Cold-shouldered at the careers expo: Advertising is no longer cool with kids

Eric Franken tells the sad tale of the time he was cold-shouldered by a bunch of teenagers at a careers expo - and suggests how adland can turn its image problem around.

I recently attended a careers expo at my old high school as a representative of the advertising industry… and just one (yes, one) student approached me. Was it my lack of branded stress balls, or is the industry facing a serious image problem?

So, there I was. Voluntarily spending my Thursday afternoon seated behind a folding table on an indoor basketball court.

To my left, a prominent Sydney university handing out brightly coloured bags like it was the Easter Show. To my right, a gap year company with a light show more powerful (and blinding) than the sun.

For over an hour I’d manned my ‘Marketing and Advertising’ stall – and still not a single person had spoken to me. At first, I didn’t think much of it. I just sat there and took full advantage of the spinach and fetta triangles being carted around by the school’s hospitality students. But as teenagers continued to approach every stall but mine, I couldn’t help but look around and compare my competition.

A crowd at The Australian Defence Force? Understandable. Engineering? Fair enough. But a jam-packed line to speak with an orthodontist? Come on. That’s when I had to face the facts.

No one was interested in advertising.

Unimpressed teenagers barely gave a second-look and parents actively avoided me all-together. What was once a hot industry for school-leavers was now getting the cold shoulder from them.

As time passed at my seemingly invisible table I tried to piece it all together. How did advertising become so… lame? But the more I thought about it, the more I understood the lack of interest. After all, I was late to the event because I had to quickly finish off some ads that would still need the weekend to polish up (and would eventually never see the light of day).

Did these kids want to do that?

Did they want to endure demanding hours for an entry-level salary that hasn’t increased for the past 10 years? Or work in agencies who, according to Michael Farmer’s ‘Madison Avenue Manslaughter’, have reduced their fees by 70% since 1995 while tech companies appear to be making big money and even bigger change?

If I was in their shoes, I’d probably be leaning towards orthodontics, too.

And then it happened.

After ninety minutes of sitting on a plastic chair and eating finger food, the shyest girl in the room shuffled up and asked me about… graphic design. Not particularly my area of expertise, but her sliver of interest in something creative instantly reminded me why I was spending my valuable time at a careers expo.

Basically, I was there as a favour – but deep down, I showed up to promote an industry I genuinely believe in. A place where you’re paid to make things and have fun along the way.

Because of this job I’ve made ads with the world’s fastest man, the world’s sexiest woman and filmed an explosion so big that anyone pregnant had to be escorted off site. Sure, I could have been a lawyer or something like that – but I’d much rather spend my days kicking back with my partner, dreaming up ways to crack whatever brief we’re on.

Of course, there are lows. Frustrating, nauseating, staying-late-to-write-rubbish lows that make me want to pack it all in and become a commercial fisherman. But call me crazy, I think they’re worth it – because this industry offers so much.

It welcomes misfits with open-arms. It develops original-thinkers. Increasingly our work is making positive change in the world. And for the readers who love numbers, advertising contributes nearly 40 billion dollars to our economy every year. Not many industries can say the same.

I’ll admit advertising has lost some sex appeal. Whiskey isn’t drunk before noon, month-long shoots in Spain are rare, and the quality of creative can be atrocious – but the soul is still there. The very same creative soul that drew me in when I was walking around a careers expo nearly a decade ago.

So, how do we get back to ‘hot’ from our current status of ‘not’? As Avish Gordhan said at Changing the Ratio, it’s simple. We just need to ‘remind people we actually have value and that we actually make a difference to the world’.

That’s why if I’m asked to attend another expo, you can bet I’ll be there to support this industry. Otherwise, there’s going to be a whole lot of orthodontists in a few years.

Eric Franken is a copywriter at The Works Sydney.



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