How Should We Prepare Students For the Future of Advertising?

It’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to say that the Ad industry is in crisis. Not perhaps in a financial sense. Sir Martin Sorrell may have seen his salary fall but he is still doing ok. Ads are still being bought and sold. Perhaps people are still being persuaded by them.

No, the crisis is more fundamental, existential perhaps. Ad fraud, ad blocking and ad blindness together with media fragmentation and peer-to-peer content relationships have dethroned the Advertiser from her position as the auteur, pied piper and content Svengali. The mad-men have become sad men as they scrabble to snap chat, lunge for Likes and frantically plead for Pinterest positions. Eager for eyeballs that glance and glimpse rather than gaze, they grasp at “Branded Content” or “personalised media.” Desperate to convince brands not to worry, that they can still reach these micro-segments; in thrall to monopoly media companies that refuse to behave like publishers, they sit at Silicon Valley/Roundabout’s feet waiting for the latest standard and platform to drop from the table.

Today we’re software coders, tomorrow we may be hardware engineers. Yesterday was all Photoshop, today is all prototyping. You came in as a filmmaker, now you’re a virtual space imagineer.

Young creatives and planners used to start at the bottom with a clear career path that mirrored the clear growth path of their agency. As it grew, they would grow. As it expanded, they would take on new responsibilities and new work. They would drop “Junior” from their job title as surely as their agency would add a new brand name to their client list. Maybe not a job for life but certainly a career for one.

But now even if they get the golden ticket of an internship, their future is far from clear. Today we’re software coders, tomorrow we may be hardware engineers. Yesterday was all Photoshop, today is all prototyping. You came in as a filmmaker, now you’re a virtual space imagineer.

Career trajectories shift and weave within a group, an agency, a company. Young advertisers like agencies themselves search for an identity and position of stability to act as a foundation. They both look for a USP as a security blanket.

And what do we as advertising educators, the trainers of the next generation do at the moment?

We shouldn’t turn out applicants for existing jobs and roles. We shouldn’t even try and second guess what those jobs will be in three years and hope we get our training timing right for when this cohort graduates.

We take the cheques for £9,000, enter D&AD and the One Show, scramble for some Live Briefs and visiting speakers and lay on extra Adobe classes to ensure our graduates have books that sparkle and are ready for yesterday’s Industry and the day before yesterday’s challenges.

The change is too fast, the challenges too large and, on the bright side, the opportunities too big to teach the same old courses, same old theories, same old skills. We shouldn’t turn out applicants for existing jobs and roles. We shouldn’t even try and second guess what those jobs will be in three years and hope we get our training timing right for when this cohort graduates.

Our students should be working in advertising now. We’ve been good at getting them working with industry. We’ve provided brands with massive multi-millennial focus groups and crowdsourced creative teams on Live Briefs. At worst, we’ve undercut existing creative teams. At best, we’ve got our students working in today’s industry on today’s Briefs, getting them try-outs in a Team that is watching the rules of The Game change around them.

We need to do more for our students and more for the Industry. We shouldn’t be a feeder into today’s industry, we should be the research arm, the laboratory for tomorrow.

Our degrees should be research degrees. More, they should be practice-research degrees, laboratories in which our students explore and experiment and find the future of advertising.

Our degrees should be research degrees. More, they should be practice-research degrees, laboratories in which our students explore and experiment and find the future of advertising. Our classrooms should be sites of glorious failure and discovery. Our studios should be sites of experimentation. Our students should be researchers. Industry visitors should come to listen as much as to talk. They should come to learn as much as to teach. We should assess our students not on whether they have learned about advertising today but whether they have discovered something about advertising tomorrow.

The industry should need us as much as we need them.

Our students should graduate not with answers (let alone the answers to yesterday’s questions) but with better questions. They should be able to walk into an interview with new knowledge and new thinking, not just new adverts.

Yes, they should be in libraries reading the latest research. They should be reading the trade press and technology press mapping the crisis. But traditional research methodologies will only take them and us so far. We need to practice more.

Practice-research is simply a research methodology that uses practice to answer research questions. Our degrees need to be laboratories, our students need to be mad scientists, building, making, playing, experimenting, trying and failing and trying again. Our laboratories should be littered with failed prototypes, blueprints, design fictions. Our students should have coffee-stained sketchbooks full of Heath Robinson-style imaginaries, dream fragments and doodles, Black Mirror script ideas. Our curriculums should be full of challenges and our assessment criteria built around discovery.

This is not just another version of ‘cutting edge student projects’. This is not adding an app-making Unit to the degree or making sure the students have a Google Cardboard VR film in their portfolio. This is not teaching students what can be done. It’s getting students to research what can be done and what can’t. The industry doesn’t need people who can do what can be done today, and students don’t need to pay £9,000 a year to learn it. The industry needs people who know what can be done and what can’t tomorrow.

The practice-research laboratory is a space of exploration, pushing the boundaries, discovering the affordances, playing in the liminal spaces of the possible. That’s why failure is an integral part of the laboratory. They bore and intrigue and puzzle and play and move and frustrate and try and fail. Because it is through practice that they find what this new space, this new technology, this new practice is and does. They find the edges.

Out of this practice-research laboratory comes new knowledge. Laboratory students add value not because they are millennials but because they are millennial makers, practice-researchers having discovered something new, something the Industry needs.

For that practice-research laboratory to work, it needs investors. We don’t need financial investors – although we won’t turn it down. We need investors willing to invest time and ideas. We need investors willing to commission the research and work with our students in the laboratory as partners in exploration and discovery. The laboratory is an Industry space, deeply embedded in Industry as it is now and as it needs to be tomorrow.

Dr. Paul Caplan

Course Leader for MA Advertising at London College of Communication
Dr Paul Caplan is a photographer, journalist, editor, consultant, teacher and the Course Leader for MA Advertising at London College of Communication.

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