Home Schooling

Eight months into Wieden + Kennedy’s first formal foray into advertising education, Dan Wieden says he can’t imagine returning to the days when he didn’t have a pack of students at his agency, busily learning the craft.

The 13-month program, known as 12 (after the number of enrolled students), was launched in April, and is anything but formal. Yet the inaugural class has hunkered down and created a varied body of work, from a get-out-the-vote drive for the National Voice coalition to a get-out-the-search drive for Groxis’ Grokker software. “For a group of students, they’ve done some amazing work,” Wieden says. “They’ve added a real sort of unpredictable dynamic to the place. And I thought we were pretty unpredictable to begin with.”

Wieden points to seemingly minor contributions that he says have had an impact on the culture of the 22-year-old Portland, Ore., agency. One student, Chris Rhodes, a sculptor, turned an atrium space into a working area with a giant wooden table he crafted. “It sort of transformed the dynamic of the building,” says Wieden. “It’s a hard thing to articulate, I suppose, but we’ve been very good for each other.”

A few months after Wieden’s ad school opened its doors, Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami announced its own venture into student life, formalizing a partnership in June with the Miami Ad School.

The two agencies may have ventured in with different goals, but they have nonetheless added two more options to a field already crowded with choices, from undergraduate and graduate studies to degree and certificate programs to professional programs that simply teach how to put a portfolio together. While decades ago it was easy to get into the business without an advertising-specific education, these days it is widely viewed as a requirement. However, judging by the student books they see, many agencies lament that ad schools are lagging in teaching the latest ideas to their students.

With two of the country’s best agencies now jumping into the fray, looking to grow their own talent by promising real-world training, observers wonder how well such programs can deliver—or if they’re needed at all. Are the ad schools really not enough? Do agencies need to be funding education, too? Or are these merely fancier internship programs, with a hefty price tag for the interns?

Wieden and CP+B clearly believe there’s room for a new approach, although even Wieden admits that 12 is an “experiment disguised as an advertising school.” After looking over some 3,000 applications, the agency and program director Jelly Helm chose a dozen students of various ages and creative experience to run an agency student group. Helm serves as creative director, and the students work on real assignments, supported by agency staffers, who mentor them and provide practical assistance like production and account-billing services.

CP+B, meanwhile, which was already in the habit of hiring interns from the Miami Ad School and lending teachers to the classroom, will now take a more direct role in pre-agency education to prepare the students, ultimately, for agency life. “There is a philosophy here that is a little different than at other agencies and at the same time different than what’s being taught at other schools,” says Alex Bogusky, executive creative director and partner of CP+B. “We felt we had a lot to offer the school. We could begin to teach things that we need people to know and some of the thinking that we want people to have.”

The agency considered buying the school and adding CP+B to the name, but both parties decided a formalized partnership was enough. “It’s a great way to tap into their ongoing knowledge of the business, not only the business as it is but as they see it becoming,” says Carlos Vazquez, director of education at the Miami Ad School. “They are doing some of the most innovative, media-agnostic work in the world right now.”

Spreading CP+B’s creative philosophy throughout the school—which offers portfolio, account planning and master’s and associate’s degree programs in six locations around the world—requires adding new classes, reconfiguring others to be grounded more in practice than theory, and moving some classes from the school’s Miami Beach headquarters to the agency’s Coconut Grove home. (This quarter, CP+B interactive creative director Jeff Benjamin has been teaching the first class at the agency’s offices.)

In January, the school will add a class called “Ideas First,” which will emphasize a media-neutral approach to communications. It will also offer a 12-week account-planning boot camp, with CP+B’s BMW Mini Cooper as the main case study. Students are also expected to work on real creative assignments for CP+B clients.

“We look at lots and lots of books. In general, most books and most students aren’t really thinking the way we’d like them to,” says Bogusky. “There are some kids who are thinking that way, but it’s a small, small fraction.”

It’s an problem that university programs such as the VCU Adcenter in Richmond, Va., are working to resolve on their own. (The Adcenter has added classes including nontraditional advertising and creative media planning.) That agencies are dedicating more resources to education merely demonstrates “a renewed energy given toward people coming into the business and the education of them,” says Rick Boyko, VCU Adcenter managing director and former co-president of Ogilvy & Mather. “I think it’s all good.”

Still, some say agencies feel the loss after gutting their training programs more than 10 years ago. “The majority of universities aren’t doing a very good job of preparing aspiring young creatives to get entry- level jobs,” says Debbie Bougdanos, svp and director of creative recruiting at Leo Burnett in Chicago. “Agencies are giving back to advertising education and getting first dibs at amazing young talent.”

Of course, every agency wants to find affordable talent that can quickly contribute. “An agency moves faster than most businesses,” says Luke Sullivan, group creative writer at GSD&M in Austin, Texas. “We need people who can hit the ground running. The learning curve is steep. And mistakes are obvious and expensive.”

It is hard to gauge whether agency-led education programs might replace the training programs of years past. While Wieden skipped its internship program this year to support the launch of 12, Helm says he doubts many other agencies will take up an endeavor like Wieden’s. “It takes an odd duck to want to do it,” he says. “It’s more work and less money. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life.”

Helm says 12 isn’t a “training program” in any traditional sense. The students, whose average age is 28 and whose backgrounds range from Flash designer to carpenter, have no particular agency specialization. They create as a group and share the credit. “This is a lab where you can experiment,” says Helm. “We learn in trying to run an agency. I think anyone who’s ever tried to open up their own agency or tried to work for a startup will tell you, it’s the best education of their life. We’re taking that to its extreme.”

That dynamic can work both ways, with the students and the agencies reaping the benefits. “Everything we’ve done has been through trial and error and experimentation,” says Bogusky. “Media will get to another static place eventually. That transition and that innovation that’ll take us to the next static place isn’t over. It’s just sort of beginning. Having that laboratory to draw inspiration from is great for us, too.”

Teaching allows agency staffers to learn something as well—how to become better creative directors. “If you are going to make that move from copywriter to creative director, those are the skills you need,” says Bill Wright, CP+B creative director. “I need to look at your work and immediately tell you how to make it better.”

Also, since 12 charges clients 10-20 percent of the main agency’s fees, it can work on nonprofits and startups that wouldn’t be able to afford the agency. “Being connected to those kinds of businesses is really good for the agency as a whole,” says Wieden. “[12 has] encouraged us to do a lot more outreach.”

John Stacey, vp of marketing at Groxis in San Francisco, says he’s happy with 12 and the work it has produced for Grokker. “I’ve got a fair amount of experience working with agencies, and what’s nice about 12 is that they are eager to learn and there’s a good back and forth,” he says. “It tends to create a very cooperative atmosphere.”

However, Stacey says he is unsure of how his business will be handled once the term is over. “We’re trying to figure it out,” he says. “As long as Jelly is running the school, I’m not nervous.”

Helm says the program allows for a full month of transition between classes, allowing the students to pass along their learnings to the new group.

Some critics argue that having students pay to work on an agency’s business, all in the name of training, is exploitative. But Burnett’s Bougdanos defends the programs. “It’s still worth it [for the students]. They have access to some of the best creatives in the world,” she says. “So the agency gets cheap labor. I have more of a problem with students paying lots of money to a school or university and being educated by an out-of-touch instructor.”

Still, Bougdanos does believe that the industry doesn’t need any more ad schools. “I have a pile of entry-level portfolios about three feet high in my office, and that’s just about two months of books,” she says.

Ultimately, says Wright, the more that the better agencies get involved in rearing the industry talent, the better off the industry will be. “Hopefully it’ll make advertising less toxic and better for everyone—get rid of all that advertising that gives the industry a bad name. That’s my hope,” he says. “If we can upgrade the quality of the work throughout the world, then that’s a pretty huge contribution right there. That’s the best-case scenario. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but it’s a step in the right direction.”