Graduate Plus: A hard sell for advertising

Universities and ad agencies are forging closer links to improve recruitment and training. By Meg Carter

For the 120,000 undergraduates now studying marketing or marketing- related courses at British universities, the prospects of a career in an advertising agency are slim: just 300 or so will join agencies' graduate training schemes this year and most of these will be from non-specific courses or Oxbridge colleges. One reason for this is the industry's inherent scepticism about vocational training. But an initiative launched this month is designed to rectify this.

Thirty of the UK's leading agencies and universities offering undergraduate marketing and advertising degrees have enrolled in a "twinning" scheme to forge closer links been education and the advertising industry. "It's about building relationships," explains Janet Hull, consultant director of advertising effectiveness at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the advertising agencies' trade organisation which is behind the scheme.

"Although a number of agencies already have informal links with education, this is the first time the industry has ever made a concerted attempt to formalise this," she says. The aim is to help colleges to structure better courses, enable students - and agencies - to be better informed and, many colleges hope, to overcome the traditional Oxbridge bias of the advertising business.

Earlier this year, the IPA approached 20 of the UK's leading providers of undergraduate courses in marketing. "We avoided business schools and postgraduate course providers as most of these seemed to have strong links already," Hull says. Fifteen institutions registered an interest in taking part; larger ad agencies were then approached to join them.

To avoid any accusation of vested interests or unfair bias, potential partners were invited to attend a special evening at the IPA last month where their names were drawn out of a hat matched in what Hull describes as "an FA Cup-style draw". The newlyweds are now feeling their way into new partnerships, developing a portfolio of joint activities to launch at the start of the autumn term.

"While we've laid down certain guidelines as a framework, it's very much up to the partners involved to agree and implement a range of activities," Hull explains.

Agencies are confident the scheme will improve the currency and relevance of vocational course material. "While many of those teaching advertising and marketing courses have an industry background, how recent this is varies widely," says Crispin Reed, board account director at Leo Burnett (whose clients include Nestle and McDonald's) which has been twinned with Plymouth University. "It's one thing teaching theory, quite another to be able to lessen the undergraduates' inevitable shock - not just from starting work, but moving in to the agency environment."

Within the agency world, opinion has long been divided between those in favour of vocational training and traditionalists who prefer to recruit from older universities, taking on graduates whatever their degree. However, the time has come for the industry to "grow up", believes Anthea Willey,account manager at Ogilvy & Mather (Guinness, General Motors). "We want to encourage vocational training and ensure colleges and both students and agencies are better informed," she says. "As the industry matures, we must be prepared to pursue both avenues for the best candidates."

Such sentiments are welcomed by the colleges involved. "With competition so tough for so few jobs, it's essential for graduates to be able to hit the ground running from day one," according to Fiona Cownie, course leader, BA Hons advertising management at Bournemouth University.

All involved insist the initiative is more than just another graduate recruitment initiative. Practical elements will include visiting lecturers, exchange visits, work experience and access to "live" briefs enabling students to work on campaigns, says Amy Smith, new business director at Simons Palmer. "We see potential for running joint research projects. And relevant placements. It's not just about having someone to stand by the photocopier for two weeks."

The immediate benefits will be for the colleges, although in the longer term the scheme will also have value for the agencies involved, she adds. Robin John, head of South Bank University marketing division, agrees: "We are closer than many agencies to latest research and current publications. Within South Bank we even have our own centre for research in marketing, examining topics from branding to pricing."

Within agencies there is often an ignorance of attitudes in educational institutions about the advertising industry, Reed concedes. "The twinning scheme will also allow us to keep our finger on the pulse of the attitudes of young people coming through. If their attitudes to advertising and marketing are changing, then maybe ours should be changing, too."

But above all, he sees it as an insurance policy for the whole industry's future health. "Despite appearances, our industry is still a young one, rarely perceived by outsiders as a profession, like law or marketing," he explains. "It means we have an opportunity to get future clients to understand the way advertising agencies and the industry as a whole work. Almost all of these undergraduates will end up working in the industry, on one side of the fence or the other."

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