The Perils of Advertising High

I’m reading with dismay Stuart Elliot’s adverting column in yesterday’s New York Times: “The First Graduates from Advertising High.”  The Brooklyn school, named the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media, is supported by the Interpublic Group (McCann-Erickson, Draftfcb, Deutch,) the Advertising Club of New York and the American Association of Advertising Agencies.  It’s aimed mostly at minority groups, which in itself, is a worthy objective.

 But what does this mean for the future of advertising?  Assuming these graduates are hired at the kind of top agencies supporting this enterprise—considering Madison Avenue’s dismal history of hiring minorities—are we simply perpetuating a self-fulfilling perspective that ignores the larger realities of the industry’s effect on the culture at large?  Where will broader thinking come from if all students learn is within the confines of advertising and media? 

 The days are gone when account people needed an MBA to get a top agency job–agencies could not compete financially with the manufacturers and consulting firms. I once had an OTC consumer products client tell me there was no way their product managers would take our account executives seriously.  Their educational and experience backgrounds were simply not the same, to the detriment of the agency’s staff.  So how will an agency fare on this score with people only schooled in the trade?  It’s a closed loop and relegates agencies to true vendors, not strategic partners.

 To be clear, I’m not criticizing the objective of providing minority students with opportunities they may not have had before.  I’m wondering, however, if such a narrow educational focus will truly provide opportunities for advancement and success, or if this focus will reinforce the divide between those that do and those that lead.  One consequence of the lack of junior agency expertise is that clients only want to deal with senior people.  At my last agency here in San Francisco this caused considerable financial pressure, spreading many assignments across the senior staff while limiting the time they could spend with any one client and pushing most of the work to junior, less experienced personnel.  It’s an unworkable model for long-term success.  The opposite can also result in the same kind of pressure: I’m working now with a very senior group of people, with no junior staff at all.  It’s great for our clients. But, this means highly paid individuals are spending time on functions easily handled by less experienced people.

 In my ideal agency, small multi-disciplinary teams would handle assignments based on knowledge and interest sets.  No team would be fixed.  Teams would come together to fulfill specific roles and projects and then reform to meet the needs of the next new thing.  Design firms often work this way, such as Ideo.  In my agency we would have anthropologists working with writers, historians with art directors.  Solutions would be developed holistically—not piecemeal.   Nothing would be integrated because everything would be seamless.  Concepts such as large and small or simple and complex would not exist.  For the most part, virtual would not work—sparks rarely ignite when people aren’t together.  Humanistic values would be pervasive across and within the organization.  Diversity and geographic differentiation would be the norm. The Christian Right need not apply.

 The first question to any job candidate would be, “What have you done to prepare for this role that isn’t related in any professional way to what this role may be?” “What are the last ten books you’ve read?” “If you could save the world tomorrow, what would you do first?”  “If you weren’t sitting here, where would you rather be?”

 In every job interview I’ve ever had—every one—the two things on my resume that provoke the most, and usually first, comments and questions are the two things that have the least to do with marketing or communications or advertising: the fact that I worked on a Mississippi River tow boat in college and, later, earned an M. Lit in Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.  No one ever remarks on the MBA.

 My hope for the graduates of the Advertising High School is that they look beyond these niche studies and find diverse interests to fill in the gaps.  With this undergraduate background, their likely next pursuit will be to earn a degree in business, or communications, or even advertising: in other words, more of the same.  This may very well be enough to land a job. I also hope they will push for more.



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