Since the glory days of advertising, the business has been a magnet for misfits. Or at least odd-fits. Our backgrounds, both educational and occupational, are eclectic and largely disconnected from what would seem reasonable credentials for success on Madison Avenue.
Take me, for example. Before starting as a cub copywriter at JWT, my two previous jobs had been tugboat deckhand and ski instructor. The best account person I ever worked with -- Eric Einhorn, now strategy chief for Interpublic -- started as an acrobat in a European traveling circus. There has also been a headhunter, a crossword-puzzle writer, dozens of actors and musicians and a media director who'd studied the Dead Sea Scrolls.
So this brings us to the University of Illinois Advertising Department, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary (Advertising Age, Oct. 12). Congratulations, Illinois.
But when you think about it, what's to teach? Isn't advertising all about native ability and instinct? Media people who know when the best deal is on the table. Creative people who ignite consumer interest with the right phrase or image. Account people who read a conference room from the reception area.
So why are so many college majors, let alone whole colleges, cropping up around the idea that advertising should be taught as an undergraduate course of study? I can understand why you'd seek training for some of our key tools -- Photoshop for design, Illustrator for creative, Squad and Dart for media people. But that's on a par with postgraduate study, which can home in on specifics.
But spend precious undergraduate years studying advertising? Not only are kids wasting their time, they're underdeveloping their minds -- and dimming the lights on the future of our business. There's just too much precious learning to be had in science, history, art, literature, language and math. These majors are not only more interesting and personally rewarding in their own right, they are also more supportive of a career in advertising over the long run.
Consider the curriculum kids get saddled with. For an advertising degree at Virginia Commonwealth, one of the more esteemed undergraduate programs, you have to take courses in Curiousness, Story, History of Advertising, Truth and Honor, and Completeness. Then you have to take "strategic concentration" courses called Awareness, Empathy and Judgment. I'm not making this up.
Let me assure you, just about any college's "History of Western Civilization" covers all this and more.
Times like these only bring the fundamentals into prominence. What's fundamental? A group of people with intellectual range, curiosity and talent thinking their way to fresh approaches on a daily basis.
If I had to write an advertising-minor curriculum for undergrads, it would be this: You've got to take four years of a foreign language and study "The Elements of Style." Beyond that, great books, art, science. The only advertising book might be David Ogilvy's "Confessions of an Advertising Man."
When I look at two resumes, say, that of a Russian-history major vs. a communications major, I conclude the first is significantly brighter. Fair? Probably not, but I don't think I'm alone. Even though our agency has never had a need for expertise in matters Soviet, I'll take the Russian major every time.
To prove the point, my agency just hired an interactive creative director who majored in quantum mechanics. No ad grads made the cut.
How old school.