After a year of closures and crises, what's the hope for ad schools in 2022?

Can agency schools offer a third pathway into the industry?

The last 12 months have been tumultuous for ad schools, with The Watford Course shuttering and the School of Communication Arts warning it was in danger of a similar fate. So what hope in 2022? The Drum sat down with ad school leaders, in-agency educators and the independent training body Brixton Finishing School to review the current state of play.

In September world-renowned ad school The Watford Course was forced to shut its doors citing a declining number of applications over the last decade. Its leader, Tony Cullingham, left the course to join the BBH agency to refresh its in-house training scheme, The Barn.

The closure of Watford raised questions over the future of traditional ad schools which have struggled to compete against the emergence of agency run programmes.

Ad school view

The School of Communications Arts (SCA) is a portfolio ad school, which has been open about its own struggles after suffering record losses last year. Its dean Marc Lewis says the survival of ad schools will rely on investment from agencies away from their own in-house programmes.

Lewis has previously called out in-house agencies for “shoplifting talent” and attributed the demise of traditional ad schools with the emergence of the in-house model. “In agency education has caused more harm to education than when Thatcher closed down the polytechnics,” Lewis says.

The SCA operates by setting briefs to students penned by its industry sponsors, so Lewis is urging more agencies to invest in the school as a sponsor instead of setting up in-house programmes.

“If the industry came together and invested in a well-connected non-partisan project we [ad schools] would feel less stressed and we wouldn’t have to fight the in-house budget. We can do a better job and our students would benefit. We are trying to show agencies how they can spend the money funding programmes like ours instead of having in house.”

Lewis also warns in-agency schools can limit broadening the mind instead of teaching students to think like the agency. “Students ought to be able to find their own voice, direction and their home to decide where they have their career,” he adds.

In-agency view

“I have mixed feelings about the future of ad schools,” says Kim Walker, partner at Harbour Collective. “Ad school training has become reappropriated with middle-class money and that is reflected in a privileged pool of talent."

Harbour Collective launched its debut course in November carving out a paid 12-month training scheme, the Harbour Fellowship. Walker says the linear education system has stifled diversity of thought, and “if we want to create a diverse workforce, we’ve got to be diverse in the way people come into the industry.”

Walker acknowledges that ad schools have played a vital role in educating specialisms but says agencies can now also offer that specialism training.

M&C Saatchi set up its training programme Open House in 2020. Its chief executive officer Camilla Kemp says agencies “are finally leaning into the issue and recognizing we should have an active role in fuzzing the dynamic between industry and education".

According to Kemp, what the in-house schools offer is an opportunity for candidates with different career backgrounds, referencing current trainees with only finance and theatre backgrounds.

Problems facing industry education

Ally Owen, founder of the Brixton Finishing School, says the industry’s biggest challenge when it comes to education is outreach. “We need to tackle the fact that nobody aged 14-19 has heard of advertising if they are not from communities that are elite.”

The largest part of Brixton’s budget goes towards outreach which it does on behalf of the agency schools it partners with. Brixton’s latest outreach effort has sent 200 industry volunteers to schools to talk to kids with the aim of reaching 100,000 children by the end of 2022.

Outreach should be the starting point for agencies, says Will Sansom, head of strategy and course leader of The Brooklyn Brothers’ Night School. “To use a marketing analogy, it’s like a purchase funnel the awareness of jobs in the ad industry just isn’t there at the top of the funnel,” he says.

“Why the hell aren’t agencies at job fairs?”, he says. “Go to a job fair in Barking and say to the kids this is a job you can don’t just sit around in your ivory tower waiting for someone to come to you on a diversity grad scheme.”

What’s next on the education agenda?

Owen says Brixton’s next priority is to ensure diverse talent “thrive” once placed in the industry. Referencing the recent AA All In data, which revealed a third of Black talent had thought about leaving the industry, Owens says new talent from underrepresented groups struggle with “biases, unwritten rules and expectations of being the pioneer that they drop out”.

“How do we stop that? We’ve spent all that time and money investing in attracting the talent now it’s time to make sure they survive it and thrive in it,” Owen says. Brixton will action this when it’s collected enough research from former trainees who have been in the industry for four-plus years.

For Sansom, he’s encouraging agencies to “maintain a sense of openness” and allow trainees to be fluid in their future roles, not “locking them into a job at the end”.

“We should be creating spaces for people to learn and explore and recognise that they won’t be coming with the same plan or expectation of what job they want,” he says.