Portfolio, or portfo-lie?

Submitted by on the 17th of May 2016

It’s great feeling proud of a piece of your work during an interview. It’s a bit weird when that piece of work is in the person’s portfolio who you are interviewing.

That happened. And my gut response was one of anger. This isn’t your work. Liar, liar. Portfolio on fire.

But I kept quiet and probed into the origins of that work. It turned out to be a by-product of that grey area the ad industry has created, when claiming a piece of work as one’s own.

The student in question – or the questionable student, as I thought at the time – was indeed involved in the work as an intern after I had left the agency while the ad was being completed. They had written the copy for the accompanying collateral. Sure, they contributed to the work, but enough to claim it as their own?


The debate about claiming work as your own does not stop at a junior level. In my opinion, it only gets more muddled over one’s career. Due to the competitiveness of our industry, specifically when it comes to the bragging rights associated with awards, FOMO can often mean the difference between mediocrity and greatness.

One of the best examples is the BMW Mouse commercial – arguably a watershed moment in South African TV advertising. In my career, I have met several top creatives who are solely responsible for this ad.

Drawing the line

So where do we draw the line? How do you establish if the person you are looking to hire is all they claim to be?

Portfolios are a great way to filter out the noise from the talent. Covering letters for copywriters don’t make it past the first few typos. Design portfolios with nine different fonts get trashed with equal disdain. But when you find those copy, design and art direction gems, how do you establish if the individual talent matches the work?

You can sometimes get a sense of the person’s character in an interview – but if the applicant is convinced that the work is rightfully theirs, it’s pretty hard to know otherwise.

It boils down to basic morals and etiquette, so this is for all you hungry creatives out there:

Be honest with how you contributed

If you are sat in the room where the holy grail amazing idea was cracked, and you doodled the whole way through or filled out your time sheets, it’s not your idea. If, however, you honestly contributed to the discussion, you’re probably more morally allowed to put your name to the piece of work. Discussion builds discussion. Ideas that get bounced around are stronger. It’s very possible that something you contributed to the discussion resulted in the evolution of the idea. If, however, you contributed zilch, as amazing as you may think you are, your mere presence in the room did not inspire your team to new creative heights. You were, in fact, just sucking up the much-needed brain oxygen.

Credit the team

So you’ve made the decision to place a piece of work in your portfolio. Great. There are very few examples where one person is wholly responsible. Always credit the creative team directly involved. It doesn’t only show that you’re a team player, but also demonstrates that you are not Gollum-esque in your pursuit for your precious.

Do some soul searching

If you can you honestly say that your contribution resulted in the work being better, go for it. At the end of the day, when you’re old and fragile, showing your grandspawn your outdated portfolio, will you be proud of what’s in there, or feel a little uneasy knowing that what’s yours was never really yours? You think about that.

Now quickly think of a tie-dyed hyena on acid riding a Segway through a nursery school playground. I hate ending on a sombre note.