Why I Left Ad School
The creativity factory, the struggle, and the escape.
By the time you’re reading this I made the decision to leave advertising school. From respect to some talented fellow students and teachers, I won’t mention the school’s name as I am writing this for the hope that like-minded people could relate to my story. Here we go.
I always found satisfaction at dancing on the ever-fading line between art and commerce. Both felt like magic no one could ever control and yet I found myself following these highly creative people who seemed to have the power to manipulate the thoughts of others. I was fascinated.
And so, from a very (very) young age, I made myself study at home for hours, every single day for years. After thousands of videos and countless of books, this process hasn’t stopped since. Everything from video editing, graphic design, songwriting, screenwriting, public speaking, business skills, advertising, and the list goes on. I love to learn and I’m self-sufficient.
In high school I was a member of the debate team for three years while taking majors at both theater and film and studying once a week at a special college program for gifted students.
By the time I was 20 years old I got to experience different fields and to work both as an independent content creator, a freelancer and for a short period as a video editor at a small production house. Working on various projects, both for clients as well as for my own artistic visions.
Going To Ad School
In early 2016 I wanted to make what some would argue as the obvious step and get into the advertising industry.
I got about a week to complete 10 assignments to show my skills, all to be submitted as drafts as it was noted that a good idea is more important than execution. I barely slept through that week but managed to bring couple of the concepts to life as finished projects that incorporated photography and editing. Not on the expense of the ideas behind them. The following week I went for an interview. The head of the art direction department was impressed and soon after I joined the art direction course.
The first time I stepped into ad school I felt opportunities. The alumni work that fills the walls of halls buzzing with creative people gets your head spinning with possibilities.
For the first few weeks in school, I felt it was the right place for me.
“So Why You Left?”
I’ll break my answer to several key parts:
More Than Ads
I want us to clarify what creativity is: Creativity is the ability to make logical connections and create a new relationship between two or more elements. That’s in my words the essence of this magical thing people struggle to grab and put into words. Sadly, no one defined it in school.
Now, in ad school you meet a lot of people who do “creative things” and these things might end up being good. But rarely great. Because while you can produce work that is good enough, you can’t produce great work in a sustainable manner if you don’t understand what it is you’re doing.
Everyone around me seemed to be consistently submerged in the words and visuals of other copywriters and art directors in the shape of ads and commercials as they consume more and more of the industry they want to bring themselves into.
If we agreed that creativity is about creating a new relationship between two or more elements, don’t you think you should be consuming as much content as you possibly can, both in terms of quantity and diversity?
Putting the same elements in the blender with the hope of creating something great is pathetic to say the least. Those who think the world begins and ends with advertising, in my opinion, are not creative professionals.
Which brings me to the next point.
Art and Commerce
“Advertising isn’t art.”
I remember hearing this consistently. And it’s true, advertising isn’t art. But it’s not the opposite either. That’s the big secret that holds this industry together from falling apart:
Clients are paying enormous amounts of money in hope of getting creative solutions to their businesses.
Creative people are looking to make a living doing something in which they believe they can put their talents to use.
That’s the fundamental concept the advertising industry is based upon. In many industries, art needs the commerce and commerce needs the art. This model is the proof that “advertising isn’t art” is nothing but a misconception. These creative people, many of which are artists, are why clients keep coming back to agencies that serve the part of a mediator between creative people (art) and business clients (commerce).
In the documentary ‘The First Monday in May’, Anna Wintour, the longtime editor-in-chief of Vogue, has put it nicely and said; “In the world that we work in you need the mixture of art and commerce. You need both. Too much of one or the other would not work. They have to exist hand in hand.”
Not getting the relationship between Art and Commerce and how to handle it is dangerous to any creative field. If you disagree then you can stop reading this essay right now.
Not everything can be part of an ad. When you go on national television or on any large-budget campaign, you need to consider everything, or better yet, have a good taste to begin with. As an ad man, you have a responsibility for both the client AND the audience. Ads are part of the media we’re all exposed to on a daily basis and just like a movie, a TV series or an art piece can impact and shape the lives of others — so can advertising. Keep that in mind.
Trends Mean Destruction
Trends. The wonderful approach that makes everyone produce similar work while trying to get noticed in the big sea around them. Ad school tries so hard to make everyone follow what other people do.
There’s a big difference between Trends and Cultural Advertising.
Brands can and should react and take a stand for and against events and ideologies that manifest before us in this world. They shouldn’t however be led by what other brands are doing for the sake of being “trendy”.
“What’s hot right now?” means destruction for the ads every creative person wants so desperately to make. The ones people will remember 50 years from now.
The Key To Digital Is In The Past
This got me into long debates with almost everyone in school.
Ever since the internet took over the world and later when smartphones found themselves into the hands of every person in the western world, the advertising industry has tried to figure out how to push advertising into the digital space. They get it all wrong. From fighting ad blockers and putting a minimum watch time for ads on video sites, to “sponsored content”, the industry is refusing to look after a key that was left behind.
That key is hidden in television. TV commercials has managed to get at least one thing right and that’s to establish a trust and an understanding between the ads and the viewers: you get to watch content and between that content we put ads for you to watch.
Notice that I wrote ‘between’, not ‘inside’. Sponsored content violates this agreement and blurs a line that is essential in order to provide good content that will get the user coming back for more.
The way video sites do this is even more strange and just built to fail. They’re trying to do something like this: the user clicks on a video thumbnail and is welcomed with an ad which sometimes he can skip after waiting for 5 seconds, sometimes he must wait for it to end before watching the video he originally clicked on, then he can continue to watch another couple of videos before being greeted with another ad.
“But isn’t that exactly what you said worked in television?” Well, no. The big difference is that TV viewers were mostly passive. They had a stream of content that was aired at certain times with ads in between. Digital users are active. If I clicked on a video — I expect to see that video. The second the user sees an ad is the moment the invisible agreement I talked about earlier is violated. It’s that simple.
Old Principals vs Old Techniques
Every day in school I was hearing ideas and seeing concepts that made me go “isn’t it what ___ did?”.
Principals are the long-proven truths of any system. They are the WHY. Techniques are the methods we chose to put those truths to use. They are the HOW.
The fundamental principles of advertising are still true today, they got something right about human behavior. But the way to apply them isn’t so up-to-date anymore. In school I saw over and over how old techniques were being recycled again and again.
Old principals are fine, old techniques isn’t.
Judgment and Standards
On a similar topic, the school’s staff weren’t critic enough with the quality of work their own students put out. I felt like half-baked ideas were given too much credit for nothing. On one occasion a student pitched what I recognized as a 1970’s Levi’s campaign as his own original idea. Needless to say, no one thought that was a big deal.
I’m having a tough time believing bad, or worse; stolen ideas should be granted the same judgment as original ones for the sake of “learning” and at the same time claim that school is mirroring the “real world”. In the “real world”, these premature ideas would have never get a green light, many would not even been presented.
I felt that the school’s approach has led to child-like portfolios and unprofessional work. It all comes down to mediocrity. And I refuse to be mediocre.
Everything was being done by baby steps. Basic lessons that could have been delivered in 15 minutes took an average of 3 hours. I was just waiting for someone to wake me up.
The funny thing is that many times assignments that could have benefit from extra time for developing an idea worthy of a pitch were rushed in a 5, 10 or 15 minutes’ blocks. That is not how creativity is expressed, that’s not how art (or commercial art for that matter) work. Great ideas take a lot of time to come up with, and a well-established research is crucial even before touching pen and paper.
I get the fact that a student might be ahead of the rest and that is okay. The school was scheduled to work exclusively on portfolios only at the last two months of the course. But when I tried to get the heads of departments to work with me on building a portfolio (which I began working on before school), I was ignored and treated with contempt.
That brings me to my last point.
“Go find yourself and come back when you’re 26”. That’s an actual quote by one of the lecturers to my request to get their input on my portfolio. Guess what; I already found myself, and I’m not coming back any time soon.
I can understand why some teachers act like that. I mean, they won multiple awards including Clio, Cannes Lion, etc., and I acknowledge and respect them. But that’s saying more about who you used to be than anything else. I don’t care about titles. I care about talent and hard work. A cause. And that’s something you need to prove by actions, not titles.
“Sit down, we’ll show you how it’s done” is the kind of arrogance that leads talented people to go on their own way, and makes executives wonder why they can’t form a world-changing team.
What People Around You Say
Believe it or not, the people most close to you will many times be your hardest critics. But even though I am 20 years old I learned that those people are usually wrong. They might very well want what’s best for you, but they almost never know what ‘best’ looks like.
“If You Think You Can Do It Better — Why Not Stay and Shine?”
Well, because I believe that being part of a company, school, or a community says something about that person. Isn’t that why people are eager to get into the best schools and the greatest companies in the world? Besides, why would I want a school to take credit for work it didn’t helped me achieve in the first place?
About Ignoring Your Instincts
Before I applied I read opinions saying you shouldn’t go to school but instead work on a mind-blowing portfolio by yourself, attach it to your resume and go job hunting. Looking back I probably should have gone that route. As I mentioned, I am the kind that study, plan and execute on his own. One of the things I take from this journey is to promise myself to always follow to my instincts. The first one was to leave school.
Leaving Ad School
On A Good Note
Ad school wasn’t for me. But it did teach me couple of important lessons about the industry. Those lessons weren’t mentioned in the syllabus but they echoed in the halls in a way I’ll never forget. Today I know the players in the field, what they want and how they think. It gave me a unique perspective on the advertising world and its flaws so I, along with others who believe in our mission, can do better.
Of course, this was just my experience and my reasons to leave and go on my way. Your experience may differ as I’m sure not all schools lack the qualities I mentioned here.
You can take risks if you can make sense out of those decisions.
It was a short conversation with my head of department. On my way out I put my headphones on as I played “No Apologies” by Bon Jovi. I knew I did the right thing.
“Seems like everybody’s selling you dreams ‘round here, but no one’s buying and it’s closing time.”
-No Apologies by Bon Jovi
And Now, For A Commercial Break
At the end of the day, the school and I have different ideas about the industry and where it’s heading, with opposite approaches to dealing with the future. And I felt like I was selling out. But now, I feel like I’m selling in. The creativity factory was trying to push me down to the lowest floor possible, and after too much of thinking, I let my heart make the call. So, this is why I left ad school, and I might be wrong. But I might not be.
If you liked this piece, be sure to let me hear your thoughts and hit recommend so others know it’s worth reading. Thank you so much!
Originally published on MisterSmithee.com