If you’re a freelancer on the prowl looking for work, there are a number of factors that could get you a job. Working that LinkedIn network to perfection, nepotism, charm… or maybe you’ve just aligned with the right company. But chances are no factor will matter as much as the quality of the portfolio you put out into the world. The work samples that show what you’ve created, how you think and the proof that you’ve been paid by someone, somewhere to do something of note in your chosen field.

But how do you put the together the perfect portfolio in the year 2018? It’s no longer about lugging a leather-bound “book” appointment to appointment, while creative directors quietly critique your work to a chorus of palpable throat clearing. No, no, no. The days of winning jobs through in-person meetings have vanished in a plume of Don Draper Lucky Strike smoke.

Enter Serena Wolf. She started Wolf Creative Co. in 2004, her talent recruitment shingle that works with ad agencies and brands within creative and marketing, recruiting for positions at all levels, C-level to executive. Wolf’s been telling it like it is since she started the company out of her 1,000-square-foot L.A. apartment, using her corded phone and Blackberry as lifelines to the world.

I would know. I met with her early in my career when I had a portfolio of student pieces set inside an expensive leather portfolio book, designed to distract from the lack of professionally produced pieces at the time. Fortunately, my career has progressed since that humbling coffee I had with her on Pico Boulevard — and so has Wolf’s, who’s placed legions of talented people into full-time positions at notable companies, often fulfilling what she calls “unicorn jobs.”

Serena Wolf, founder of Wolf Creative Company
Serena Wolf, founder of Wolf Creative Company

With the launch of the CV portfolio-builder, I wanted to get her take on the craft of perfecting the portfolio to help guide your pursuits. After all, she rifles through about “40 or 50 a day” by her estimation, so there are certain rules you should know.

Especially if you intend to break them.

Interview with talent recruiter Serena Wolf about making the best portfolio

First off, let’s get this one out of the way: Are “print books” even a thing anymore?

It needs to be an online portfolio. The days of physical portfolios are long gone. When people send me a really big PDF, I don’t feel like that’s competitive in this market because it kind of weighs down people’s inboxes because they tend to be big and cumbersome. If they put them in a zip file, that’s okay. But at the end of the day, if you’re a creative, you should have an online portfolio.

What are you looking for during the first 10 seconds of reviewing an online portfolio?

I think as a creative, it’s good to have a brand for yourself. When you have unique presence or branding, I think that appeals to people right away. It just shows that there’s something to discover with your name, that describes who you are… A lot of people don’t necessarily describe that they were an art director or copywriter, so you don’t know what their role was… I think that’s a big mistake. People need to put like, “Jenny Jones, Writer.”

Any other mistakes creatives make time and time again with their portfolios?

Not being authentic. Trying to put on a façade… You can tell when someone’s trying to hard. They reference themselves in the third person, they have all these accolades. It’s really more about meat and potatoes, showing the work. Always have a resume accessible and downloadable, and a link to your LinkedIn so people can easily find you and get to you without even calling you.

There’s an old saying that your portfolio is only as strong as your weakest piece. Do you think that’s still the case?

Secrets for Portfolios

Yeah. I think if you’re a creative and the work that you’re doing is not helping your book, and you’re not proud of it or excited about it, then you probably need to leave and go do the work that you want to do… You don’t have to put every single thing in your book. You just have to put your strongest work.

Do you think people should lead with their best portfolio sample up front, or their most recent?

Great question. Ideally both. You don’t want to show work you did circa 2012. You want to show your most recent work. The stuff that is currently out… even if you’re insanely busy working all the time and you don’t “have time” to update your portfolio. You should always update your portfolio as a creative. Opportunities can come to you. People can find you based on your work, so it’s always important, maybe once a quarter, to take a Sunday and get all your current stuff up on your portfolio…

And weed out the stuff that you’re not inspired by.

How many pieces should you ideally put in your portfolio?

I think showcasing maybe 5-8 of your best pieces… and that’s it. Maybe don’t put every single thing you’ve ever worked on in your book. If you’re a junior and you just graduated from ad school, I’d say putting school work in there is great. But make sure you label it under “school work” so people know it’s the work you did in school. Sometimes that work really shows your creative potential because sometimes in those first couple of jobs, you may not be allowed to do awesome creative work because you’re right out of school. Showcasing that school work lets people know that potential is there. And that you really have a wild side.

When should you retire the student work outright?

Probably if you’re four years in, like your second job. If you get your first job at Deutsch and all you work on is Taco Bell for two years, you’re gonna need other work to show.

What about those kick-ass pieces of work that didn’t get produced, but you feel passionate about them anyway?

It’s good to put that work in there as well, but make sure you label it “Unproduced” or “Not Produced” or “Almost Got There.” If that’s the work you want to do more of, it’s good to show it. It’s also good to show work that you’ve been paid to do. So even if you’re working on a really boring client, it’s good to show a couple of those pieces because that shows you’ve worked on a national brand. It might not have been the sexiest work, but you got paid and can say you did a commercial or a specific banner ad.


Do you have a motto when it comes to asking for permission to put up a sample you worked on, if you’re not sure you’re allowed to show it?

Before you leave a job, I’d always ask, “I would like to put this in my portfolio, are you okay with that?” Because your reputation is so important. And if they say, “Actually no, it’s really not okay” and you don’t listen to them, then it could come back to bite you. If they say no, but you did all the work, maybe do a password-protected site. It comes down to personal discretion.

When are case studies important?

If you were immersed in an integrated campaign, it’s good to tell the story when people click on the work. Some hiring managers, especially creative directors, like to look at case studies so they can see and identify that it’s similar to a case study they would’ve worked on. They’re not mandatory for writers, but, if you’re in UX for example, case studies are really important because there are a lot of details and processes you have to go through to get to the final result. Don’t use cumbersome, long language. Just very brief, detailed and to the point.

Final question:  Any sage advice for people who want to link off to their social media channels from their online portfolios?

social media channels in your portfolio

Showcasing your social media feeds can be a bit tricky. For example, if you have a funny/quirky Instagram account that showcases some inappropriate material or images… or you blog on random odds and ends to amplify a snarky side that only you and your friends can appreciate… it most likely won’t appeal to a potential hiring manager. It’s best to leave it off your portfolio and LinkedIn profile. BUT if you are a designer or creative type and you have curated a thoughtful and inspired Pinterest or Insta feed, that could show future employers where you find inspiration… and be a good use of social media.

Now you’ve that you’ve got the advice from a pro, it’s time to primp that online portfolio to perfection. Head over to CV portfolio and build a better future for your freelance business today.