04 Nov

To folio or not to folio?

I saw a cracking post, yesterday, by Andy Maslen: How to get well-paid work as a freelance copywriter.

I’m always interested in posts like that;
a) because they’re actually offering tangible advice to a target audience (in this case, freelance copywriters looking for work).
b) as a copywriter, there may well be something I’m missing: something I’m not quite doing right when it comes to approaching clients. I don’t know everything, and I can certainly learn more about my trade.

I also (without blowing too much smoke up his backside) have a healthy degree of respect for Andy. He’s a seasoned pro, with many more years’ experience than me. He has his own agency, runs copywriting courses, and has worked with big brands.
This is why I follow him, and other copywriters of a similar ilk (Vikki Ross being another). In fact, a tip: whether you’re just starting out, or you’ve got a few years under your belt, follow those who are better than you / further along. There’s no shame in admitting someone is ahead of you – you’ll get there some day – and you can learn a great deal from them. You can pick up their habits and see what makes them good: the work they produce, the events they run, the posts they write, the tweets they put out.

Anyway, slight detour on my part. My main point was: I agreed with Andy’s post, but tip number two threw me slightly: forget about a portfolio (as a caveat, this post is not designed to be a riposte, it’s merely an alternative view).

I came from a conceptual copywriting background, through one of the creative advertising courses in the UK (West Herts College), which are aimed at steering you towards working in above-the-line ad agencies.
It was drilled into me that – even if it’s spec work – you have to have a portfolio to get a foot in the door of a prospective employer. No folio = no chance of work (or even being seen by someone).

Depending how far down the line you are, if you want any contract work (whether directly with a client or with an agency), one of the first questions you’ll be asked is; ‘where’s your folio?’ / ‘send me a link to your folio’.
If you find some contract work (long term or short term) through a recruitment agency, they’ll ask the same thing, nearly every time. In fairness, the smarter ones will ask you to send specific examples, in a pdf, of work that’s relevant to their client i.e your best three charity pieces, or your best three financial services pieces.

That aside, without a portfolio, how else do you show the breadth of work you’ve done, or that you can turn your hand to most industries, even if it’s your first time, with just a little research (and still get the copy/tone spot on)?

In fact, If I go to a copywriting website (or one for a web designer, graphic designer, marketing consultant etc) and see that they haven’t got a list of clients, or any page that shows clients they’ve worked with, I get a little suspicious: no live samples + only a brief mention of where they trained and how good they are = is this all waffle? Have they actually produced their first piece of live work yet?

Having said that, I think Andy’s tips are – in part – aimed at freelance copywriters who are just starting out – those who can’t easily promote themselves with a whole bunch of pre-existing work (A.K.A a portfolio).

In light of this, I’d say (and it may be seen as a cop-out) do both: have a folio on your website, so clients can see the breadth of your work, different tones you’ve used, different approaches, different media channels you can write across. Show how talented you are, and versatile, in that you can turn your hand to any brief and get it spot on, but … have selective pieces you send to clients from different sectors. If you have three good examples of copy you’ve written for health and fitness clients, keep those aside and send them, as a separate pdf, to any client from that industry, if you want their business.
That way, they can see what you’ve done that’s specific to their industry, but they can still visit your website – if they so wish – to see work you’ve done for other clients.

So, I completely get where Andy is coming from, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say ‘forget about a portfolio’: I still think it’s a useful weapon to have in your armoury when seeking new clients.

If anyone has their own point of view on this (whether you totally agree or vehemently disagree), I’d love to hear from you.



  1. Hi, Writing Chap!
    Great post. I haven’t read Andy’s original post by the way; I was just intrigued by your tweet and clicked.
    I struggle with the folio idea. So often, I find work (esp pitch/concept work), gets Frankensteined or otherwise diluted before it goes live. Some of the stuff I’ve been most proud of has never seen the light of day – like pitch concepts that have really pushed a proposition but have eventually been rejected in favour of a more conservative route. Plus, with long copy, account handlers, clients or designers often make changes that really compromise the piece (sometimes to the point where it no longer makes sense). I find myself wanting to showcase what I actually wrote, or the original concept/idea, rather than the final product. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m whinging and precious! I’m not. I’m really just interested to know if you have the same issues and how you handle them. Or do you just have a big enough body of work to be able to choose the diamonds? Thanks!

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for reading 🙂 There’s a link within my post, but Andy’s post is here.

    I don’t think you’re whinging at all. Very rarely (because of what you’ve mentioned) will your best ideas see the light of day – they’ll either be great spec ideas or you’ll ‘bottom drawer’ them for use at a later date. Every so often, you’ll manage to actually push a real gem through the client, accounts, the planners, but that’s rare… which is what makes it so satisfying when it happens.
    However, the client is paying for a service and expects their work to come across in a certain way: ultimately, it’s their brand’s reputation on the line if a campaign is poorly received – it’s their logo on the work. Likewise, agencies have to consider which clients they can and can’t take risks with, and what’s ‘too far’ in terms of that client’s existing tone.

    My advice: I keep a Carbonmade website up (www.arroz.carbonmade.com) with ideas that ran ATL, and my favourite spec ideas that didn’t quite make it (some of them are still very ‘raw’). Folio sites (Carbonmade, Cargo Collective etc) incur a small monthly fee, but you can put spec work there, to show what you’re capable of.

    In terms of long copy being changed beyond recognition / to the point where it doesn’t make sense – you can only advise changes. I’d say always express concerns in writing, over email, so that it can be seen you tried to question things that didn’t make sense.

    I have a body of work from which I’m able to be selective, but there are items I’ve had to remove from my folio, as changes were made (which ultimately look like my suggestions/copy) and I don’t want my name to the work.

    So…have a separate site for spec work you’re really proud of, which shows your creative thinking + only put up your best work on your proper site… or put up a slightly earlier version if you can show that you worked with that client.

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