Back to School With Banksy, Fairey and Generation Z

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A mural by Banksy appears on a wall of a building on the Portobello road in London.
A mural by Banksy appears on a wall of a building on the Portobello road in London. Credit: Graham Barclay/Bloomberg News

School's back.

I'm a teacher. And I'm a partner at an advertising agency. I've got one foot in the classroom and the other in the agency (or, in our case, a big, barn-like loft space). I get to practice what I preach. Or simply prove wrong the old maxim: "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

From my vantage point, it's pretty clear that advertising is in need of new thinking when it comes to training the next generation of creatives. Ad students need to be taught how to sell themselves as brands, as much as selling brands. Self-promotion needs to be baked into everything they do. They need to mirror conceptual artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, whose work is part of my class curriculum. These are true practitioners of being remembered, and key influencers in modern media and pop culture. Like them, I teach my students how to get grab attention for themselves through the things they make.

I know this sounds as if I'm advocating teaching the fine art of narcissism, not the fine art of advertising. But it's really just common sense.

In "Predatory Thinking" by Dave Trott, a book I assign my class, he writes that 4% of advertising is remembered positively, 7% is remembered negatively and 89% is not noticed or remembered at all. These numbers are a powerful reminder that unless you want to lead a life of picayune work and join the ranks of the 89%, learning to get you and your work noticed has never been more important.

My teaching approach reflects what I was taught in school but is heavily appropriated to what we were doing in the agency, day to day. My curriculum bridges a gap between classical marketing ideas, creative thinking with a modern media lens ... with a side of motivational speaker. Over the course of my professorship, I've never taught a semester from the same syllabus twice -- a simple reflection of the industry's pace, the creative pendulum and the generational shift of teaching millennials to, now, the Generation Z'ers.

Here are five lessons that advertising students can expect when they check into my classroom, all of them based on practical, real-world experience:

1. Failure from experimentation isn't failing.

2. Expressing complicated ideas is best done simply.

3. Solve regular problems with unorthodox solutions.

4. Understand yourself as a consumer first.

5. Be human.

After three and a half years at OTIS College of Art and Design, I began teaching half of each semester at our agency. The shift to a professional environment—and the accompaniment of working professionals—helped change the dynamic of the class work, and also alleviated a bit of the intimidation my students felt as college seniors focused on "getting a job after college."

In my third semester of teaching, I wanted to put this to the test. So I briefed the class on the One Club Young Ones, an industry competition designed for university students. Alongside the brief, I taught my students about manipulating media and hacking social platforms, through the lens of a Banksy and, at the time, the 2016 presidential race. (One of my classes this year is called "#FakeNews: Irrationally Rational, When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.")

What did I find? That students who are really good at marketing themselves are also really good at marketing brands. In fact, they are the best, most promising future professional creatives, hands down.

It may not be traditional to teach advertising students to think like they work in public relations, or for an advertising class to look through the lens of an artist like Banksy. The beauty of it is that a lot of students know who Banksy is or have heard of him, but aren't really sure of the path he's taken to get to where he is today. And that's important for them to know, because he got to where he is today because he is an unrepentant, consummate self-promoter.

Class dismissed.

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