Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Drive Over Degrees

Afzal Hussain discusses why university graduates often fail to cut the mustard with ad agencies.
Published 11 Mar, 2024 02:24pm

A good friend recently asked me whether an Ivy League education was a prerequisite for young people to be successful in advertising. My spontaneous response was “not really”, and that real-world experience with the right brands and businesses is far more important.

One caveat before I proceed further. I am basing this article on my recent hiring experiences in Islamabad, which may vary in other cities.

I am sure many young people believe that doing well in university is a guarantee of a prosperous career in advertising agencies. Not. Would I necessarily pick a candidate from a high-end university over a candidate from a ‘just good enough university’ every time? No! I will go as far as to say that fancy degrees alone are a poor indicator of how well candidates will fare in advertising, and I am afraid to report that local degrees are not much more than tickets to join the race.

I don’t think the current crop of advertising/communication curricula are cutting the mustard with leading agencies. My agency has to train fresh graduates almost from scratch to ‘skill them’ up to a level where they become useful to the brands we serve – which amounts to one to two years in practical terms. This is regardless of whether they come from a leading university or a ‘just good enough university’. I often find candidates from ‘just good enough universities’ hungrier compared to their Ivy League brethren because of their greater drive.

A great deal of time and money has to be invested before fresh graduates can become productive members of my agency team. We need to attach senior managers to micro-coach fresh grads into the job and plug them into our global training suite to ensure they are up to date with the latest communication trends. It is a painful but necessary process. Of course, when we hire, we pick the cream of the crop, but this does not mean we just pick graduates with the highest GPAs from so-called leading universities by default. We consider top degrees but with quite a few pinches of salt. We often have to go through 50 or more candidates before we complete the hiring process, perhaps to the dismay of students who have invested massive amounts of time and money in their education only to find they don’t get to start the race in pole position.

What is missing in our education system?
The gap between what our leading universities churn out in terms of top recruits and the reality is real. Agencies today have evolved from simple ‘advertising’ focused on spot advertising on TV and print, toward ‘strategic communication’, which covers a variety of touchpoints, including digital, PR, influencer content, activation and stakeholder management. We need to invest massive amounts of time and money to bring fresh graduates up to scratch. Beyond degrees, we prefer selecting candidates on the basis of their drive, commitment, charisma and ability to strategically break down problems. These are far better indicators of young people’s future success.

How can universities do a better job?
I will start with what I consider to be the most consequential determinant to success for any graduate – the drive to take on real-world pressure. I am not sure if this is inculcated or even encouraged in our leading universities. Irrespective, it is the candidates with the greater drive who will end up outperforming their more qualified counterparts, because they are able to keep up with the rigour of real-world advertising, overcome their shortcomings and develop critical work-related skills faster. Persistent drive and grit also lead to ‘charisma’ which is critical for leadership roles. Much of this is inborn and lies with the candidate’s personality. Do our universities teach this? I am not sure but I wish they did.

Second, I vastly prefer candidates with strong writing skills, and I find the writing skills among the current crop of candidates, even from leading universities, to be surprisingly weak. This is in contrast with the expectations of a very high standard of writing coming from the brands and businesses we handle. I find that most young people are overwhelmed very quickly and resort to ChatGPT as a substitute to proper writing – which does not work. I will pick the candidate with the stronger writing skills every time, as this will save my agency a year’s worth of coaching on the basics.

Third, I prefer candidates who can think critically and strategically. It may seem that all agencies do is make clever advertisements and put them on TV, but the industry has changed a lot. Strategic thinking is critical given today’s complex and fragmented media environment where a strong strategy is the only thread that can tie a complex communication process together. Hiring candidates who are capable of strategic thinking saves us a year or more of in-depth micro-coaching.

Fourth, I need candidates with strong presentation and interpersonal communication skills. People who cannot present need to be kept away from clients until they are good enough. There is a saying that an agency is only considered as good as its last presentation; therefore, weak presenters do not get far in their careers. People lacking in strong interpersonal communication skills do not gel well with diverse multi-disciplinary teams. Hiring candidates with strong communication skills saves us a year or more of coaching.

Lastly, may I please have candidates with relevant practical experience? Strong internships and apprenticeship programmes should be made mandatory in universities. I often find fresh graduates from top educational institutes to be surprisingly unfamiliar with an office environment. They need to be taught the basics about office conduct, agencies and what they do. I would, therefore, pick candidates with some practical know-how and experience, over more qualified candidates.

Advice to universities teaching advertising and communication:
It is critical to consult industry experts on an ongoing basis to get feedback on the courses taught and ensure that they are as relevant as they can be. Some curriculums are often years, if not decades, out of synch with what actually happens on a practical level. Universities should cultivate active partnerships with leading ad agencies for activities ranging from collaborative projects, the incorporation of case studies and simulations that encourage students to adapt to unexpected changes and think on their feet. They should also facilitate workshops on communication, problem solving and adaptability, all of which are critical to success in ad agencies. I would also encourage universities to include industry experts as guest lecturers, or even faculty members. They should facilitate internship programmes with leading agencies. I would also encourage faculty members to maintain active connections with industry professionals, so as to continually bring real-world insights into the classroom.

Afzal Hussain is Managing Director, M&C Saatchi World Services Pakistan.