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September 22, 2009
Agency/Academy Symbiosis Needed to Prepare Undergrads for Industry

Let’s just say it – a lot of ad schools out there are doing a really poor job at preparing their students, especially in creative. There’s nothing sadder than the moment a bright-eyed, loan-ridden undergrad fresh off the commencement stage realizes that they’re not ready for the career that they just spent tens of thousands of dollars and the best years of their life training for. Many educators have resigned to the idea that four years is simply not enough time to teach everything their students need to know. However, there are several programs that consistently place their undergrads in the most celebrated agencies in the world. Where does such a disparity come from? What qualities constitute a great program that prepares its students for the “real world” of advertising? And how can the industry help assimilate them once they’ve been hired? To what great minds do we turn for wisdom with such difficult questions? Bernbach? Gandhi? Aristotle? I submit that we start with Homer.

Several years ago I saw an episode of the Simpsons in which Homer learns that he has a long-lost half-brother named Herb who is the owner of a Detroit auto manufacturer. One thing leads to another and Herb gives Homer free rein to design the car of his dreams. So, he proceeds to put every feature and accessory one could ever want into the plans. To the utter disregard of the basic powertrain and safety systems, Homer opts for shag carpet, dual soundproof bubble-domes and horns that play “La Cucaracha.” Homer’s hideous new Frankenstein car is unveiled with a price tag nearing six-fig¬ures, causing his brother’s company to go bankrupt – Doh!

Some take the same well-intentioned, yet misguided approach as Mr. Simpson when prescribing what ad schools should do to fix the widespread problem of unprepared undergraduates. The hasty conclusion is that universities are responsible for teaching every subject and skill that a professional might need over the course of their career. But this is view is reminiscent of those who abdicate their role as parents by presuming it’s the job of the public school system to fully educate their children. While schools can certainly introduce young minds to a vast wealth of information, it seems that there are some things that are only fully absorbed through experience. But that’s catch-22, isn’t it? Many students find themselves cut off from opportunities to gain real experience because they don’t have any prior experience. Every year the list of things that graduating seniors must know in order to be successful grows longer, while the demand for well-rounded world citizens trained in anthropology, psychology, business and the fine arts remains the same.

There’s a point at which the versatility of a Swiss Army knife becomes impractical. How many tools can you force into one device before it’s too cumbersome to use? It’s nice to have a corkscrew on occasion, and the screwdriver is quite handy too, but if these gadgets come at the expense of a dependable blade that’s sharp and not prone to rust, I contend that a simple, razor-sharp buck knife is better. Agencies want students to have more bells and whistles than ever, especially in areas of technology. But we all know that technology doesn’t change on a rotating 4-year basis. What’s hot today will be old news by graduation. Even though agencies are struggling to keep up with technology’s pace, many schools are trying their best to accommodate the demand for training in current trends. Unfortunately, it’s often at the expense of teaching their students how to think under any circumstances, no matter how rapidly the world changes. If a student can think and has a good grip on the fundamentals, imagine what they’ll be able to do when they’re given the tools provided by industry experience. A can opener is nice to have, but being an avid outdoorsman has taught me that a sharp blade in creative hands can accomplish just about anything. And, it’s a proven fact that most wild animals aren’t afraid of can openers.

With the sky-rocketing cost of education, asking tapped-out students and parents to pay for further training is hard for me to do. Personally, I don’t understand how some professors can look their students in the eye knowing full well they won’t be able to get a job. Four years can whiz by quickly, but it’s not an insignificant amount of time. Portfolio schools makes sense for some people, especially late bloomers who discovered their passion for advertising late in the game. But I’m of the opinion that students who have been trained in rigorous undergraduate programs are usually better served by working entry-level positions in an agency for two years rather than going deeper into debt for more schooling. However, because so many agencies have abdicated the role of mentor and exclusively hire “ready-made” creatives from portfolio schools, undergrads are often left with very few options.

But even if educators were somehow able to cram this much information into their undergraduate curricula, would industry expectations be satisfied? Will the best lecture about something ever serve as an acceptable substitute for experi¬ence in the real thing? Will two short years at a portfolio school encompass all the learning one might need? If the answer is no, why are undergrads expected to pursue something that won’t be considered fully comparable anyway? When does anyone (who is truly successful) ever stop learning? If lifelong learning is a hallmark of successful professionals and agencies, then it seems that the spirit of teaching should be woven into the fabric of the industry more than it is.
From my vantage point, with one foot in the academy and one in the industry, I see the culprit behind this discon¬nect as a mutual unwillingness to work together. I’d like to take a quick look at what educators and industry decision-mak¬ers can do to help a system that’s not nearly as symbiotic as it could be.

First, the industry needs to invest more into education, not just the institution – the idea. Funding endowments and scholarships certainly helps but there’s just as much need for agencies to get their hands dirty by investing time and hu¬man resources. Things are tough right now, but for too long agencies have been running such thin margins that they can’t afford to mentor young talent, often resulting in internship programs getting cut or going unfunded. Some of the best and brightest students simply cannot afford to do a 20 hour a week internship for free no matter how great the opportunity is – which is sad because most only need minimum wage to get by.

But money is not the biggest issue hurting internships. As a young intern, I was assigned several meaningless tasks and experienced quite a bit of hazing. One time in particular I was told to empty a huge Ziploc bag full of loose Pan¬tone chips and meticulously tape each one back into the correct place in the swatch book. But after I proved my eagerness, I was allowed to work on real projects, sit in on weekly status meetings and even be a blurry extra in the background of a photo shoot. Not only did I have a mentor, but every creative in the place took time to teach as they worked. It was actu¬ally more like an apprenticeship, a concept that would benefit students and the industry if it made a comeback.

I was fortunate to have the same experience carry over to my first job as an art director. My creative director once told me that he liked looking at student portfolios because he got to see unfiltered thinking and creativity. He liked see¬ing sketches and the thumbnail processes behind the ideas just as much as the finished product. He also said that, when he looked at the books of most seasoned professionals, all he could see was the client’s fingerprints. I wish more creative directors could spend more time looking for big ideas and smart thinking rather than focusing so much attention on polish. Being the recipient of such patience and dedication to the promotion of my craft is a big reason I’m a teacher today.

One of the most important things that ad programs can do on their end is to take a more balanced approach to their teaching overall. It’s clear that our first priority must be the training of thinkers who can adapt to whatever setting, culture or technology they find themselves working with. At the same time, we need to listen to industry experts and guide our students to the necessary skill sets that they’ll need to do their jobs. We have to help them reach the point that they are ready to be mentored because, in the fast-paced world of advertising, there’s a fine line between mentoring and coddling dead weight.

Good programs are teaching the theoretical and historical building blocks, but they also have their fingers firmly on the pulse of what’s happening in the here and now. Students should be familiar with both Ogilvy and Bogusky, Volk¬swagen then and V-dub now. Creative programs that are only producing print solutions are doing a disservice to students who are entering a non-traditional-interactive-guerilla world.

Not only must we reject the fallacy that four years is not enough, but also the poisonous myth that creativity can’t be taught – ironically, a notion often propagated by educators in creative programs. While there are certain intangibles regarding natural talents and abilities, there is no room for a lackadaisical “you either have it or you don’t” pedagogy. In fact, this is no pedagogy at all and unfair to students who need help harnessing their organic creative energy. I’m always surprised to see how many instructors don’t understand the difference between creative direction and teaching. It is the educator’s responsibility to coach raw talent, to provide new avenues of development and to inspire fledgling genius to greatness. However, isn’t this is exactly what the best creative directors do?

Advertising programs must seek to fill their faculties with the proper mix of industry experience and academic credentials. When a program is largely comprised of part-time adjuncts from the industry, there is little stability from one semester to the next and loyalties are (understandably) divided with the agency. In this kind of an arrangement, admin¬istrative vision, programmatic planning and the scholarly research that eventually becomes foundational to the industry itself suffers. On the other hand, when a program is not adequately populated with faculty who have industry experience, something else is lost, particularly the highly-specialized, trade-related skills that agencies are pleading for.

My first semester teaching, I had a student who was a year or two older than I was. She refused to take any of my advice and I could never figure out why until I read her anonymous evaluation of the course, written in her very distinct handwriting. She said, “How can I possibly learn something from someone who’s younger than I am?” Her words struck me as naive and arrogrant then, but now (almost a decade later), they resonate with more ignorance than ever. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t learn something from my students. The same is true of my esteemed academic colleagues with terminal degrees. I can say the same about the inspiring people I’ve ever met through the world of advertising. It is truly an exciting and humbling place to be.
Professional educators are not the only ones who know how to teach and it’s just as silly for industry folks to think they’re above learning anything from academics with very little “real world” experience. Each side has something valuable to offer the other, if we’d just be willing to let go of our territorial insecurities. When will we see that the “real world” is imaginary? It’s time to remove such divisive terminology from our respective vocabularies so that we can start living and working in the same space, toward common goals – a new culture of learning that involves everyone.

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Mark Allen teaches at SMU in Dallas, Texas in the Temerlin Advertising Institute’s creative program known as Method. He holds a bachelor's in Communication Design from The University of North Texas. His work as an art director has been featured in Applied Arts and Print, while his students have been consistently recognized by CMYK Magazine, The One Club, Lürzer’s Archive and The Art Directors Club. 

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