So What’s in it For Us? New Models of Education

Dr. Paul Caplan will be on stage at Advertising Week New York in a session entitled ‘So What’s in it For Us?

She closed Photoshop and raised her eyes wearily towards the tutor at the lectern. He droned. His slides slipped in and out of focus. The only word she could hear was “dissertation”. This wasn’t what she signed up for. This wasn’t what she was paying for. She was an advertising student, a creative. Whether it was creating visuals or strategies, she made things. Important things. Relevant things. She didn’t do Harvard referencing. But her University did and if she wanted her degree, she had to write eight thousand words of…? It all seemed so academic.

It was that time of year again. Degree shows were fun. There was free wine and often interesting work to look at. Maybe even some bright young prospects to talk to. But then there were the tutors. There was something slightly desperate about how they approached you. Every sentence had an implicit, pleading “please!” A talk, a visit, a placement, an internship. She had every sympathy. She knew the pressures they were under. Students demanded industry speakers and slammed her in surveys when they didn’t get them. Bosses demanded ‘employability’ strategies and success stories and slammed her in her PRA when they didn’t get them. But really, it was all a bit desperate.

The dissertation or thesis is a standard requirement of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Usually 8,000 words or so and written to an academic format and in an academic style, the students pick a question and conduct some basic research – maybe a survey, some interviews, some content analysis, perhaps purely theoretical. Many of these dissertations are case studies, looking back at a campaign or a media moment. Others take an overarching view of advertising and look at a particular audience.

The industry involvement in this final moment of the student’s study stops at the dissertation door. “We’ll take it from here.” Industry speakers and industry-experienced tutors focus on the practical Units of the degree. The dissertation is the province of the academic.

At the London College of Communication’s Advertising degree (LCC), we took a different approach.

In short LCC and MediaCom Beyond Advertising (MBA) ran the BA Advertising dissertation together. They co-supervised over one hundred students as they produced research responses to six contemporary challenges that the agency and its clients faced. MBA staff briefed the students and then returned to do crits as the students’ research progressed. LCC staff – all ex-industry professionals as well as academics – managed the students and supported their research. At the end, the best six students (chosen from over 20 First class projects) presented their work back to MBA staff and clients at an event at MediaCom’s London office.

The projects the students produced were unique in many ways. Firstly they all looked forward, looking to find information and ideas about the new challenges that MBA and its clients were facing. Secondly, they used practice-research to make their discoveries. They used speculative design to prototype VR personalisation and try out a virtual agency. They used design fiction to imagine and investigate Alexa 3.0 and a brand purpose regulatory body. They developed innovative photo studies as ways of developing personas and built the agency office of the future. Thirdly, their findings had to be written in an authoritative, accessible format suitable for an industry reader. Finally, the projects added value to MBA. They gave the team new insights (from a key millennial demographic), new ways of thinking and new strategic starting points.

It is this added value that needs to be at the heart of a new academic-industry relationship.

Of course, LCC got value from the relationship. The University got good publicity and the Course Leader got a pat on the back at his PRA. More importantly, the students got projects that developed their thinking and communication skills in ways they could use when they went for jobs as well as projects they could talk about at interviews. They even enjoyed the experience.

But what the dissertation partnership between LCC and MBA showed was that the industry partner got value too.

One student said: “This approach forced us to think and explore issues as if we were already leaders of innovation in the industry, while still in the safety net of a university. As a result, I feel more confident and much better prepared to face the real world as a young professional with new ideas, as opposed to a student with a new theory.”

But what the dissertation partnership between LCC and MBA showed was that the industry partner got value too. Perhaps it ticked some engagement box or CSR objective but the value ran far deeper than publicity. The project gave MBA valuable insight and content and, perhaps more importantly, established a new academia-industry relationship that promises real value on both sides.

It is not uncommon for education to claim that it acts as a feeder into industry or for agencies to lay claim to being the final year of a degree: the one that matters.

The LCC-MBA dissertation project took that to the next level. MBA staff not only set the dissertation questions and format, they set the tone and the style of the research. In some ways the students worked within the MBA style and culture for the whole of their dissertation Unit. Tutors framed every supervision session around: “Well, what would MBA say? What would they do?” The students may not have worked in MBA’s offices, but they certainly worked within their business. By the end of the dissertation, they knew the company. When one student was offered a paid internship, MBA knew he would hit the ground running. He would not need an induction or introduction to the “MBA way”. He’d already been working there.

For MBA not only did they have a year-long interview for their new intern but they saved time and money on acclimatising him to the corporate environment, the work, the philosophy and the culture.

There were 102 of them. One hundred and two millennials all focused on questions set by MBA. In effect, MBA had a massive millennial focus group feeding back their thinking (as well as the thinking of the people they interviewed or ran workshops with) on the topics and questions MBA itself saw as important.

The final benefit for MBA is more speculative. The best dissertations that the students produced offered real strategic thinking and research outcomes that MBA could integrate into their thinking and work. Of course, this was undergraduate research but what the students presented was genuine research findings and new thinking – not analyses of what has gone before but research into the future. They acted as MBAs speculative research laboratory.

The student who tried out working on a creative brief using VR, the student who integrated Alexa’s AI into strategic planning and the student who explored the risk management issues underpinning brand purpose projects, ran experiments and reported their findings back to MBA.

The LCC-MBA dissertation project was a start. The project will run again this year and also expand to include Masters students. But it is just the beginning. Agency staff are now involved across the degrees, inputting into other Units, co-developing projects and working with staff on their research. Together they are building a new sort of research hub, training centre and mutually beneficial resource. MediaCom already has strong links with engineering and computer departments and degrees. The relationship with an advertising department in an art school offers something the agency had never really considered before: access to a critical-creative environment as well as staff and students trained in creative methodologies of practice-research.

The tutor no longer goes cap-in-hand for favours because the agency sees the value of an active partnership.

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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