The college where I studied advertising had just two methods of teaching. Method one was to show us old ads; when our tutor was bored or busy, he would stick on a DVD of an old D&AD reel, which always reminded me of watching videos on rainy afternoons at primary school. The second and most common method was setting briefs for us, which were then critiqued by one of the tutors, or by whichever working creatives they could entice out of London, whom we sometimes visited, in the hope of scoring free beer and layout pads.
However, I don’t class either of those methods as actual teaching. After all, you wouldn’t train someone to be a Starbucks barista by showing them videos of great cups of coffee that had been made in the past. Nor would you set them the brief to make a frappuccino and then, while not actually having taught them how to make one, bring in some coffee experts to critique what they’ve done. Yes, ‘doing it’ is a great way to learn. But isn’t there much more to the learning process than simple trial and error?
There was a massive part missing in the middle – the part where the teacher should have showed us the coffee machine, and explained how much soy goes in a latte. We never had teaching sessions on how to write a headline, what makes a good TV ad or, dare I say it, how to have an idea.
And to those who say that you can’t teach someone to have an idea … bollocks. Of course you can. Maybe you can’t teach someone to be creative – obviously they need to have their brain wired correctly (incorrectly?) for that. But assuming someone is creative, ie capable of lateral thinking, of course you can train them how to deploy lateral thinking to solve advertising problems.
And yet the vast majority of students emerge after one, two or even three years of college … and agencies don’t consider them capable of solving those problems. Not yet, anyway. So they need to spend another year – or two – traipsing round agencies, and writing ads in a public park while living on a friend’s floor. Shouldn’t some of them, at least the best ones, have books that are good enough to get them hired on the spot – given that they’ve spent up to three years working on them? Why can’t Britain’s ad colleges equip their students to graduate straight into a job, like dental schools or agricultural colleges do?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the non-UK outfits, like Miami Ad School, are no different. There’s a loud buzz at the moment about Hyper Island in Sweden, and some of it must be justified, given that the kind of places their students end up at include the likes of Goodby, Crispin Porter, and Droga5. In fact last year, one of their graduates received 56 job offers. And their programme does seem innovative. The first week, for example, consists entirely of a course in group dynamics that was designed by the Swedish army. And the curriculum is never planned more than two weeks in advance, to ensure they’re always studying relevant material. But stripping that away, 95% of teaching still takes the same form – the crit.
Maybe that’s the problem: we’ve come to believe that the crit is the only way to learn. I had a conversation with a leading London creative director the other day, in which he bemoaned the general quality of Britain’s ad colleges. I asked him which he thought was the best of them and was surprised to hear him name my old college. I said I could testify that despite its reputation, the actual teaching was poor. “It doesn’t matter whether [course leader’s name] is a good teacher or not,” asserted the creative director. “What matters is he books his students into more crits with ad agencies than any other college, and that’s the most important thing.”
Am I really asking too much, to suggest that an ad tutor should be a good teacher, and not just someone with the ability to use the telephone, and operate a DVD player?
James McNulty (a pseudonym) is a creative at a London advertising agency