Basic Training

When 20 recent graduates of the Miami Ad School peddled their skills during a portfolio review at Merkley Newman Harty & Partners’ New York office, there was almost unanimous agreement about who stood out. Tracy Sachs had conceived of and designed an environmentally themed campaign for Duracell: In a cross-promotion with Walgreens, consumers would be able to buy as well as recycle the batteries—packaged to look like insects sitting on a leaf—at the drugstore chain.

Recruiters and creative execs say too few portfolios show that sort of big-picture thinking, consisting instead of the same old fare: three print ads and a TV campaign. The blame lies partly with the traditional teaching that most ad schools still offer, but curriculums are slowly addressing the evolving ad industry.

“The object of the ad school is for the student to get a job, so they have assignments to do,” says David Baldwin, ecd at McKinney + Silver in Raleigh, N.C., and a board member of The Creative Circus, an ad school in Atlanta. “They say you need to do a long copy campaign, so everybody has a long copy campaign.”

Adds recruiter Thomas Babineux of TalentZoo in Atlanta: “There are not enough out-of-the-box approaches to solving clients’ problems that may take you away from traditional advertising. That’s one of the things advertisers are clamoring for. They don’t just want to see a pretty storyboard.”

At VCU Adcenter in Richmond, Va., Rick Boyko is determined to move the curriculum beyond the definition of advertising as a radio spot, a print ad or a TV commercial. “There is a lot of time spent on execution, but there seems to be a need for a real understanding of concept,” says Boyko, former chief creative officer at Ogilvy North America who became director of Adcenter in July. His first move: integrating students from various disciplines to better simulate agency life; next year he plans to add a creative component for media planners.

Agency staffers must not only think about advertising in new ways, but in the wake of layoffs, they should also be adept in several disciplines. Brainco in Minneapolis instituted a creative cross-pollination class last spring. Students from various disciplines solve real-life marketing problems—for example, a 22-person team rebranded a high-end optical chain in Minneapolis that was considering expansion into New York and Los Angeles. Besides creating TV and print ads, students redesigned the stores’ interior, came up with a new logo and also suggested a name change. Grades were mostly determined by client feedback.

At the Creative Circus, better strategic-thinking training has been a goal of the board of directors for several years, says associate director Carol Vick. Last year, the school began an alternative-media class that focuses on different types of ad spaces, as well as event promotions. And Miami Ad School offers classes that range from innovative media to stand-up comedy, encouraging a broad approach to portfolios. About a quarter of students’ books are “sitcom ideas and lollipops and videogames—they aren’t ads,” says president Pippa Seichrist.

Sachs, 26, now a design intern at Miami’s Gaby & Moleta Advertising, says she included the Duracell work in her portfolio “because it was a way I could be creative in so many ways.” Other students, however, stray from the formula reluctantly. Brainco’s cross-pollination class “was not all that popular,” says academic coordinator Sarah Denham. “We fought every step of the way. Students were saying, ‘I need stuff for my book!’ ” In the end, Denham says many in the class put the work in their book.

But it can be difficult to squeeze a big thought into the confinement of a portfolio, says Mike Weed, advertising department head at The Creative Circus. “A creative director only has a few minutes. … How many want to sit down and read a report?” he argues. A portfolio has a set format because, like a résumé, it must show the candidate’s attributes succinctly, Weed adds.

Brainco president Ed Prentiss also defends tradition. “A lot of agencies say, ‘I want to see a new portfolio,’ ” he says. “I’ve been hearing that for 15 years. The truth is, [they] are still hiring those [traditional] portfolios.”