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July 23, 2009
Are You Smarter Than An Ad Student?

What entry-level ad pros do, don’t, and perhaps should know

I recently taught a quarter-long a class at a two-year advertising portfolio school. The students were just beginning the program, so while other instructors focus on idea generation and concepting, I wanted to teach them about the state of the ad industry today and how it got that way.

So their first assignment was to do research on agencies they might like to work for someday. Except I originally didn’t allow them to report back on Crispin or Goodby, figuring they already knew about those shops.

I was wrong.

“Crispin who?” they asked. “Goodby who?” “Modernista, how do you spell that? Where did you say they were again?”

Nor they did they know the basic hierarchical structure of a creative department. Imagine starting law school and not knowing the difference between the Supreme Court and divorce court. Or starting medical school and not being able to name the body’s vital organs. That’s the kind of mindset I had to help change.

I bring this up not to dump on my very bright and eager students, but to question the role of education in our industry these days. And most ad people don’t even get the extra benefit of spending time in a portfolio “finishing” school. What should advertising’s junior professionals know before they start their jobs?

Four-year colleges and universities do practically nothing to prepare students for a career in advertising, particularly as a creative. Most of the professors at these schools have little in the way of relevant, recent industry experience, nor do they provide much insight into how today’s ad agencies work on a day-to-day basis.

If you come out of college with a degree in advertising, odds are you could land a gig as a junior media planner or account coordinator. But no one, in any discipline of the ad business, receives any formal on-the-job training these days.

Despite the precarious economy, there are still plenty of people who want to go into advertising. There’s no stopping them, and there’s no required degree or certification. While that’s little comfort to the experienced people looking for any way to hold on to their jobs and advance their careers, the juniors need help.

And I think we need to help where we can, because it affects us all. I cringe when ideas go to an Assistant Account Executive who doesn’t have an informed notion of what they’re helping to sell and who they’re selling to. It doesn’t benefit anyone to see a  junior creative team present a wonderful, well-crafted idea that just happens to be the completely wrong tone for a target they can’t seem to relate to.

To be fair, students are quite knowledgeable in some areas. Many already think in terms of integrated campaigns with online, offline, mobile executions and everything in between. They have good instincts on how consumers these days live a completely plugged-in life. They’ll get very proficient on all the computer programs they need to know to bring any idea to life.

So what else should students be learning? I can’t believe a $100 Advertising 101 textbook helps much. Perhaps a good amount of psychology and anthropology to understand how people think. Recent world history might help a little, too, to understand the global economy. In the post-Enron world, some business schools scrambled to add ethics classes. Ethics in advertising is clearly an oxymoron, so I don’t expect that to be part of the curriculum anytime soon. But clearly some amount of business knowledge is helpful, too. Throw in a little curiosity, empathy, and determination, which you can’t really teach but students should strive to have as well.

Then again, maybe too much education and knowledge poisons the well. Maybe the less these kids learn about award shows, or agencies whose reputations run hot and cold, or why so much advertising is based on fear, the better off they’ll be. Maybe they’ll develop a better sense of what they like and don’t like on their own without the arbitrary standards and prejudices so drilled in to the rest of us. Maybe they bring a fresh perspective to the business simply by not knowing anything about it.

But the reality is clients are demanding more from agencies—more accountability, more ideas, faster and cheaper. We can either lament this, or try to make sure everyone in our industry is prepared for it. The juniors will keep coming, and they’ll need our help developing the critical skills we’ll require of them.

However, there is one skill they do learn at college: How to drink.

And drinking skills can indeed get you far in advertising.


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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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