Two Things College Profs Should Teach Ad Students (But Often Don’t)

The student across the table from me at the Portfolio Review had one of those deer-in-the-headlights looks my way when I asked the question. It was a question that I thought was simple enough, but apparently it was a real brain teaser. I wondered if I was dealing with a kid who had just had too much to drink the night before at a frat party and was regretting it now. But she seemed fairly lucid, so I asked again:

“What was your thinking behind this campaign?”

She stammered out, “Well, I, uh, guess I just thought this logo effect would be cool and the colors looked pretty good.”

I asked it again to another student and got, “I did this because that was our assignment, to do a logo and an ad and a website…”

I kept hearing this and started to notice a disturbing pattern: More and more kids coming out of college into the Advertising profession don’t know diddly squat about how to sell their work in any convincing manner.

Oh, they have talent for sure. They can write well. They can design well. They know how to service an account at a junior level. But the ingredient they’re missing is one they should have been equipped with as early on in their schooling as possible – strategic thinking.

Colleges and Journalism Professors, listen up.

We in the professional working world expect you to teach them this stuff. Frankly, for the truckloads of money their parents are shelling out to your school or the amount of debt they’re going to accumulate due to student loans, they deserve to be in the best possible position to succeed. Not settle for another line of work.

So yes, you’ll excuse me if I hold your institution under a microscope to ensure it continues to prepare kids for the landscape in front of them.

Which brings us to the other thing I find lacking more often than not: presentation ability.

How much good do you think it does to teach them the merits of great Copywriting and Graphic Design and Web Development if they don’t know how to persuade a Creative Director or Account Director or client of the work’s reason for being?

I’m not asking them to be superstars in this skills area right after graduation. That’s unrealistic. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want them to be able to present their work thoughtfully and with confidence.

It’s not that they can’t get into the profession on talent. It’s a question of how far they can go. I don’t know too many people who advance that high up in a company in this field and also suck at selling.

Some choose to want to only go so far because they don’t want to get too far removed from what they love most, such as writing or design. I can totally respect that. But what I can’t respect is not being equipped to have the option of that choice because they weren’t given the presentational skills early on.

Wait, wait. Don’t tell me. Here comes the excuse for talent rising above all shortcomings:

“Great work sells itself.”

Let me know when you’re done sliding on that rainbow and read on when you are.

Because while great work should sell itself, it often doesn’t. There is an entire minefield of internal and external challenges to that brilliant work seeing the light of day and resembling what it began as.

It needs savvy, sophisticated people to link the mindset of the audience with what that work is striving to address. And while it may still get shot down or suffer what the great Luke Sullivan calls the “death by a thousand cuts,” you give it a fighting chance of emerging through the storm of critiques with a strong rationale.

I was lucky. I went to a Journalism School, Drake University, where I was given the ability to partake in campaign simulations that gave me not only a real taste for agency roles but also presenting work to a real company. I couldn’t get up there and justify buying off on a campaign because it was “cool.” I couldn’t just get by on creative writing alone.

I had to dive deep into the company’s challenge, learn about what hadn’t worked up to this point, what their competitors were doing better or worse than them, try to unearth a few nuggets of insight and use that insight to help them live up to a promise their audience could believe in. And of course, I had to sound really good in expressing that thinking.

It didn’t matter whether or not they were actually going to use that winning work. It was the presentation that mattered. And when our team experienced technical difficulties during the presentation and lost to another agency by 1 point, I learned a lot about improvising on the fly, walking a client through the thought process and, in the end, how much I hated to lose. Crazy valuable stuff to learn before I donned a cap and gown.

I was lucky a second time when my first Creative Director taught me about how to write better Creative Rationales. It didn’t need to be a 10-page report but 2-3 paragraphs that the client could use while hopefully bulletproofing the work. If we were taking the client in a new creative direction, why were we choosing to take them down that path?

And I was lucky a third time when my second Creative Director told me I needed to try a couple of classes in comedy improvisation. Trust me. This stuff scares the crap out of you if you were like me with no training but it’s a good thing for the long haul.

But…for the investment required, I think colleges and universities can help students accomplish a whole lot of the above before they get into the working world. They won’t all be lucky to fall into the right environment upon graduation and have great mentors when they get there like I did. Therefore, they deserve to be involved in more simulated or real campaigns. They need to learn how important strategic thinking is in the equation. And they should know what it’s like to present their work with passion.

Without these ingredients, we’re only going to have more graduates coming out of school who know everything about how to post and tweet and create hashtags and Instagram but don’t know why they’re doing it in the grand scheme of things as it pertains to the brand. They’ll be tactically intelligent but strategically empty.

On more than one occasion, I have been told by interns on how they had learned more with me in 12 weeks than they had in years at school. I’m proud of that and disturbed at the same time.

Yes, I still believe a college education is worth the investment. But please don’t tell me we can’t do better.

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2 thoughts on “Two Things College Profs Should Teach Ad Students (But Often Don’t)

  1. This statement is going to be a little harsh but here goes. Most Millennials are not ready for a real first job out of college. They’ve been given everything under the sun. Their parents either did all of the work for them or had some outside help to accomplish most tasks. On one hand colleges have to do a better job preparing students for the real world but on the other hand those students don’t know how to work. They’ve gotten a free ride. It frustrates me because as a late boomer – early buster I had to do it all on my own and I’m better for that.

    • You may be partially correct, Michael, but I’m sure the generation or two before us said similar things. Whether there has been work done for them or they’ve busted their butt, one fact remains: They are giving 4 years of their life to an institution that may cost $100,000+ that is supposed to prepare the student for that next phase of life. In a perfect world, that student comes into a work environment with great mentors who take the grad under their wing. But we can’t assume that’s what’s going to actually happen.

      What I cannot and will not accept is the situation where a student is not able to find a career close to their area of study and instead have to settle. Is it idealist of me to want this for them? Perhaps but so be it. If they don’t get into that area, we have to ask whether or not their university could’ve done more to position them to better succeed. I’m not blaming it 100% on the student, the school, their parents in their upbringing, etc. But I am saying from the evidence I see that there’s room for improvement for some (not all, but some) of these schools.

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