Alex Bogusky's Successor Won't Be Found Showing A Book of Ads

VCU Battles Against Evaluation of Students Based on Their Portfolios

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Marketers want big ideas that go beyond TV, or so they repeatedly tell their agencies. Agencies are all about big ideas that go beyond TV, or so they repeatedly tell the marketers. In fact the demands for-and pledges to provide-discipline-neutral, original thinking have become so commonplace that "outside the box" is now writ large on marketing's bullshit bingo card alongside such over-employed aphorisms as "strategic fit," "leverage" and "synergy."

Yet the obvious truth is that most in the U.S. marketing world still think inside the box.

It's apparent in the billions of dollars wasted on TV commercials for ill-positioned, ill-thought-out products; it's apparent in the industry's continuing obsession with award shows that focus on the (venerable) craft of making TV spots and relegate other disciplines to afterthought status; it's apparent in marketers' efforts to measure the unmeasurable, and their inability to innovate or change their external communications' models.

But, most worryingly-because it's the talent in the industry that will determine its ability to adapt to the new marketing realities-it's apparent in the places that marketers and agencies look for their recruits: Marketers hire many brand managers from business school, where methodology and process, not creative thinking, is order of the day; agencies recruit much of their creative talent by watching rivals' reels or flicking through books prepared in narrowly focused ad schools.

At a recent breakfast with former Ogilvy President Rick Boyko, I voiced my anti-ad-school prejudices, a slightly risky proposition given that Boyko now runs such an institution, the VCU Adcenter.

My slightly nervous salvo went something like: "Surely ad schools are just teaching people with little understanding of business to fit a pre-prescribed solution to a big business problem. That's not being creative, that's making ads. If marketing departments and agencies are going to be the ones to infuse businesses with great new ideas, wouldn't they be better off hiring architects, geographers or some kid who writes a great blog?"

Far from dunking me in my cornflakes, Boyko just sat there nodding. When I'd finished rambling he explained that I'd described VCU's mission statement. "We're schooling them in ideas, in business, in culture, in media planning," he said. "They understand the bottom line, but they're focused on great ideas that will create great brands."

He also handed me a piece of paper outlining the curriculum for the school's brand- management course for would-be marketers. While the course includes time spent on crucial skills such as accounting and research, it puts the emphasis on ideas. "Typically brand managers are M.B.A.s," said Boyko. "They have been taught that building a brand is about dissecting and targeting audiences, fine-tuning operations into profit centers. They've trained these people to be mechanics, not creative, entrepreneurial idea movers." VCU thinks companies are now realizing they need innovative thinkers in their marketing departments.

You'd imagine-if VCU is doing as well as Boyko suggests-that the ad-course graduates would get snapped up. And they are, but not without hitting a hurdle or two. "I've seen them come back from agency meetings very depressed," said Boyko. "They've got all these ideas that they want to talk about, but when they turn up for the interview the creative director judges them just on their portfolios."

VCU tells its students people don't hire portfolios, but it seems some agencies do exactly that. And that's a shame, because I doubt the next Greenberg, Arnell or Bogusky is going to be discovered in a little book of ads.

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