Higher Education

At Thanksgiving, it’s about keeping your elbows off the table and not making farting noises during grace. In advertising, it’s about learning how to sound intelligent to a room full of clients. When it’s appropriate to fight for a killed concept. The difference 5 percent magenta can make. How to provide competent direction to a retoucher. Paper stock and how it will affect your colors.

The intangibles.

The question is, when aspiring to a junior creative position, should your career begin with this knowledge already gained? Or should it start with a spiral-bound stack of spec ads?

The commonly held belief is that a great career begins in a classroom. Most creatives will tell you there is a distinct starting point for anyone who wishes to one day see their first television brief: ad school. And they’re right. Partly. Ad schools are the industry standard, boasting graduate-level programs that have launched the careers of hundreds of great writers and art directors over the last decade. VCU. Creative Circus. Miami Ad School. Portfolio Center. They offer the single most streamlined/focused education you’ll receive on your way to a finished portfolio. You will be among some of the greats in terms of instructors and some of tomorrow’s stars in terms of classmates. You will be taught advertising: how to think conceptually, how to work in teams, how to follow a strategic brief, how to take criticism and build on it.

What your curriculum may not cover, however, is life—the small, simple intangibles that only firsthand experience and careful observation can provide. It may not teach you, for example, that sometimes it’s not the greatest copywriter or art director in the world who wins a new piece of business. It’s the kid who licked the envelope and hauled ass to FedEx to get the RFP out the door on time. It’s the intern who stayed late, ate Cheerios for dinner and mounted the deck on foam core. It’s the assistant who spent hours poring over stock-image libraries so the cd had the perfect image for his or her winning comp.

There was a time, long ago, when ad schools didn’t dot the national (and international) landscape. It was during that era that some of the most revered creatives rose to prominence—most of your bosses (and mine), in fact. It was a time when the mailroom guy would bust out headlines and leave them on the creative director’s chair with the mail in hopes of being noticed. When the receptionist would sketch layouts on the back of faxes between calls in hopes of getting a chance. When people truly believed that working their way up through an agency was the best and only way to learn the business. Some of them made it. Some stayed in the mailroom. But the point is, those days shouldn’t go entirely forgotten. That kind of humility and persistence can still open doors.

There’s a lot to be said for learning from the ground up and scratching and clawing your way to a junior post. Whether it’s your job to arrange the bagels each morning in the kitchen or make sure the lobby has a fresh New York Times, if you do that one job like it’s the most important job in the agency, people will begin to notice and give you a shot. They will want to help you succeed. They will want to reward you for your willingness to do “whatever it takes.”

Placing your education in the hands of an agency over an ad school may not be fashionable anymore, but it’s still feasible. And it certainly has its benefits. You’ll be working under the same roof as the writers and art directors you admire, receiving tutelage not in a classroom but around a lightbox or in an editing bay or on a set, learning the finer touches that win business, please clients and generate great creative.

Ultimately it comes down to how you care to invest the first two years of your advertising life. Nobody should be faulted for wanting to jump right in and begin producing ads immediately. It’s the natural inclination in all of us. But know that there is also value in getting your hands dirty for a few years. Fetch lunch for the department, roll in the Friday keg, polish the gold Lions, get a little spray glue under your fingernails, organize the annuals library … first and foremost, learn the business. If you don’t accomplish that first, you may be lost well before you ever get started.

So, for those of you who are just starting out, for those of you who are on the fence about going back to school, let me assure you that there are other ways—ways that will work if you make them work for you. A little blood, sweat and patience can get you further than you think. Have the courage to learn on the job. Dare to sit at the kids’ table for a year or two. And maybe, just maybe, you might become a better creative for your efforts.