Note: this was originally published in 2009 but I was reminded of it when discussing the homogeneity of the advertising industry with The Spinoff yesterday...
I blame the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. And the advertising schools. And me. And every other creative director in town.
Each of us is responsible, a bit, for a change that on one hand has given our international awards tally a handy boost, but on the other has gone through our creative departments like a petrol powered weedeater, stripping an entire level of paid jobs out of the bottom end of the industry and replacing them with what an uncharitable person might describe as a generation of homogenous gong-hungry clones.
Temuera Morrison wasn’t behind this clone army, though. The NZQA was, armed with not just an oversized novelty cheque, but an entire oversized novelty chequebook (and possibly a very big pen). It’s not just an advertising issue. Ever wonder why every other office building on Queen Street is home to at least one hairdressing academy? It’s not because people are hairier these days. It’s because if you can fill a class with wannabe hairdressers and train them to a certain standard, out come the oversized novelty cheques.
And the size and number of the cheques, whether you’re running a hairdressing academy, an air hostess college or an advertising school, come down to how many students sign up for your course.
It’s supply and demand. Kids demand a course that sounds like more fun than tax accounting (which, OK, is any course at all), so the hairdressing academies and ad schools supply them.
Turn it round though, and look at it from the ad industry perspective, and the supply and demand start to appear a little out of whack. Between them, the ad schools turn out up to 60 eager, talented graduates a year. That’s a lot of grads. Count up every creative position in every decent agency in the country – not just the juniors – and you’d be lucky to hit 200.
So where do all those graduates go? They’re not all flipping burgers or wishing they’d done hairdressing. A good number of them are working long hours in creative departments, for less each week than some of us could spend on a feed at Prego. They’re winning awards, and they’re turning out the work.
But they’re also turning out the workers. Rather than serving as a poorly compensated step on the way to a proper job, the placement teams have become the replacement teams – doing the work junior teams once did, but for a fraction of the cost.
The impact on the number of paid jobs is just one problem though – and if you’re into market forces, you could say it’s just tough titties. What’s hurting us more – and this is where creative directors have to take a hit – is that going to an ad school has become almost the only way into the game.
It hasn’t always been this way. There used to be a time, the ex-art director who cleans our kitchen at work told me, when people who wanted to work in advertising would get a book together, knock on a lot of doors, land an interview or two, then maybe get a job. What they didn’t know when they turned up they’d learn as they went along.
Since there was no such thing as an advertising graduate back then, all sorts of people would turn up and try their luck. Policemen, firewood contractors and – God help us all – military pilots came knocking and some of them even got hired.
Sure, not all of them could tell you the nine times in the last three decades that ads featuring gerbils had won international awards, but they got by. They came up with ads based on their life experiences – which they could do because they’d actually had some. Insights weren’t just something that came from the planner’s crystal ball. They were what you got from spilling beer on a big guy’s shoes in a pub, riding the bus 200 times to a shit job, having kids and changing their nappies, falling in love, buying a house, crashing your car, having your cat die and painting a roof.
The result, on a good day, was advertising that connected with all sorts of people, because it was made by all sorts of people.
Of course, it makes perfect sense for some professions to be staffed by an annual crop of bright eyed graduates, all products of the same rigorous system, all trained to the same high standard. It seems to make sense for lawyers, and I’m pretty sure it makes sense for doctors – when the folks at the ad schools mail me a bomb tomorrow I want someone who knows what they’re doing stitching my hands back on.
But I’m not sure it makes so much sense for advertising.