A conversation about teaching creativity and advertising with VCU, Hyper Island and the 4As


educators twoIt’s hard enough to define what advertising is right now never mind what it will be a few years from now. Is it about brands? Telling stories? Creating immersive experiences? Designing new products? And who creates advertising today? We have traditional agencies that do some digital. Digital agencies that struggle to do brand building. And firms like Sapient that started in the software business, R/GA, whose DNA comes from production, even PR shops such as Edelman and Weber Shandwick that now produce creative content and buy paid media on social platforms. And that’s before we consider design shops like IDEO or Continuum, or companies that make things out of the Internet, such as Zeus Jones.

So many models, with many converging.

So, what do we teach? Art and copy? Strategy? Problem solving? Visual communication? Or coding and technical skills? And how do we prepare the next generation in a way that will both serve them and the industry they are about to enter.

I invited Helayne Spivak, executive director of the VCU Brand Center; Tim Leake, chief of growth and innovation at RPA and also a long-time master lecturer at Hyper Island; and Chick Foxgrover, the chief digital officer at the 4As, responsible for many of its forward thinking training programs to weigh in on a Branch conversation.

Here were the questions:

  • Do we have any idea where the industry is going?

  • Are we educating students for jobs in ad agencies, design thinking firms, digital (software-inspired) shops like Sapient or something new?

  • Are there basic, foundational skills and knowledge that remain essential: writing, design, art direction, storytelling?

  • What about the ability to create, define and position a brand?

  • Do brands still matter in age when consumers have instant access to objective information?

  • What’s more important for students to learn: The ability to do? The ability to adapt? The ability to influence change?

  • How does the industry continue to attract and retain the best talent?

Helayne Spivak

This is a very challenging time for anyone who has the responsibility of training talent today. Too many of the larger, “traditional” agencies don’t know what they’re looking for or where to look for it. They are, understandably, too busy finding a better financial model and proving their value to their clients. R/GA is one of the few who have bravely and consistently adjusted to stay ahead of the interactive curve which has resulted in seeking and developing  interactive thinkers. Smaller, more agile companies who formed recently have a clearer vision of who they are and appreciate more of a ‘hybrid” creative talent.

So what do we have to do as educators for our industry?…All of it.

Tim Leake

We need to teach future advertising creatives the following for sure:

  • To constantly learn (If they develop a thirst for learning, everything else is a step away on Google, or will be learned on the job).

  • To be bold and try new things.

  • To solve problems, not just make ads.

  • The entire creative process (it takes lots of ideas to get to one good one.)

  • How to communicate and how to present. (Wow, a lot of creatives still suck at this, and it’s more important than ever.)

  • And selfishly, teach them how to say no to meetings. ‘Cause I’m off to another one now.

Chick Foxgrover

Many of the skills advertising needs are also those that other industries also want. Technical, analytical, at least minimal programming abilities, design. The soft skills will always be important but we will use fewer individuals with only those skills.

Helayne Spivak

Many recruiters are still looking for print ads and campaigns as a way to judge basic talent. Which goes back to the fact that it still starts from craft.

A writer must be able to write well in 140 characters, long form scripts, narration, web copy, books, radio…pretty much everything.

Art Directors need to be able to design a page, understand type, photoshop, 2, 3 and 4D programs and the five things that were invented today.

If with all that they can’t solve a problem in a creative way we should discourage them from pursuing a career in this field. The advertising creative person of the future knows not only what they can do but who to go to to bring their ideas to life.

Edward Boches

I like to think (or maybe have to think) that “creativity” or the ability to think creatively to solve problems is the most important trait the industry should look for and that we try to teach.

CEOs declared in a recent poll that “creativity” was their most sought after character trait. What does that mean for us? Biz Stone just invented Jelly not by knowing how to code, but by asking “Hey, if we made a search engine today, wouldn’t we search what people know, not just what’s on the web? After all, we’re all connected with our mobile devices.” You don’t need any technical skills to think that way. Yes to make it, but not to think it up. So how do we, can we, teach that?

Helayne Spivak

Creativity is more important than ever throughout the entire world of business.While I do believe we can teach someone to be more creative in their thinking, we need to make sure that they are naturally and indefatigably curious. It’s curiosity that gets stuff made. That asks again and again…What if? Those are the ones who will use the foundation we give them and soar.

Chick Foxgrover

What I’ve heard mostly about talent from the interactive shops like Huge and also from startups is that:

  • They hire for passionate attitude and intelligence/problem solving ability that can be molded to the tasks/needs/culture of the shop.

  • The seek the ability to hit to ground running with skills to get the job done now and hope that there is manager material in their makeup.

Tim Leake

It does seem that people who are interested in studying advertising are still often interested in traditional agencies. But the smartest, most sophisticated ones are starting to see the appeal of the IDEO and Frog. Or even Google or Facebook. Or startups.

It’s harder than ever to keep the smartest talent feeling fulfilled. A challenge for the agencies themselves, however, not so much education.

Chick Foxgrover

It seems to me that the goal of a team or firm is to “create, define, and position” a brand. Whereas for an individual it is to build a fulfilling and sustainable career.

Tim Leake

So it’s important to help students realize they have the power to sculpt their own career and take on challenges that interest them, rather than waiting for assignments to come to them. Then it’s easy to find fulfillment and challenge wherever you are.

Chick Foxgrover

Students should be prepared to be life-long learners interested in creative challenges. Programmer are hard to get NOW, but if you don’t also consider the conceptual creative aspects of your work you won’t be able to meet new challenges if coding is commoditized.

Edward Boches

When “coding becomes commoditized.” That is a really important thought. A year ago, if you wanted to do digital manufacturing, you needed to know code to send instructions to a digitally controlled CNC milling machine. Now it’s as easy as blogging. So the idea that coding and being a developer may lose some of its advantages in the ad tech space brings us back to “creative thinking.”

Problem solving, idea generation, unexpected collisions that yield ideas that are unavoidable. It still begs the question of which, if any, are the important talent/skills. Asks if writing and design still really matter most, or simply the ability to have a powerful conceptual idea,  be able to express it,  and collaborate with others who can make it happen.

Tim Leake

Let me throw two more things into the mix:  a deeper understand of business fundamentals; and a deeper understanding of customer behavior (human behavior). There are a lot of folks out there focusing on ideas without any understanding of the behavior they’re trying to inspire, or the business results they’re trying to generate. And it makes them look naive when they get in front of a client.

Edward Boches

I’m glad to hear that you remain focused on certain fundamentals as I fear there is a desire and even an insistence from some students that it’s about skills. Creative solutions that are informed by solid business objectives, consumer insights, then relevant ideas that consider technology, media, psychographics, social behaviors but are still fresh conceptually (not overly driven by the tech or platform) are what the industry needs. You can’t teach that.You can teach the thinking that might lead to it.

Helayne Spivak

“The ability to have a powerful conceptual idea and be able to express it and collaborate with others who can make it happen.”

Funny, this has always been the goal whether in the 1960’s MadMen era  or today. Only the tools are different. We are all in the process of learning especially the teachers.

Edward Boches

As long as those ideas aren’t limited to ads.

The pre-edited Branch conversation can be found here.



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