Happy together in adland

Careers: Meg Carter on the twinning of colleges and agencies

Advertising is not known for having a particularly sophisticated approach to recruitment. In fact, for many years top agencies preferred scouring their senior managements' Alma Maters - typically, Oxford or Cambridge.

More recently, however, the industry has woken up to a potential skills shortage. Recession and subsequent downsizing persuaded the best graduates in recent years to choose other fields, such as the media, law and the City.

Last summer, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (whose members include some of the best known agencies) invited leading colleges providing advertising and marketing courses to join a twinning scheme to promote closer links between the industry and academia.

Agency input would ensure course materials were more relevant to industry needs; college participation would allow agencies access to students for research and recruitment. The aim was to get closer to academia - "not just with business schools, but with colleges offering media and communications courses", explains Angus Fear, a J Walter Thompson director and member of the IPA council responsible for the exercise.

Most participants claim to be pleased with the results.

Agencies and colleges were paired by drawing names out of a hat. Although the IPA laid down guidelines, it was up to the participants to make it work. The idea was for "twins" to develop work experience placements and agency visits for students, for agencies to provide real briefs for colleges to use within their courses and to field industry figures for ad hoc lectures.

The London agency TBWA/Simons Palmer, for example, was twinned with Bournemouth University. Activities over the year included agency staff attending the students' year-end creative advertising show; student placements in TBWA/Simons Palmer's planning and account handling departments; presentations on the industry and advice on how to get into advertising.

"At the outset, we acknowledged that to be involved at all implied a certain endorsement of our course which was, of course, good," says Fiona Cownie, course tutor for Bournemouth University's BA in advertising management. However, there were tangible aims, too: "We also hoped for insights into what is happening in the industry and opportunities to get involved."

So far, there have been two students on placement at TBWA/Simons Palmer. One former student has secured a full-time job. "Representatives from the agency have come down to give lectures, and we have asked for further input on course work, and would like to also get hold of live briefs for real advertising accounts on which our students can work," Cownie adds. "It's an ongoing partnership."

The initiative was also designed to benefit agencies - by making students available for research projects, by encouraging agency staff to use colleges to offer courses for agency executives, or to supply latest academic research and literature.

An IPA check on the first 16 agency-college partnerships showed most have proven successful in spite of the time pressures experienced by agency staff and the distances separating many of the twins.

Three-quarters met at least three times during the first 12 months; just under half met more. Six twins have so far secured placements for students while a further five plan to do so. However, four twins had not yet planned any agency visits or placements.

Planning student trips to the agency is one thing but reciprocating by sending agency personnel out of the office for a couple of days is another, it seems. Most agencies have been forthcoming in supplying material for course work and six agency twins have provided suggestions for student research but college involvement in agency training has not been widely taken up.

The IPA is approaching a further 30 agencies to gauge interest in including them in the schemen

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