Are schools failing Australia’s advertising industry?

A global survey says schools are failing Australia's ad industry, churning out unprepared graduates en masse. Is the future of the industry endangered? Simon Canning speaks to industry leaders to find out if the situation is as dire as projected.

A global ranking of the quality of graduates emerging from schools feeding the advertising and production industry has revealed Australia is wallowing at the bottom of the pool, with students well behind the rest of the world, the ranking creators claim.

The poor performance has raised the question of whether Australian schools, from the long-lauded AWARD School program to university courses and private education providers, are shortchanging the industry.

Andrew McDonald, co-founder of The Rookies, which conducted the survey, says Australia compared poorly to the rest of the world, churning out too many job candidates, many of whom were poorly prepared for life in the industry.

The survey ranked the submissions of 1800 students from 500 schools in 77 countries including the US, the UK, Singapore, Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Australia’s top performing schools were the multi-national Shillington which has campuses in Sydney Melbourne and Brisbane which was ranked in the top five for illustration, web and mobile, and Bill Blue College of Design for web and mobile.

A total of 32 Australian schools were represented in the study.

The Rookies’ Andrew McDonald says Aussie graduates are under-skilled.

McDonald said the situation was concerning.

“The interesting point here is that although most Australian schools had low entry numbers, the overall quality of student work that was submitted was consistently low,” McDonald says.

“This reflects my experience while hiring local talent for visual effects and animation over the years. This is even more evident when you compare my experience hiring junior talent in London.”

McDonald said the sheer number of schools now serving the communications and advertising industry could be part of the problem.

“In my opinion, there are too many schools (both local and overseas) churning out students that are simply not ready for industry,” he says.

“They fast-track them through the basics and then let them run wild creating major graduation projects which are too ambitious, lacking guidance, and simply not showcasing skills that studios are looking for.”

However, some of Australia’s leading advertising practitioners have challenged the view that schools are failing, but have also questioned if they are offering the right experience in the first place.

Warren Brown says rel-life experience is best

Warren Brown, creative founder of BMF, says while schools have a place, the pressure-cooker environment of working in an agency is the best education available.

“The best creative training comes from internships, or real life experience,” Brown says.

“Learning your creative skills in a high pressure work environment is the fastest way to improve, conditions any school would struggle to replicate. Consequently most students without a taste of the real world can find it difficult to either get a job or survive in one.

“A CD told me once, ‘Find someone who will treat you like shit, rape you for your ideas, rip you off and will  teach you everything you need to know in the shortest time possible’.”

Jon Steel looks beyond advertising for experience in candidates

Jon Steel, director of WPP AUNZ, says the answer lies in what people were learning – which he believes is often the wrong thing.

While he says he doesn’t have a specific view about the state of Australian education, he holds strong views about the output of advertising schools in general.

“The question assumes that advertising people should be educated in advertising, and that’s a point of view with which I fundamentally disagree,” Steel tells Mumbrella.

“All of the best people with whom I have worked over the years have been educated in other disciplines, and many have done jobs outside our industry. Jeff Goodby  [co-founder and co-chair of US agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners] was a Harvard-educated journalist. Rich Silverstein [co-chairman and a creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco] was an art director on Rolling a Stone magazine.

“Out of the 200 or so Fellows WPP has hired for its global leadership program over the past 21 years, I can count on one hand the number who have advertising qualifications. I simply hire people who are smart and accomplished, who have a broad and interesting world view. I then encourage them to apply their skills and personality to what we do.

“I am not criticising all advertising schools – some do a very good job. But they do tend to attract and churn out people who have a rather narrow view of our discipline. When someone says to me, ‘I have always wanted to work in advertising,’ my first reaction is always, ‘why?’ To be successful in our business, you have to be interested in life and people first, advertising second.”

Although he doesn’t have a direct view on the local education industry, he does raise a more general question.

“My general view on Australian education is that there is far too much emphasis placed on vocational degrees, at the expense of what I regard as a general, quality education,” he says.

“Over the years, I have recruited lawyers, soldiers, mathematicians, and engineers in addition to a perhaps more expected crowd of anthropologists, psychologists, English and history graduates.

“I even once hired a killer whale trainer. She proved to be a fantastic planner – my logic was that if she could persuade Shamu to jump out of the water and head a football, clients and creative teams would be putty in her hands.

“All of these people have brought different experiences, and problem solving approaches, that most degrees in advertising or marketing would not have given them.”

James Wright: The issue is the emotional maturity of students

James Wright, chief operating officer of Havas Creative Group and CEO of Red Agency, says the issue with industry education in Australia was not about skills but the emotional maturity of students.

“Having worked on three continents I do not think there is any huge difference with graduates out of Australia from a technical knowledge perspective,” Wright says.

“For me it’s more the emotional maturity that I think people out of Australia’s schools come out of because they are generally still living at home, whereas in the likes of other countries they have more life skills that you simply don’t get living at home.

“It’s more around the attitude and maturity of somebody coming into the workplace and just the type of interpersonal skills you need in an office environment which perhaps they haven’t had before. One of the more concerning things is that sometimes you are the first person that has told them that some of their work isn’t good enough or that they need to do this or that.

“You can teach skills, you can’t teach attitude.”

David Droga chose agency work over university

Speaking with Mumbrella Asia recently, David Droga, founder of Droga5, said that his career benefitted from deferring a decision to go to university.

“I deferred university much to the chagrin of my parents and I started in the mailroom at Grey advertising in Australia. I wanted to be a writer and I got poached by this start-up agency called OMON,” Droga said.

“It was run by these young guns in their mid-twenties and I was their first employee so in essence I was the creative department, aside from the creative directors there who started it. Fortunately, the agency flourished because of the work we were doing so I grew with the agency exponentially.

“Then one of the founders left to pursue a career in other media and writing books so I was lucky that I was the next cab off the rank and I was writing a lot of the work. So I got made a joint ECD at 22, the environment I was in just fostered that. It didn’t really mean anything to me at the time.”

While there is a broad view that traditional advertising and creative schools may not be teaching the skills needed, education providers say their track record speaks for itself.

Tony Hale says the quality of education is strong

Tony Hale, CEO of the Communications Council which administers AWARD School, says the success of the venture is proven in it having stood the test of time.

“AWARD School has been proven for over 35 years,” Hale says.

“It constantly turns out a very high quality creative person, the top students always get jobs, and what we have been working hard at doing is improving the standard of entrants  by running things like application workshops.”

The school had 560 applications this year for 200 spaces.

“All the feedback I had from AWARD School is that the standard of the applications was absolutely fantastic,” he says.

“We continue to attract and breed a great standard of creative in Australia and I think that it is shown in the rankings that we have all around the world.”

Hale says gaps remain in the process of education for the advertising industry, with diversity still an important issue.

“But also, some of the people coming in aren’t really sure about advertising, they don’t know what’s involved and the application workshops that we have had to try and coach them a bit are yielding fantastic results,” he says.

“I do think that we’ve got to somehow be better at providing the right skills as they move from entry level to senior level.”

Helga Diamond brought Miami Ad School to Australia

Helga Diamond has been running Miami Ad School in Australia since it first launched here in 2014 and says that a majority of students are being hired by agencies before they even completed the two year course.

“Our students have been hired by DDB, CHE and others before fishing their coursers, which is a brilliant outcome for the students,” Diamond says.

“I have been trying to get the school over here for years and to launch a school is daunting. Miami is up there, as students don’t have a portfolio, they work on integrated campaigns.”

Mark Green

Mark Green pleased with the standard of Australian graduates

Mark Green, CEO of the Monkeys, says he does not see education in Australia as lagging behind other countries.

“There is a good talent pool to draw on,” Green says.

“The first job out of uni is always a big step, but we have had quite a bit of success with graduates starting here – some of our first suits and creatives have gone on to great things.”


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