Training Day

Last month I spent the better part of two days with 700 college stu- dents who were eager to learn about an industry marked by layoffs, consolidation, increasingly demanding clients and long working hours. No, they weren’t gluttons for punishment. They were attending the Advertising Women of New York’s annual Advertising Career Conference and were visibly thrilled to be learning about their dream career.

They visited ad agencies, watched award-winning commercials from this year’s Cannes festival and chose from more than three dozen seminars and workshops—everything from understanding the difference between account management and account planning to tips on writing strategically focused copy.

What’s even more remarkable is that they were counseled by almost 200 advertising professionals who were equally enthused despite the fact that more than a few of them are “consulting” or freelancing as they await an industry turnaround.

Although training is the lifeblood of professional development, with rewards for both teacher and student, it is suffering along with the fortunes of ad agencies. In-house training programs have become dinosaurs. Human-resource departments are sans resources; the formal training programs many of us graduated from have been cut. Given the leaner and meaner agency physique, the idea of fitting in such programs during the lunch hour or the 5-6 p.m. time slot seems downright nostalgic.

Conferences are another casualty, a perk now reserved for senior executives. Aside from security hassles, the appeal of being out of the office for a few days at an exotic (or even mildly novel) location dissipates when one contemplates the pile of work (and the avalanche of e-mails) that awaits one’s return.

Informal mentoring? Passing the torch from one generation to another has taken a hit as well. Agency consolidations and the outright folding of many firms have resulted in the disappearance of a whole generation of talented professionals, and with them a corpus of knowledge and experience that is not easily replicated.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the quality of work coming out of our shops has come under increasing fire. It’s easy to blame clients who want to take the path of least resistance in a bumpy economy, but let’s consider the possibility that up-and-coming agency professionals aren’t getting the kind of training that can serve as a springboard for solid strategic thinking, management acu men and great creative work. Not to mention the more seasoned executives among us who don’t quite keep up with our continuing education.

We are quick to remind clients to keep the advertising fires burning, that sacrificing brand awareness means a steeper climb back when the economy rebounds. We’d be well-advised to heed our own warnings. If the future generation of agency leaders is to possess the skills required to raise the bar on the advertising product, if we are to create enduring relationships with clients, we need to renew our commitment to professional development. And we need to do it now. Otherwise, better days will find us woefully unprepared.