Advertising program boot camp kicks careers into high gear

Anton Mwew
Anton Mwewa. Photo by Guy McCrum

Anton Mwewa. Photo by Guy McCrum

Anton Mwewa once knew exactly where his career aspirations would take him: to a national newspaper as a staff reporter. But after earning a journalism diploma and dipping a toe in the tepid journalism job market, he knew it was time to rethink the plan.

Why not try advertising? It was, after all, his other love.

After researching college and university programs, he finally decided that OCAD University’s undergraduate Advertising program would give him the skills and knowledge he’d need to enter the field. Mwewa is the first to acknowledge, however, that he didn’t really know what he was getting into.

“I’m not going to lie. I was thinking I’d come in and it was going to be Mad Men and all fun and games,” says Mwewa, who graduated from the four-year program in the spring of 2015. “Instead, OCAD U gave me a good foundation for advertising. It’s more realistic and grounded.”

In other words, OCAD U is succeeding at what it set out to accomplish a few years ago when it revamped its offering to become responsive to industry needs: giving students vital conceptual expertise along with practical skills such as networking and pitching campaigns to clients. It’s a reimagining of some of the changes that occurred in 2002, when OCAD U gained university status and the program embraced the academic to become more theory driven.

Students can still choose to follow that more individual stream, pursuing a self-directed personal project in order to themselves go into entrepreneurship or to launch careers in industry. Or, if they anticipate working in ad agencies or marketing brands for a company, they can opt for a second more hands-on stream, which was introduced three years ago. The two streams offer much the same material for the first three years, but by year four, the new “Ad Concept/Collaboration” program turns into a high-pressure boot camp that has students working on ad campaigns with real businesses such as Scotiabank, Canadian Tire and Mercedes-Benz Canada.

It’s not a co-op or internship program, since the hands-on classes are held in the evenings, but the experience is similarly immersive.

Hit the ground running

It’s a formula that’s getting real results too, says Sandra Kedey, the associate professor who took over as the program’s new chair in July 2015. More than 50 per cent of graduates in the new AdCon stream have jobs lined up when they leave school, prompting Kedey to call the hire rate, “unprecedented.” The program is building on years of success, it being the launching ground for many top-tier creative professionals — from Nellie Kim, a partner and executive creative director of newly formed lg2 in Toronto, to Elspeth Lynn, now executive creative director at M&C Saatchi in London, UK. Bob Goulart, creative partner at Grip Limited in Toronto, and Ibraheem Youssef, who recently started a creative director position in Hong Kong.

The boot camp component, in which students work in small teams to create “mini agencies,” helps make those successes happen for today’s students, even if working under so much pressure also makes them sweat.

“You’ve got to learn to wow clients in three minutes,” explains Kedey, who originally co-founded the program with Ann Urban, another associate professor in the Faculty of Design. “So yeah, it makes for stress. That’s the working world. You’re going to have 20 projects at the same time. You’re going to have four photo shoots on the same day. How do you manage that? But that’s our experience.” She should know. Along with her two decades with OCAD U, she has worked with clients ranging from Campbell’s Soup to Kraft, and from Gatorade to the LCBO — both at top agencies and at her own company, SLK Communications Inc. Rachel Brown, a headhunter at fishRecruit in Toronto and former colleague of Kedey, consults for the program and has been instrumental in connecting OCAD U with big name clients willing to work with students. Corporate marketers give student teams creative briefs and expect real solutions under tight deadline. After students make their presentations, the clients give them feedback right then and there. It’s a pressure cooker environment — and more successful than Brown ever would have imagined.

“The work they came up with was smart and incredibly polished,” she says. “That’s what blew me away. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at!”

Whether the teams showcased witty tag lines, polished images or hilarious commercial vignettes, Brown says she was impressed by how savvy all the students seemed. “There was consistency there. It’s not like just one or two teams got it and the other six didn’t. They all got it. They had an instinct for what works.”

To market, to market

One client partner has actually decided to take an OCAD U ad concept to market. By the end of 2015, Canadians shopping in the frozen food aisle will notice a new packaging look and advertising push for Pizza Pockets, the microwavable convenience hand-pies from McCain Food Ltd. Not only will the winning student team split a licensing honorarium with OCAD U, which plans to reinvest its share of the money into new equipment, the students can add actual client work to their résumés. After all, not many people can say they’ve sold a creative ad concept before even finishing school.

That kind of practical business knowhow and confidence helps OCAD U’s graduating students stand out in the job market and gives them a unique advantage, maintains Brown.

“It really resonates with hiring managers. When they’re looking at a roster of entry-level applicants and one of them can say, ‘Hey, I was in a program that had me actually dealing with a real client and executing market-ready work,’ that gives them a leg up.”

Mwewa himself has experienced that employment boost. On graduation, he immediately landed an internship at J. Walter Thompson Canada in Toronto and the contract has been extended until the end of the year. Meanwhile, his portfolio of clients, ranging from Nokia to Goodyear, continues to grow. OCAD U helped him hone his minimalist, simple and elegant design sensibility, but the school also gave him a better sense of how to think like an advertiser.

While conceptualizing any project, he asks himself, “What’s the one thing I’m trying to say?” A few intelligent double entendres go a long way too.

“Graphic design is all about making an image look pretty,” he says. “Advertising is about people. It has wit. In advertising, you’re trying to make thoughts look pretty.”

The whole package

Brown agrees that OCAD U’s new focus on concept, design and business knowledge will cement its reputation as Canada’s top advertising program through its combination of classes in graphic design, branding, creative copywriting and career-building skills. Any new grad can be market savvy when looking for a new job, but a grad from OCAD U has also developed a keen artistic eye and creative expertise.

“OCAD U stitches all of that together in one program. That to me is just a phenomenal offering,” she says.

Marshall McLuhan may have once espoused that ads are the cave art of the twentieth century, but that hardly means the writing is on the wall for the digital advertising industry. Far from it. Visual advertising alone is growing by five or six per cent each year, says Kedey, as more companies are seeing the benefit of attaching eye-catching images to their products.

And as the industry continues to grow and evolve, the university’s Advertising students will not only keep up with the progress, but also push the boundaries. Integration, after all, is the key to industry innovation. At OCAD U, tomorrow’s top creative directors, designers and copywriters are learning how to create a convergence between old and new media — from shop windows to social media branding, and print ads to the next big thing online.

In fact, the program’s new direction may just as easily prove to become the next big thing for the university if enrollment numbers are anything to go by. Last year Advertising went 10 per cent over its quota, prompting the addition of another class.

“This is a very successful thing we have here that’s just growing,” says Kedey. “And it’s going to continue to grow gangbusters.”

Kira Vermond
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