Preparing Students For More Than Just Advertising

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There’s a moment with advertising students. Sometimes it’s right at the start, the Open Day. Sometimes it’s at the end when graduation looms. They come to you and say: “I want to work at…” At that moment they are seeing their career open up and they have a dream of the sort of workplace they want to work in; the sort of culture they want to be a part of; the sort of business they want to add value to. In my experience, more have said Droga5 than have said Accenture.

The Drum said the consultancy was  “dad dancing”. Others ramped up the hyperbole: Didgiday called it a “turning point” while WARC, echoing Accenture’s own rhetoric, went for “game-changing”. The B2B press frenzy that greeted the announcement of the Droga5 acquisition far outweighed coverage of Accenture’s other recent moves in Spain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. Why? Well as my students will tell you… “it’s Droga5… I mean Droga… ya know…” Droga5 is iconic. They did Under Armour. They brought together Rhianna and Unicef. They even made Bing and Newcastle Brown Ale sexy. And what has Accenture been doing? Developing video surveillance ‘solutions’ for a steel mill; building customer information system (CIS) platforms for a gas company and digital asset management systems for a Chinese state electricity corporation.

Of course, such a simple opposition is a caricature. Accenture Interactive has done groovy data-led stuff with Subway, Marriott and Adidas, even winning an Agency of the Year gong in 2018. But they’re not Droga… at least in the eyes of my students.  The image of a consultancy – even an ‘interactive’ one isn’t sexy. It is ties, not t-shirts. It is spreadsheets, not sketchbooks. It is consultancy, not creativity. Again, doubtless unfair but a powerful image. AdWeek explored as much when they asked how the deal might affect Droga5’s culture with the phrase “Optimism meets caution”.

Agencies are connected to clients at the imitation decision-maker level (CMO.) Consultancies are connected at the real decision-maker level (CEO.)

Of course, such images will change and the question is moot. The Big Five are ‘frenemies’. They’re here. They’re buying and they’re changing the landscape. As Bob Hoffman explained: “Why do consultancies feel they can grow agencies faster than the agencies could grow on their own? Simple. Agencies are connected to clients at the imitation decision-maker level (CMO.) Consultancies are connected at the real decision-maker level (CEO.)”

If this is indeed the new reality then the consultancy companies have some work to do explaining to NewGen talent that theirs is not a tie-dying, management consultancy stereotype; their workspace a dystopian office and a career with them an endless grey vista. But there is a challenge too for those of us training that NewGen or soon-to-be-NewGen. How are we preparing new industry professionals for working in that wider consultancy family.

We train our students to work in creative-strategic teams. We get them to understand the different languages that creatives and planners use. We ensure they see the bigger comms picture. We develop talent that can work across redundant distinctions between advertising disciplines. But clearly, now we need to go further. We need them to see their work in the broader business, change management, technology and service terms. Accenture says it “solves our clients’ toughest challenges by providing unmatched services in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations.” The word ‘creativity’ is not in there but I’m sure they would say it underpins those services. NewGen talent, and those developing them, need to be confident, comfortable and capable across those areas.

The brief is at the heart of advertising education. Typically these are ‘pure’ creative challenges. “Break barriers in female sport”, “Make sustainability tasty”. D&AD goes as far as to encourage talent to simplify still further: “And there you have it,” they say, “your whole brief squished into just two words.” The aim is focus. Soon-to-be-NewGen and their tutors order the pizza, lock the studio doors, turn the music up or down and settle in for an all-nighter.

On my degree we work with industry to develop more rounded Briefs that locate creative work and its attendant strategy within the broader business problem. My students research and practice-research into the heart of the problem, framing it often in more than two words. They produce creative-strategic solutions positioned within that broader world. But our industry partners are, on the whole, agencies. They are not consultancies. They may manage to work ‘upstream’ within the client, understanding and impacting that business but they do not have, as Bob Hoffman says, the same relationship to the company as the consultancy. At least they didn’t before they became an arm of that consultancy or became a consultancy themselves.

We (industry and academia) need to change the Brief we develop with our partners so that they are better prepared to work in a business that engages with everything from legal and accountancy issues through change-management and supply chain questions to tech development and operations. Comms, let alone advertising is not an add on. It is enfolded with everything the consultancies offer. NewGen talent needs to understand that and be ready to work in cross-disciplinary teams that go beyond comms or even tech and comms. They need to know how to work with all suits, not just account execs. The Brief and the training needs to give them creative and strategic literacies; the skills to talk tech but also the confidence to engage with the whole of the business – to see the client problem the way the consultancy does.

Maybe one day the new student’s eyes will light up when they talk about KPMG. Even if they don’t, our responsibility is to get them ready for that career.

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