing the game, by the following morning, I knew I had to stop procrastinating and start a project I loathe: making over my resume and portfolio.

Kate Kemp

As far as content goes, getting my resume in shape was the easy part. As a hiring manager, I’ve read hundreds of CVs and know what makes it into the “yes” pile. That’s why my resume is written conversationally. It’s an easy read that stands out from other submissions and gives people a sneak preview of my personality. So it didn’t take me long to check “resume” off my to-do list.

Unfortunately, folks in the creative industry don’t get to call it a day when their resume is ready to rock. If I wanted another job as a creative director—and despite the last 72 hours, I was sure I did—I’d also need to assemble a portfolio of my best work so hiring managers could see how I think and what I’ve produced.

That’s where things got real. Trying to cull down 16 years’ worth of work examples and accomplishments into a concise presentation is not fun. And falling down the rabbit hole of procrastination and perfection was inevitable.

KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID

Seeing some of the writing on the wall, I’d already started the exhausting exercise of adding new samples to what I felt was a simple portfolio website six months earlier. Proud of the depth and cohesiveness of my updated, digitally-hosted portfolio, I figured I was set up for success with any agency recruiter. But when I grabbed coffee with a consultant and took her through a 60-second tour, she said something I wasn’t expecting to hear: “There’s too much.”

Unsatisfied with that direction, I sought a second opinion from a global agency CEO who had worked his way up the copywriter ladder: “Tell me the five best things I should look at.”

And, just to make triple sure a portfolio revamp was truly necessary, I got a third opinion from my former global chief creative officer: “You should really cull this down to six samples max.”

Although it made my brain hurt, I had to admit that three mentors could not all be wrong.

WELCOME TO MY EXISTENTIAL CRISIS

I needed to take a step back and re-think the way I was presenting myself. I couldn’t assault recruiters with so much information they’d go into glazed-eye territory. I had to cull things down and get to the point faster. To do this, I needed to figure out who I was and where I really wanted to be.

I needed to find the answer to the question I was commonly asked by recruiters: “You’ve got a lot of experience across multiple types of advertising, but where do you want to focus?”

To me, there was no simple answer. I couldn’t just say “digital” or “experiential” or “advertorial.” I loved all of my babies too much and picking just one gave me massive anxiety.

Trying to define yourself is not easy. Trying to define yourself when you’re stressed and depressed feels damn near impossible.

Who was I? An unemployed person.

Where did I want to be? At another agency.

But I knew those were unacceptable final answers.

The next few days were a mess of digging through old work archives and gathering new info.

Man, was that dumb. Instead of culling down information, now I had folders upon folders of reorganized samples that weren’t initially part of my already overwhelming 36-piece portfolio. And, thanks to procrastination’s partner in crime, perfectionism, I’d spent at least 12 hours making sure every sample and client logo was sized properly and organized appropriately. What felt like productivity in the moment was actually a massive waste of time in the end.

DO YOU LIKE ME? CHECK “YES” OR “NO”

Frustrated and a little lost, I took a deep breath and hit the reset button on my brain. I needed to remember the most important thing about interviews: You’re just starting a conversation with someone and you want them ask you to keep it going.

Interviewing with companies is much like dating. You send them a love note (your resume and portfolio) and, if they like what they see, they’ll give you a call. If that goes well, they’ll invite you out for the first date. And, if there’s chemistry, they’ll introduce you to the family. If everyone approves, you can change your profile status to “employed” and broadcast your new relationship to the world.

After some soul searching, I created a new portfolio with one thing in mind: Find six conversation topics I want to cover on the first date/interview.

With that in mind, the process was much more simple, structured and achievable. And I found that, rather than defining myself by the type of agency where I’d like to work, I simply defined the qualities of my work that had allowed me to so easily cross agencies and platforms. I organized my samples into a conversation that showcased, for example, my quest to fuel every creative execution with a relatable human truth, the thrills I get from getting clients to try new things and my desire to connect disparate groups to achieve a common goal.

In the end, I culled down a 36-piece portfolio to a 6-piece “greatest hits” collection. My all-time favorite project—an experiential adventure for Nintendo—got the most prominent position. The five other examples ranged from a scrappy digital execution to a globally distributed direct mail campaign. The result? A clean, comprehensive overview of the way I think.

Although the process was painstaking, it worked. A week after sharing my new, improved portfolio, I had two new leads. Not only that, I could replace the time I usually spent stressing out about which pieces to highlight in my next interview with quality interviewer cyber-stalking time. That’s always way more fun.

Read Part 1: Why it's OK to cry into a hot dog after you're let go

Read Part 2: This is what it's like to wake up unemployed

Read Part 3: Playing ‘Fallout 4’ helped me with my job search

Kate Kemp is currently the Group Creative Director at HackerAgency in Seattle.


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