Last week's announcement that a New York high school that focuses on "advertising and media studies" is set to open as soon as September 2008 has me thinking that maybe we need to update the old saying that so cruelly disparages educators: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. In regard to Ad High, it's more along the lines of, those who can't figure out what the hell is happening to their profession hope that maybe, just maybe, something of it, somehow, is still clear enough that it can actually be taught.
As my colleague Rupal Parekh reported in these pages, "An advisory board led by Rick Boyko, formerly chief creative officer of WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather North America and now director of Virginia Commonwealth University's AdCenter, will advise on the new school's curricula." AdCenter, of course, is a top-rated ad school (Ad Age's sibling publication Creativity, in fact, puts it atop the heap, outranking the Art Center College of Design, the Creative Circus, the Miami Ad School and the Portfolio Center) and Boyko's done a great job running it.
So yeah, I'm all for professional, systematic training in a collegiate setting. (AdCenter's Creative Brand Management track covers, over four semesters, everything from "Quantitative and Qualitative Research" to "Building Brands in International Cultures.") But keep in mind that New York City's boutique-ish themed high schools (Ad High would have only about 400 students) still have to do what the massive, traditional, unthemed high schools do -- teach basic math, lit, science, etc. -- so the theme-specific curriculum is necessarily Theme Lite. Which is scary when you think about it. Seriously, has there ever been a worse time to try to codify and impart the basic tenets central to the ad/media business? Just as the wheels are coming off the wagon we're gonna pretend we can teach kids how to drive?
At least at New York's Automotive High School (yes, it exists), the basics of the internal combustion engine have stayed pretty constant over the years, despite the nonstop turmoil in the automotive industry. But in the ad and media universe, we've been forced to entirely take apart the engine and set it up on blocks. And even the pros and old-timers -- especially the pros and old-timers -- have no idea how to put it back together again.
Even scarier is the fact that the advertising and media businesses are being blown apart by the students -- the intended recipients of our pearls of wisdom -- themselves. To beat the metaphor into the ground, it's as if we're trying to teach engine building to a crowd that's pretty much lost interest not only in cars, but in traditional streets, highways and road signs, not to mention toll booths.
When I consider the media lifestyle of the average high-school student -- which involves the ever-increasing rejection of professionally produced, ad-supported media in favor of à-la-carte/DIY/social-networking content, along with exceedingly elastic notions of authorship and intellectual-property rights -- it occurs to me that maybe a bunch of teens should band together and open an ad/media school themselves. For adults. Let the kids teach the grown-ups exactly how they're exploding our business models. I bet plenty of 40-something and 50-something industry vets would pony up serious cash for tuition.
That probably won't happen, so for now I just want to suggest that the New York City Department of Education give serious consideration to including one essential class in the Ad High curriculum:
In which students are taught to run for their lives from Google! (Either that or try to get a job there.)