Salvation for some comes in the form of a fun, but prestigious, finishing school at Cranfield School of Management, based near Bedford. For the first time in its history, the school is admitting an elite group of 30 undergraduates for a five-day course in the finer points of marketing.
The course, which was the "prize" in an essay contest and runs this week, combines light sessions - TGI Friday's waiters demonstrating how to throw cocktails - with serious stuff, including lectures from high-profile speakers such as Bruce Crouch, of advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. "It is a unique event with a cast of thousands," declares Dr Susan Baker, the programme director and lecturer in marketing at Cranfield.
She sees the sessions, sponsored by Whitbread, as a test which, if successful, will be repeated annually. "People are giving up a lot of time to spend with this group. We intend to stay in touch with the group, and they will be a cohort which we can monitor as they progress in their careers. We'll talk to them in a year's time; it's going to be a fascinating exercise. It will be very much the start of a relationship."
The group of 30 - which includes 21 women - is the cream of talent drawn from the contest. Entrants wrote 1,000 words on the best way to design a newspaper to catch the attention of a hypothetical media-fatigued young character named "Joe" (see sidebar, right).
"The winners were mainly final-year students, but we have a couple of second years and one first-year English student from Leeds. We looked for flair and creativity and insight into issues," says Dr Baker. Ironically, entrants studying business and marketing were largely discounted because they took such a formulaic approach.
"I'm afraid to say that they had one hand tied behind their backs before they started. They took such a bog-standard approach, and it was just uninspiring. A lot of people studying language-based subjects such as English, modern languages and history rose to the top."
She was surprised but delighted that the number of women selected was so high and hopes that the course will give their careers a certain impetus. "When I worked for an agency, I saw a lot of women who were very good behind the scenes, but it was frequently the men who would go out and pitch for the accounts. That suggests there is a bulge there, waiting to break through."
Whitbread itself, which owns chains such as Costa Coffee and TGI Friday, initiated the course as a means of tempting the best graduates into marketing. "They wanted to move away from people saying `Isn't the Boddington's advert humorous?' to `Isn't Whitbread good at marketing?' They wanted to raise their profile of marketing excellence among managers-to-be," explains Dr Baker.
John Derkach, Whitbread marketing director, adds: "The course will not only give students the chance to learn about marketing in-depth but will also give them the chance to make valuable contacts. We will certainly be following their progress with a great deal of interest."
Those on the course will consider case studies including Pizza Hut and Whitbread Inns, looking at issues such as market segmentation and launch procedures.
For the finalists, it is a chance to prove themselves and network informally with potential employers before exam fever sets in. "It's going to look good on their CVs and will push them forward for interview. And it's something that will help them to convert an arts degree for a potential employer."
Cranfield, of course, will have its own pay-off. "This is very much the marketplace of the future, and some of the students might like to think about coming back for an MBA at the other end of their twenties," avers Dr Baker. "We've gone into it intending that it can be run on an annual basis and we want it to be acclaimed within its target audience, so we hope to work with careers offices. Part of it has been managing people's enthusiasm for it, because it's been something different, and people here have been happy to get behind it. It is a finishing school in one sense, but it's also opening up a door of opportunity for the future."
While Cranfield and Whitbread are keeping a shrewd eye on the future, students on the course will be more than happy to knock back a few cocktails free of charge before getting back to their books.
See page 7 for tips on how to find your dream job in marketing ...
`The Times is a great draught excluder'
"Among the 2,500 entries to the essay competition were conventional marketing plans and market research, as well as more unusual and imaginative (and sometimes humorous) responses. For example, entrants used storytelling, made mock-up newspapers and even submitted poetry," says Susan Baker, programme director and lecturer in marketing at Cranfield. Here are excerpts from some of the 30 winning entries ...
Sitting in the pub, Eric, who had never really taken student life seriously - at least, not the academic side - was more than willing to enlighten Joe and Spencer as to why broadsheet newspapers were indispensable to him. "They make brilliant draught excluders," he enthused, and when the girls from next door came round he always liked to keep a copy of The Times handy on the sofa next to him, in the hope of enhancing his somewhat questionable image as an intellectual.
Ms J L, German and Psychology, Liverpool University
What do young people want to read about? Funny, interesting or personal stories were often mentioned. The future is of particular importance to us; environmental issues as well as cultural evolution and the future of technology. Science was quoted as an area of interest.
Ms V A, BA Graphic Design, Central St Martins College of Art and Design
Some form of loyalty scheme could also be introduced, whereby regular readers could save up vouchers clipped from the newspaper for discounts or freebies on desirable consumer items, such as CDs. Alternatively, if subscribers or regular readers were offered air miles, this could also be an incentive to remain loyal to one paper, since many people already collect these through Sainsbury's etc. The success of the supermarket loyalty schemes shows that people are happy to join a loyalty scheme as long as they get something of value out of it, as well as the retailer.
Ms M G, PhD Medieval Studies, York