Death Of The Spec Book

Mike Byrne, chief creative officer at Anomaly on how to find fresh talent today:

“I met with a guy last week who, when he was 18, got a DUI, drove into a ditch, ended up going to the Army instead of jail. Then he decided to design tattoos and did this documentary on this Christian rock band he followed around. He’s never done an ad in his life, and I’m going to hire him. For me, that’s the future. These self-made pioneers who are ambitious, have an incredibly strong work ethic and are conceptual-driven by big ideas.”

[via Ad Age]

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. I’m curious … how is this any different from any new creative who didn’t attend a portfolio school? The art/English majors who worked as stringers for travel magazines, or drew comics for an underground paper, or gutted chickens for two years on their parents’ farm before giving advertising a try?
    I know as many of these folks – on an age spectrum from 20 to 50 – as I do the those who spent two years at a professional portfolio school.
    “He’s never done an ad in his life, and I’m going to hire him” gives off a gentle whiff of self-congratulation. But I’d submit that this kind of hire has been made before, perhaps even moreso in the past than going into the future.
    Too, I believe that a sampling of tattoo designs (logo/illustration portfolio) and a documentary (low-budget video project) are perfectly acceptable under the header of “spec book,” and have long been thought of as portfolio fodder (along with those aforementioned travel articles, underground comics and angry “I just killed another chicken” diary entries).
    At least, they have been at every place I’ve worked. Am I missing something?

  2. That’s all good and fine – creativity comes in a lot of colors, etc. What’s regrettable, though, is the growing assumption that those people who HAVE made ads in the past somehow have less to offer than someone who made stop-motion movies or whatever in their basement with a some tic-tacs and a ball of yarn. That they’ve stopped being interesting because now they make ads. What happens when Awesome Tattoo guy goes for his next job? Is he still Awesome Tattoo Guy, or a just an ad creative looking for a job?

  3. werdzarekewl says:

    No, duval, you’re spot on.
    This is just another “new way of doing things” that anyone with more than a 15-year frame of historical reference knows is actually as old as the hills.
    Before the advent of the Portfolio School-Creative Department Recruiting Alliance that currently permeates all hiring of Jr.’s in the land, Creatives did come from varied backgrounds, had begun and abandoned other careers, etc. before “finding” advertising. (Not that some folks at the Miami Portfolio Circus haven’t done this, too. The point is, before, there was no “way in” to the agency Creative Dept. Everyone had to find their own way in. It was actually a nice weeding out process, too.)
    These people got hired without an ad school spec book because CDs and recruiters knew how to spot talent and passion. In fact, that was part of their job.
    But I guess if you’ve only been a CD for a few years and all you’ve ever seen of Jr’s is an endless stream of spec books from the schools, then, yeah, the idea of hiring someone who doesn’t have one seems novel. (But we’ll be nice and let Mr. Byrne think he’s really stumbled onto something.)
    It all reminds me of a teenager finding out for the first time that not everyone lip syncs, that some people can actually sing and play an instrument, too.
    Hey, at least he recognized the guy’s talent and is giving him a shot. Just don’t let anyone tell you that’s “new.” It’s more like “going back to the way things used to be.”

  4. A tattoo design book or video project doesn’t show how one builds a brand. While I might be blown away by these samples, I personally wouldn’t hire a copywriter or art director based on these things. I’d ask the person to come back in a month with ideas for products or services, so I could judge their ability to think conceptually. Ergo, my headline here is a bit disingenuous.
    On the other hand, if I was looking specifically for a graphic designer or a videographer, these samples might be exactly what the CD ordered.

  5. werdzarekewl says:

    Another thought…
    To okay…
    You’re right. When he goes for his next gig, he’ll be just another ad guy. Don’t feel threatened by his “tic tac and ball of yarn” background. Your value to a future agency employer (the fact that you have experience actually making ads) is much different than his. My guess is that like all CDs with limited hiring budgets, Mr. Byrne is excited that he found someone to whom he can pay peanuts who’ll also work like a dog and feel lucky to even be there. (Sure, you could say that about anyone in their first job, but still…)
    That self-congratulatory vibe duavl picked up on is also telling. Believe me, when there’s real work to be done, accounts are in play and mortgages are on the line, CDs want people with experience on their team, too. (If not more so.)

  6. A fair point, David, and something I’ve asked of potential hires myself. I would only add that I believe brand building can be taught; creativity, on the other hand, cannot (though it must be fostered and channeled).
    I tend to judge prospective creatives more on the latter (and direct more on the former). I’ve made a few hires myself, from ad school and otherwise, based more on creativity than strategic application. That’s a skill that typically comes with experience.
    I liken it to a brilliant med school grad who still has to learn a bedside manner.

  7. Duval,
    Great point on the notion that brand building can be taught. I agree 100%. But not many CDs have the time to train new hires. Which brings us back to needing to see some “applied” creativity that works within the context of our needs.

  8. The ironic thing is that Mike Byrne himself went to The Creative Circus. Talented guy.

  9. A nice spec book does not mean you’ll be a good creative. There’s plenty of entry-levels with nice books who sit around for years without finding anything. Or who go down in flames in their first gig.
    Heaps of passion, willingness to learn, and a good attitude are more important.

  10. Couldn’t agree more, True. I think the “book”, especially the student or spec book is one of the single most overrated things in our profession. Judging what somebody’s mind is capable of by 15 pieces of paper is crazy. Especially because: how many of their thoughts are really and truly theirs alone? There are so many factors that go into hiring.
    I put most of my eggs in the face-to-face chats. And more times than not, they have nothing to do with advertising. I want to see how the candidates think. And approach life. What they like about what’s on TV. And, most importantly, why. It’s not hard to spot true intellectuals…true deep thinkers. And more times than not, when a true creative intellectual is given the task, they can make a certain brand of tuna stand out.
    Also, what about chemistry with the rest of the department? It’s no different than a sports team. Every team needs role players. What good is my department with three copywriters who kill at comedy, but couldn’t write a PSA if it were their lives that needed saving? Or a department full of extroverts…or introverts… I’ve worked for too many big agencies that have hired too many of the “best available kids” and seen the wheels come off the entire department.
    I think I’m a bit off topic now…but point is, I believe seeing someone’s work…whether raw talent or portfolio school or whatever is really just the price of admission. Are they proud of the same kind of work I’d be? Way too many factors should come into play after it’s been decided that they’ve got potential. I love seeing potential in someone who didn’t need a finishing school. I also love two years of on-the-job-like-training that finishing schools provide candidates on their parent’s dime. But I only hire those who “fit in”.
    Now…if we can only convince finishing school graduates that there are other opportunites other than CP&B, BBH, Weiden and Chiat.

  11. Agreed, Helfman.
    I went to a portfolio school (Brainco 2000-02) And it did it’s job, being that i found something relatively quickly after school.
    I think that spec books are an indicator that someone can probably concept. It’s a huge task even to get to that point. Ad schools also give you a chance to work as a team with people, and get taught from ad professionals. I was blessed with some awesome teachers.
    Beyond that, I’m not sure what ad schools do for you. And many have argued schools aren’t changing enough to reflect the changing industry. But you could say the same thing about 95% of the agencies out there.
    Not sure why so many entry-levels focus on only the famous agencies. They’re just making things more difficult on themselves. I went to a tiny, no-name place in the rust belt, had an awesome mentor, and got some great opportunities.

  12. He’ll have a great time with that guy when his clients need ads and this guy has no idea how to do one.

  13. What a great thread.
    I agree with you, Helfman, about getting people to realize theirs life beyond the big names. I get the impression that many people out of school want that top of the top and work their way up. While those aspirations are admirable, I like the challenge of finding a not-super-popular agency and retooling it to be a Fallon, CP+B, or the like.
    Imagine if we had more and more shops like that versus the .001%
    It would make American agency scene far more interesting.

  14. I’m with Duval. CDs who value creativity recognize it regardless of the genre of expression. And for years they’ve made hires from the vast and varied herd of unlikelies. Nothing new there. Whether the specific creativity can be harnessed for ads, that’s where the judgment comes in. Or luck.

  15. >>”He’ll have a great time with that guy when his clients need ads and this guy has no idea how to do one.”
    plus, it’s gonna get tired when the guy keeps pushing the idea of tattooing the client’s logo on people’s asses.

  16. I agree with the first comment: Byrne is really just patting himself on the back for his magnanimously far-sighted hiring practices. He doesn’t really say what this new hire brings to the agency, aside from the typical bromides about having an “incredibly strong work ethic”, and is “conceptual-driven by big ideas.” No, really? I thought agencies only wanted to hire creatives with piss-poor work habits who couldn’t recognize a big idea if it smacked them in the face. Maybe his videographic pursuits show this, but Byrne doesn’t talk about it at all. Instead all I walk away with regarding this non ad-school guyu is Army veteran, tattoo artist; read: low salary expectations.

  17. Huh. Some excellent points….but…
    Presumably, this tattoo artist documentarian has no idea what’s been done before in advertising.
    So every time he comes up with an idea, Mr. Burne’s job will be double: 1) see if it’s been done and 2) see if it’s any good.
    Presumably, this guy has no peers in the creative ad community.
    So there’s nobody for him to judge himself against. Nobody to push him. Nobody to make him think “damn I wish I’d have done that” and no frame of reference from which to even have that thought anyway.
    So. It’s a risk that means even if he pans out and he can be totally and completely self-motivating, he’s still DOUBLE the work.
    And on top of it all, there’s the risk that the grads coming out of ad school Mike is passing on are just as talented.
    Seems like the only upside to all these risks is–you guessed it–a little bit of self-satisfied self-promotion.
    That and a tattoo artist/documentarian probably has access to a much deeper pool of hot chick friends than a recent adschool grad.
    Look. I’m tired of student books, too. But that just means a really good one stands out all the more.

  18. given the industry’s diversity issues, let’s hope the tattoo guy is a minority. i’d hate to think somebody just handed a job to a white tattoo artist with a dui conviction — especially when there are so many others looking for a shot.

  19. Try telling HR or the creative recruiter, “I know they’re no agencies on my res that you recgnize, but I was in a band.“

  20. Perhaps Mr. Byrne is attracted to this guy’s energy and varied life experiences. on paper at least he’s a lot more interesting than someone who spent two years (and a lot of money) learning to do cute print ads.
    surely someone at anomaly reads this blog. maybe MB would like to comment hisself…

  21. “on paper at least he’s a lot more interesting than someone who spent two years (and a lot of money) learning to do cute print ads.”
    why? because he’s a tattoo artist? or because he got a DUI?
    i guess ad school grads by virtue can’t be interesting. which is unfortunate, because i know graffiti artists, stand up/sketch comedians, musicians, a former butcher, and plenty more who all went to ad school. they all offer something a little different. and a couple of them even got DUI’s to boot.
    to blindly salute a non-ad school grad is just as bad as glorifying only those who came out of the Miami AdCircus Portfolio Center. both sets of people need to be looked at below the surface–past the tattoo and past the portfolio.
    hopefully mr. byrne did that.

  22. Sure some wonderfully talented creatives come out of portfolio centers, agreed. i’ve worked with some of them. But taking that route is following the ad herd. It doesn’t take vision or initiative. it just takes money.
    the drunk-driving tat guy had done a documentary. and i’m sure he had other things to recommend him too that weren’t articulated in the article.
    check out all the stuff michael byrne did at wieden on adcritic. i don’t know him but his creative judgement seems pretty sound.

  23. “it doesn’t take vision or initiative”?? are you kidding me??
    how about picking up and moving across country? leaving your boyfriend/girlfriend/fiance at home? moving your husband/wife/family to a new city?
    not only does that take vision and initiative, but it takes courage, passion, and balls.
    so the tat guy has a documentary. plenty of people who HAVE gone to ad schools have an equally impressive, creative, varied, and interesting background.
    sorry veedub, but following the “ad herd” doesn’t discredit one’s creative abilities. and not going to ad school dosn’t validate them.

  24. how about picking up and moving across country? leaving your boyfriend/girlfriend/fiance at home? moving your husband/wife/family to a new city?
    you’re kidding, right.

  25. it’s becoming clear to me that you either don’t work in advertising or you’re completely ignorant. otherwise you’d know that moving for two years what many people choose to do.
    the only ad schools worth going to are VCU, the two atlanta schools, and miami. since most people don’t live next door to any of them, they move.
    believe it or not, many people think it’s a smart move. including employers.

  26. jimmy boy,
    I can assure you “veedub” works in advertising. You might even say he’s famous in industry circles.
    Calling people names that you’ve never met is beyond lame. And it’s one of the things I like least about blogs, including this one.
    As for the discussion at hand, I battled these decisions many years ago. After I got into PC, I deferred my enrollment four times in a row, at which point I had to apply again (but did not).
    I often wonder what may have been, because without a doubt many grads of PC, and the other schools, land phat jobs. I suppose I would have made a great number of TV spots by now, and no doubt I’d be thinking about leaving the ad biz to direct.

  27. David,
    honestly, “fame” in industry circles does nothing for me. the constant masturbation and self-congratulation that goes on in this industry rivals that of only one other–entertainment. which is too ironic, as many ad guys and gals have deluded themselves into thinking they’re the same. but that’s a topic for another day.
    if veedub works in advertising, then surely he would know that ad schools require strong commitments from their students, which sometimes–often times–consist of leaving home, giving up decent-paying jobs, and leaving loved ones behind. to insinuate otherwise would be careless on his part.

  28. I think the whole raw talent vs finishing school thing is moot, honestly. In advertising, the cream will always rise to the top eventually. Period. Always happens (of course the crap doesn’t usually sink to the bottom all the time, but you can read all about that in the now pathetic Eisner thread).
    Extraordinarily talented people get discovered. I’m not talking about mediocre folks who think they’re extraordinarily talented…of which there are many. I’m talking about real talent. Sometimes it happens at a portfolio review from ad school, sometimes after an undergrad program with a decent ad major, sometimes after an internship, sometimes on trial for a DUI. And sometimes after years of hard work at a creatively challenged agency. I LOVE seeing decent books and great attitudes from folks who have worked on nothing but junk assignments from “eh” agencies because I know I can take all those handcuffs off. In fact, I think that’s the only role of the local Addys. You see the same name start coming up doing great work for the same unheard of brands at the same unheard of agency and you’re foolish not to really explore him/her.
    To both of you…I truly believe there are benefits to an ad school. I also believe that if you choose a different route – and you’re any good – you’ll eventually get discovered if you stay at it. And one thing I know for certain…there are no guarantees. I’ve hired “sure things” only to watch them suck and have to let them go – and I’ve also seen junior account executives turn into copywriters and get into the One Show a year later. So who the hell knows.

  29. constant masturbation? what agency are you working at?
    regarding the ad schools, give me a break. they’re not much different than any other educational institution. that is, i’ve seen a few decent ad school grads — and a whole lot more lousy ones. there also appear to be plenty of masturbators attending these places. and teaching at them too.

  30. Helfman-
    I couldn’t agree more.
    I agree with you on the ratio of good/bad ad school grads. There are plenty of good & bad running around. Nothing new there. In that sense, it’s no different than any other educational institution.
    I will say, however, that attending ad school is different from attending, say, college. By that I mean most undergrads don’t have to give up a salary or move the family to another city, which many grad school students do. It’s the choice they choose to make, but it’s one that requires a certain amount of dedication.
    My point wasn’t to argue that ad school grads are superior. Rather, my point all along has been that hiring someone from “outside” advertising doesn’t guarantee a gold pencil. By the same token, an ad school grad isn’t more likely to garner gold either.
    The elusive big idea can come from anywhere, whether you’ve been a tattoo artist that went to ad school or a tattoo artist that joined the Army. An “outsider”, an “insider”, and, yes, even an account person is capable of a great idea.

  31. Hi.
    I think passion and solid work ethic trump ad schools and college.
    Ad schools are businesses. They don’t pay you, you pay them. And they need to keep their students happy, so I often wonder if they hold back material that does not prepare them for some of the darker moments we face as creatives. (I did the four-year college thing, so tell me if I’m nuts with this hypothesis. I thought my college held me back in many regards in ad study because they weren’t in the so-called real world).
    If you truly want the career you want, you work for it. Once you’re in, you put forth what you want. I credit the CA and the One Show for educating me (which has its plusses and minuses) and I credit my personal experiences for helping me come with ideas. But in the end, I think you do whatever you can to train yourself. You read books. You learn from mistakes you make in the business.
    Backgrounds are as subjective as books. In the end, I think its what you put into the job as much as you can.

  32. I don’t know Mike Byrne, and I’m sure he’s a great and talented guy, but my feeling is that part of the reason he’s so big on his non-traditional entry level is because he felt compelled to take the time to get to know the guy.
    Ad school graduates are just a commodity in the eyes of this industry. Which is probably more the fault of the ad schools than anyone else.

  33. jimmy crack corn says:

    wow. this is lame. ad schools are good. tattoo artists are good. dui’s are good. it seems that everyone has a “not good” complex, and the threat of someone who might posibly trump your skills, tallents, etc. scares the shit out of you? why? relax, do what you do- otherwise the next dui-tattoo-documentary guy is getting your old job.

  34. jimmy crack corn,
    on a completely tangential point, check this blurb from The Chicago Tribune:
    ‘Jimmy’ crack offends, and he does care
    Lost in the shuffle of the Super Bowl controversies–that Snickers ad, Prince’s halftime performance and, uh, Rex Grossman–was the subtle editing of a popular cell phone commercial. Cingular recently cut the line “Jimmy Crack Corn” from the “dropped call” ad featuring a guy coming up with nicknames for his father-in-law, Jim. “It’s a crazy story,” said Dave Dastmalchian, the Chicago actor who plays the son-in-law in the commercial.
    You see, “Jimmy Crack Corn” (actually called “Blue Tail Fly”) is an old minstrel song about a slave mourning his master’s death. According to a statement from Cingular, viewers complained that it was racially insensitive. “I was afraid I was going to be lumped in with Michael Richards,” Dastmalchian, who studied at the Theatre School of DePaul, told Armour & Co. “But I am proud of the fact that I am working for a company that did that.”

  35. Wow. Great thread–and all I did was Google “spec book examples copywriter.”
    I’m in the midst of compiling my Spec Book. It’s a daunting task really– I’m wrestling with how to incorporate my other creative accomplishments into the interviewing process without veering too far off course.