“It’s clear that I am in the wrong place,” wrote Tony Cullingham, signing off his notice that The Watford Course would no longer be running with his regretful new title – ex-programme leader – divulging discreetly, “I need to be where the students are”.
He hasn't yet figured out where that will be, except that it is not in Watford.
Running for many years before Cullingham took the helm 30 years ago, The Watford Course was the first creative advertising course to condense everything into one year.
Nikki Lindman, creative director at Pablo London, is one of Cullingham’s former student and likens getting on the course as “getting the golden ticket to Charlie’s chocolate factory, an ad education worthy of Cambridge and a skin-toughening lesson in life from a hybrid Philip Roth and Philip K Dick”.
But what was once a coveted pathway into adland became a school that received too few applications to remain viable. Cullingham puts this down to “money poured into other ad schools and in-house creative incubators.”
To put things in perspective, Ogilvy’s apprenticeship scheme, The Pipe, received more than 1,000 applications this year.
The Watford Course didn’t need awards to prove its worth; its success was marked by the number of students who had notable careers in the industry.
“Oli Beale, Danny Brooke Taylor, Nikki Lindman, Laurent Simon, Aiden McClure, Caroline Pay, Andy Jex, Ben Tollet, Paddy Fraser, Charlene Chandrasekaran, Dan Morris, Rob Doubal, Eoin McClaughlin, Cathy Hutton, Ben Kay, Laura Muse, Yanny Elliott, Becca Pottinger, Helen Rhodes, Craig Ainsley, Thom Whitaker, Jolyon White, Tim McNaughton, Micky Tudor, Dan Watts, Danielle Noelle,” recalls Nathalie Gordon, creative director at Other London. "Recognise any of those names?
“They’re not just creatives who work in advertising, they are founders, partners, chief creative officers, executive creative directors and creative directors at some of the best agencies in the world,” she adds. “And they all went to Watford. This is a sad day for adland because the best agency in town just shut its doors and the industry will be a lesser place because of it.”
A brilliant cult
But what made The Watford Course such a special incubator for creative talent? Thom Whitaker, creative director at Mother London, points out the school is run "a lot like an agency, except instead of free cereal you get unlimited access to the executive creative director every day for nine months".
He adds: “It's not about learning Photoshop or how to write a case study that’s better than the work. Tony re-wired your brain and he did it with energy, humour and brutal honesty. It sounds a bit like a cult, and actually, it sort of was. A brilliant cult set in a sixth-form college.”
Creatives speaking to Campaign all agree that what made the course different was the guidance provided by Cullingham, which Whitaker credits as having influenced some of adland's most iconic spots.
“The Meerkat, Orange Goldspots, Nike Write the Future, John Lewis Christmas – countless pieces of iconic British advertising can be traced back to a small, chaotic room in West Herts College where students’ minds were warped in wonderful ways," he says.
"Whole forests of bad ideas were felled and the best ones were rewarded with the class lettuce. It was simple, relevant and emotionally rewarding. The rules that Tony drills into you from day one stick with you for life. They change your thinking for the better."
Can adland help?
The Watford Course is not the only independent ad school that has struggled to remain viable. Contemporaries like the School of Communication Arts, which remains open, are also experiencing similar issues that resulted in Watford's demise.
Is there anything that the ad industry can do to ensure such schools stay open and continue producing talent before it's too late?
Emma Durgan, a freelance copywriter, suggests agencies and networks should play a role in helping to keep these institutions running with financial support. "Then they'd realise courses like Tony's are the lifeblood of the industry," she adds. "On an individual level, it's about getting the word out there. I only ended up on the course because it was recommended to me.”
In the wake of The Watford Course's closure, Gordon believes adland needs to take a "long hard look at itself".
“We all keep talking about the importance of difference, yet all creatives are now coming from the same two or three courses," she says.
"We all keep talking about the importance of removing financial barriers, yet push students to schools that cost £18,000 over one that cost £4,000. We all keep talking about the importance of ‘big ideas’, yet answer briefs with case studies. How does any of that make sense? Magpies may favour shiny things, but they make for awfully brittle long-term homes.”
Lindman recalls a petition she started years ago when she was a junior, to get Cullingham an OBE for his services to the British creative industry, with the hopes all his ex-students who helmed agencies and worked within them could club together for that accolade.
"It never came to fruition, I was too junior then to have any sway," she admits. "However, a bursary in his honour, to fund students for the year doesn't seem too much to ask or afford. Perhaps an alumnus funded one. Given the numbers, surely we can brainstorm something amazing."
While there is still hope that independent ad schools will continue to nurture talent well into the future, with Cullingham planning to "head to where the students are", The Watford Course's closure could hurt adland in more ways that one. It was widely regarded as a gateway for talent from diverse backgrounds.
“Something that always struck me when I was on the course was that Tony believed that anyone, at any life stage, could be a creative if they wanted to,” remembers Sali Horsey, a creative at Channel 4. “People say the industry is ageist, but Tony was the opposite. Many of the people on our course year were older or had had several previous jobs.
"I remember him trying to recruit a cleaner in an agency we were doing a review at, who was interested in the campaigns we’d been writing, as well as my boyfriend, who was an engineer. The advertising industry isn’t accessible, but Tony was definitely trying to change that."