Portfolios are Baggage

portfolio (noun)
A large, thin, flat case for loose sheets of paper such as drawings or maps. A set of pieces of creative work collected by someone to display their skills.

baggage (noun) – via urbandictionary.com:
The shit people go into relationships with. e.g.: ex-partners, addictions, hang-ups

Portfolios of past work are literally and figuratively baggage. Id like to call an end to putting up portfolios of work as a way of telling everyone how wonderful we all are. So for starters Cloverfield no longer has an online showcase of old work.

Why? Well, firstly – I can do better. I don’t want to be evaluated on my old work. It’s not like I have anything to hide, my work is highly regarded, so if you think this is an odd rationale, ask yourself why retail companies don’t festoon their marketing material with old products. When introducing a new summer collection does GAP promote the catalogue of last summer’s collection? It doesn’t matter how successful the old stuff was, it isn’t what their offering now. Why then do service businesses insist on meticulously detailing their previous engagements in the form of case studies and portfolios?

If you think about it, a past job performed by a service company is likely to be even less relevant to a potential customer than a retail company spruiking last year’s model. At least someone looking to buy a new Toyota might still settle for last year’s Camry.

In Cloverfield’s case, each new customer gets a bespoke experience, if they try to fit one of my past solutions to their own needs, they’re going to find it wanting. There’s a multitude of reasons why a particular solution ends up a certain way. There’s constraints introduced by the customer, or by their market conditions, or by their competitors actions, or by a specific stakeholder’s needs. Whatever those factors were, they will be different for the next customer. So as a sales & marketing tool, portfolios & case studies are not very relevant.

Portfolios are ambiguous. I’ve been involved in countless projects where two or three service providers have contributed significant components of the solution but it’s truly rare for each of those parties to appropriately credit the others for their respective roles. An agency that showcases a website they designed but fails to mention the software engineering company that developed it is being misleading and dishonest, and yet that is the norm.

Software developers are also not innocent of such deceit, some are quite content to reference a site in their portfolio and take implied credit for the design which they didn’t create. But in my experience creative agencies are far more likely to let such ambiguities give them assumed credit for aspects of the solution which they didn’t deliver. The big agencies in particular treat past customers as trophies to hang on the mantle, they crave the reflected glory of having the logo of a high profile brand in their portfolio (by now everybody has done some work for Coke – so why bother referencing it?). They base their marketing on the unstated assumption that they are the reason behind those brands’ successes. Rarely do they respect their customers enough to acknowledge the customer’s own fine products or services as having something to do with their success.

Portfolios often blatantly disrespect a customer’s confidentiality or market strategy. What might initially seem like some nice joint marketing between customer and supplier can end up not aligning with a customer’s longer term marketing goals. I don’t think it does my customers any favours to have their brand represented on Cloverfield’s site in a manner that is difficult for them to control.

In their effort to give prospects a peak behind the curtain, agencies often reveal details of a project that the customer isn’t comfortable giving away, even if they’ve signed off on the material, they may have felt obligated to do so. Similarly, either through naive indifference or arrogant carelessness you sometimes have designers & developers leaking a recognisable sneak preview on dribbble or forrst resulting in serious confidentiality breaches. Perhaps worst of all, portfolios can hang around long after the relationship ends (badly), which is another subtle dishonesty.

So how does a service company demonstrate pedigree if you don’t show off your past work? Well you have to try harder than just hoping a portfolio will speak for itself. Here’s a couple of ideas:

  • Convey your values and culture through your blog. Companies like 37 Signals and Panic are great examples, their blogs tell you everything you need to know about the quality of their work.
  • Make your pre-sales & sales interactions a free example of how you work. All through the sales process you are producing small samples of your work. e.g. taking a genuine interest in the customer’s business, punctual attendance of meetings, accurate and quick followup emails, or presentation of a formal proposal – the quality and care that you put into those interactions is a preview of the quality and care you will deliver if you win the business.

And if you are asked to submit your previous work? By all means do it, but I’d like to suggest some guidelines:

  • Only submit work where you maintain a current, reference-able contact with the client
  • Only submit work that has some relevance to the new customer
  • Don’t just send a link to some online version of your portfolio (as per the theme of this post – don’t even maintain an online portfolio).
  • Create an attractive physical portfolio like screenshots on a sturdy mount (foam board is good), then present them in person and hand them over as a leave behind.
  • When presenting the work, be clear on the parts of the solution you were responsible for and strive to highlight the aspects of the solution that are relevant to the new customer’s business.
  • If you worked with other companies on the project ensure you credit them appropriately and emphasis how effectively you are able to partner with 3rd parties.

Oddly enough I got to thinking about this in relation to tattoos. Not that I’m thinking of getting one, I don’t have any, and I honestly don’t know why people get them. I must be very old fashioned, but the only possible justification I can think of for a tattoo is that the artwork has such eternal significance to the individual that they want it to be associated with them forever. I don’t know what that says about a person who opts for the flowing lines of the classic antlers exploding up their lower back from out of their arse, I’m sure they have perfectly innocent reasons for wanting to do that, but it just isn’t for me.

Just like a patchwork of lines on my skin doesn’t define me or my capabilities a website covered in past works says little about what Cloverfield is capable of in it’s next engagement, or the one after that and so on.

It’s all a lot harder than simply whacking a case study or screenshot up on your site and hoping it will capture some interest, but the hard way is so often the more effective way.