School's Out

Following the resignation of Tony Cullingham from the Watford Course due to low turnout, Elliot Leavy examines the what is going on in advertising education: a world in flux

By Elliot Leavy

“It’s fucked,” says Marc Lewis, Dean of the School of Communication Arts, “a complete clusterfuck.” Lewis is known for his opinions — he is an educator after all — but in wake of the closure of rival Tony Cullingham’s Watford Course, he feels like his mode of working is endangered.

“I feel more at threat than two weeks ago,” says Lewis. Asked why, the Dean replies that it's “huge egos” who “think they can teach” that have “killed courses like Watford.”

What Lewis is talking about here is the rise of in-house agency talent incubators — agencies' internal courses, workshops and schemes that have over the years become the norm.

It's just business

“They are a response to a gap in the market,” says Ben Mooge, chief creative officer at Publicis Groupe UK, which announced the launch of Publicis Student Workshop last week. “You can always spot a Watford-er, and I always said a manager breeds a certain type of player. But maybe that style was rooted in a different time.”

As Jules Chalkley, chief executive creative director of Ogilvy UK, notes, “The creative department isn’t copywriter and art director anymore. We need people who see the world through different crafts; brilliant designers, 3D animators, product makers and so on.” In this, it can be argued that these in-house agency courses better reflect advertising’s needs today.

Elliot Harris, Reckitt Global ECD and creative partner at Havas London, thinks it's like comparing apples and oranges: “The in-house agencies are nothing like these ad schools. The colleges are purely creative, a lot of agency stuff is more varied. The in-house courses are about scale, about widening that pathway and getting more varied people into the industry; courses like Watford create ad-ready titans.”

Cookie-cutter creatives

That is not to say that these schemes are always so varied, with some of these incubators also being largely focussed on the creative. The Publicis Student Workshop is “nothing new” according to Mooge, who recalls how when he started out in advertising he joined the similarly named D&AD Student Workshop. “Each week you would present your campaign to the creative directors who had set the brief. Not only do you get amazing feedback on your ideas, but the students' networks are improved dramatically.”

However, herein lies one of the main charges against in-house incubators: that they are creating cookie-cutter creatives that fit only into the agencies from which they were moulded.

“I do worry about that,” says Tony Cullingham, “being trained by corporate people in the corporate world. The [art] colleges have a much purer view or brands and briefs and aren’t affected by any type of client relationship. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

But Mooge doesn’t think that these in-house schemes are restrictive in the slightest. “Our course is broad as Publicis is home to many different flavours of agencies. You have the more populist Publicis.Poke, the well-rounded Saatchi & Saatchi and the health agency Langland.” Because of the wide variety in experiences on offer, Mooge hopes that the Workshop will do nothing but broaden the horizons of its students: “Health is more important than ever before, as every brand is a health one: we can offer experience in that small, unexplored pond through Langland— where else can students get that?”

Negative feedback loop

So can these two schools of thought work together? Harris believes so: “We let the Watford lot set up shop in our offices whenever we could, and many agencies like our own sponsor courses like the SCA and Watford.”

But part of the issue is the reliance of ad colleges and schemes on handouts, particularly during periods of turmoil such as the past 18 months.

Cullingham says that funding was one of the main two reasons why he resigned. “You read about the government pulling money out of creative courses, so courses like mine can’t compete when others are able to offer it for free. Once the kids go to agencies, the agencies will be under pressure to hire from their own programmes — they’ve spent good money on them.” This, he says, creates a negative feedback loop for courses such as Watford.

Agencies must do more here to help such courses if they do actually care, according to Tom Crossley, chief executive of SCA. Crossley states that most of the time when he approaches agencies for funding that “no-one replies hardly ever”. This is a problem, as “you’re only as good as your creative talent, and courses like ours have launched some of the best talents in the industry, something which cannot be said for these incubators.”

Different type of diversity

Agency desire to control their own talent pool in the hopes of ensuring more diverse talent is the other reason behind Cullingham’s resignation. “One of the main priorities of HR departments today is to show the world how diverse their agencies are. So the best way they can do that, in terms of creative training, is to establish their own creative in-house incubators,” Cullingham says.

The irony of course being that, according to Cullingham, the Watford Course has always been diverse, “Since 1962 when it started: we’ve had fairground workers, elephant trainers, and lorry drivers and builders. You can’t really have had it more diverse.”

Indeed, Laurent Simon, UK chief creative officer of VMLY&R — and ex-Watford man himself, recalls how “it painted for me an unforgettable picture as to what everyday life in Britain looks and feels like far from trendy circles of East London.”

Oli Rimoldi, a creative at Mother London and another ex-Watford student, agrees. “That’s kind of the point to all of these things — ad colleges and in-house agencies — to bring in a wider range of talent, and not create agency ‘mini-mes’.”

But, for Watford, Rimoldi says, part of the problem was probably that it was so word-of-mouth: “It was like getting into Hogwarts, and you only really knew about it if you already knew about it,” meaning that in many ways diversity did suffer.

Open the door

It's a problem which Ally Owen, founder of Brixton Finishing School, is tackling head-on with this week’s announcement of ADventure, a schools outreach programme that will reach 100K talent in state schools nationwide from November. “Only one in four graduates thinks there’s money to be made in advertising,” Owen says. “Young talent across the board doesn’t know about the opportunities there are in advertising — and how could they?” By raising awareness, Owen hopes to bring in more diverse talent to the industry, an aim that would in theory alleviate the need for agencies to take it upon themselves and therefore break that negative feedback loop for courses like Watford.

For Cullingham, although much of what galvanised the rise of these incubators are forces which led to his own resignation, it’s not all doom and gloom, “As long as these new initiatives don’t compromise creative ethos in training these talents, then it will be ok.”

What this ethos is is clear, as Craig Ainsley, creative director at Mother and ex-student of Cullingham’s says himself: “Tony teaches the unchanging fundamentals of what makes an idea good. The formats and the platforms change, but the thinking behind what makes good work doesn’t really change.”

Balancing act

With the closure of the Watford Course then, many underlying issues with how adland education works have risen to the surface. A tension between the two teaching methods clearly exists, but at the same time, it is tension caused by circumstance rather than animosity.

Hopefully, with the closure of the Watford Course, a lot of navel gazing can be put to bed, and the two ways of learning can work in tandem with one another by understanding that they are ultimately two sides of the same coin.

For whilst no-one wants to see closures such as the Watford Course happening to other educational establishments, at the same time, no-one wants the industry to be less diverse in its talent. Walking this tightrope will need balance from both sides, the only question is whether or not they really want it.

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