Does advertising education need a rethink?

We talk to former Watford Advertising Course leader Tony Cullingham and BBH’s Helen Rhodes about bringing back the agency’s scheme, Barn, in a new format that responds to what the industry needs now

Last year, it was announced that Tony Cullingham – leader of the renowned Watford Advertising Course – would be hanging up his shoes after 30 years helming the programme. It had become a talent pipeline for the ad industry; think of pretty much any big UK creative agency and you’ll find an ex-Watford student among the senior ranks. Yet by 2021, it was a different picture. “I felt that Watford was reaching a natural end – I only had four students at the time that I left,” he tells us.

Cullingham drew a link between the declining turnout and shifts in education frameworks. With the rise of learning via Zoom and free online mentoring, particularly in the last couple of years, as well as a growing number of agency-led schemes, the case for forking out thousands of pounds to attend a formal course has grown more unclear.

“The problem with Watford is, with the best will in the world, a lot of kids wanted to study on the programme, and even though our fees were low at four grand a year, once you added the cost of living – the cost of accommodation, which was always on the increase anyway in London, the travel expenses – you’re talking about tens of thousands of pounds to study on a programme,” he says. As such, even though students might have wanted to go to Watford, many of them could no longer afford it.