Jan 16, 2007

Ad Schools and the Eternal Whiteness of Creative Departments

Those of us who entered the business in the last 15 years might be surprised to learn that agencies used to have creative training programs, where they took bright young college and high school graduates and paid them while they learned to be copywriters and art directors.

Today’s model, where college graduates pay upwards of $30,000 for a two-year post-graduate portfolio program, is troubling for so many reasons.

First and foremost is the incredible lack of diversity it promotes. We’re pretty much limiting our creative departments to affluent white kids whose parents are generous enough to spot them the $30K for grad school. This creates a homogenization of experience and viewpoint that virtually ensures that all the ads we see look and sound the same. (Want to see this principle at work? Take a look at Crispin’s campaign for Haggar. The print, in particular, with its forced attempt at working class vernacular, sounds like some Grosse Pointe preppy’s bad imitation of the guys he worked with during a summer job spent at his father’s factory. "There ain't a lick of difference..." Ouch.)

Second problem Toads have with portfolio schools is the way certain agencies use them as their own personal source of free labor. Now granted, it’s not always free—sometimes they pay them $100/day. But putting 30 “interns” on a pitch isn’t really playing fair. I mean can you imagine if say, Goldman Sachs hired a hundred business students from NYU, put them to work crunching numbers on a pending deal and told them all it was an “internship.”

Final problem: What are we going to do with all these juniors? Portfolio Center, VCU, Creative Circus, Miami Ad School, Wieden’s little raccoon-wearing videomakers… how do we absorb several hundred kids a year into a business that’s already none too fond of juniors and has a limited number of big agencies left with the bandwidth to soak up more than one or two of them a year?

Many of them no doubt wind up at places like Agency dot com or similar web shops. Where they quickly become disillusioned when they figure out that even the CDs at those shops only make around $125K/year. And that the CDs are all basically ex-designers or ex-journalists who wound up in the right place at the right time, and know next to nothing about the business the little darlings have spent the past two years studying. ("Lee Clown? Is he an animé character?")

So I’d imagine the ad schools have a lot of unhappy graduates. I mean if I graduated from a good college and watched my dad pay $30K for a grad school that promised to get me a job in advertising, where I could make a six-figure salary with my English degree and not have to wear a suit to work-- I’d be pretty furious if they didn’t deliver. Even more so if I actually had to take out a loan to afford it. I mean heck, for a few more shekels, I could have gone to law school…


Anonymous said...

First problem: there is a healthly minority presence at VCU (I go there). And we just hired Charles Hall, so I think there's some honest progress on that front. Also, MAIP has an internship program that recruits from our school as well. Don't know about the other schools though...

Second problem: true, but we're so fucking desparate to get some action that we do it anyway.

Third problem: You make a terrifying point. I've always wondered about that because they tell us that graduates sometimes take up to 9 months to land their first gig.

But I've talked to a lot of VCU grads and none of them regret their decision to go there.

Alan Wolk said...

Nien: VCU is one of the better programs, if not the best. And at least you guys get an actual master's degree.

I know the ad schools try and recruit minorities, but what about all the middles class and working class white kids whose parents don't have $30K? That's a lot of people you're leaving out.

As for jobs, I think if you're determined, you'll find something. (Being good helps too) But I can't imagine that every kid who graduates from the aforementioned schools is good.

Thanks for responding though-- today is Day 2 for the blog-- and tell your friends to come check it out and comment-- I need readers.


Jenne said...

I can only speak from experience at Miami Ad School in Miami, but there was certainly a high amount of representation of Hispanic and foreign students (Asian, European, and Latin American). Also a smattering of Asians. I'd bet that the SF campus has a higher percentage of Asian-Americans (reflecting their large population in the SF Bay Area & California in general), and that the Minneapolis campus lacks diversity proportionate to its Midwestern location. Yeah, the price of these schools is steep (and I'm paying back the entire cost of the all the loans I had to take out in order to cover tuition, housing, etc.) but there were plenty of über-rich non-white kids running around school, just as there were plenty of student-loan-dependent white kids.

As for the other points, I agree. What's terrifying is the fact that so many juniors are entering the market every quarter, for an extremely limited number of jobs. It's quite sad to watch a lot of your friends from these kinds of programs enter their sixth or seventh month of unemployment, despite having solid (even great) books.

Alan Wolk said...

Great comment Jenne.

I wonder if the students at the Atlanta schools are as diverse as the ones at your school. Just as I wonder how many of the Hispanic and foreign students will get jobs with mainstream US agencies versus going to ethnic agencies or going back home to work for an agency there.

$30,000 of debt is a lot to start out with, especially in a business where junior level jobs don't pay very well.

Hopefully you've got a job already, your description of the market for juniors sounds pretty bleak.


Jenne said...

Yeah, I'd be interested to know about the diversity of some of the other portfolio schools as well. Regardless of the diversity of the schools, I don't think that agencies are dramatically diverse places to begin with, be it diversity in class, background, or race. I work at a good-sized agency in NY where 75% of the people I encounter are from New York's surrounding suburbs -- whatever their racial/religious/ethnic/monetary backgrounds may be, that's hardly a good cross section of the U.S.'s regional diversity.

Oh yeah, and it's way more than $30,000 of debt. If you pay for it all (housing, tuition, etc.) with loans, it comes out closer to $68,000, most of which is through private education loans. Not a cheap price tag.

Again, I can only speak from experience, but the majority of writers graduating from the program have had a much easier time finding work than those in the art direction program. When I started, there were maybe 6 or 7 writers and 50+ art directors in that quarter. Kinda like the saying goes -- everybody wants to be an art director. (Thanks, Stan Freberg.)