Several colleges offer the skills you need to work in the ad business. Some courses, however, attempt to provide a realistic taste of agency life; others focus on developing design skills, as Camilla Palmer finds.

If you're serious about working in advertising, there will come a time when you'll need to invest in an A-Z and a pair of comfy shoes, and take to the streets with your portfolio.

Hawking your wares around, begging meetings with creative directors or junior teams, living out of a suitcase and waiting for that placement break is what everyone - regardless of the course they've completed - will have to do to get a job. It's barely ever been different, even for the people who now run the creative departments in which you want to work.

It's the quality of your ideas and the work you show agencies that will get you a placement - or perhaps a job - but starting off with solid vocational training is worth its weight in gold. Mother's award-winning creative Caroline Pay remembers her first post-degree job-hunting foray with toe-curling embarrassment: "My book was shit. People told me so. They said, 'Go to Watford and then come back.' So I did."

While no-one will get a job in advertising without considerable talent, courses can help young minds to mature and focus, according to Publicis' new worldwide creative director, Dave Droga. "You can tell in five minutes whether they've 'got it', and a good course can really channel that talent," he says.

Courses can be good for discipline too. Lowe's joint executive creative director Damon Collins, says: "You need someone to constantly push you - bully you even. It's going to happen all the time at work, so you may as well get used to it."

Attitudes to students and courses vary enormously throughout the industry.

Most agencies are generous with the kind of coaching and criticism students could never hope to access unless on a degree or postgraduate course or a D&AD workshop. While the placement system, whereby students spend time working in a creative department, sometimes on live briefs, has come up for criticism, most agencies are quick to pick up talent when it eventually manages to get its foot in the door.

Leonardo offers guaranteed placements to a number of students from the integrated advertising course run at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, and M&C Saatchi has recently set up an in-house placement scheme. DFGW's joint creative director Dave Waters watches students mature through a series of regular workshops and agency visits.

What creative directors don't like is a homogenous student mass, made up of people with the same books, taught the same things by the same people year after year. Delaney Lund Knox Warren's joint creative director Malcolm Green says: "It's great when you see someone who's totally different.

When we look at books we ask: 'Could anyone here have done this work?' If the answer's 'no', and the work is great, we try to find a way to get them in."

What creative chiefs are on the look-out for is a combination of original talent, different work, a confident and likeable personality and a good strategic mind. But just don't expect them to come looking for you. "The people who succeed are the ones who never give up," Collins says.

Here are some of the best courses to get you heading in the right direction.


Course: Postgraduate diploma in art direction and copywriting

Duration: One year

Further information: 01923 812000

Better known simply as Watford, this course has produced some of the brightest lights in creative advertising since it was devised in 1961. From the M&C Saatchi partner Jeremy Sinclair to the Mother creative Caroline Pay, the Watford course has proven to be a winning route to a good job. Run by the former agency copywriter Tony Cullingham, the one-year intensive course takes up to 25 students each year from a total of 300 applicants.

Cullingham says he looks for adaptable and sociable people who also show talent. "Character is as important as talent," he argues. "Agency life is all about getting on with people, being able to work in a team and sell your work to clients. No-one wants to hire a difficult so-and-so."

The course runs over three terms and mirrors agency life as much as possible.

In the first term, students prepare for teamwork by working with every one of their peers, working from briefs set both by Cullingham and by agencies in London, which then invite the class in for a workshop on the results. By the beginning of the second term, Cullingham encourages students to team up permanently. Jim Bolton and Chas Bayfield, the creators of much of HHCL & Partners' iconic Tango advertising and founders of Arkwright, claim they are a good example of how successful these early partnerships can be.

Teams are encouraged to begin marketing their work late in the second term - any earlier and they risk showing immature thinking and work, Cullingham says. Placements are encouraged during the third term. Pay went to Kessels Kramer in Amsterdam, ended up staying six months and finishing her college portfolio there, before returning to the UK to work at Mother.

"The course teaches you the importance of ideas," she says. "There's no fannying around. You' work hard from the first day."


Courses: BA (Hons) graphic design and advertising - media

BA (Hons) graphic design and advertising - integrated

Duration: Three years

Further information: 01494 522141

Originating from a programme run from Hounslow College, the Bucks courses are regarded as good options for those wanting to forge a career in creative advertising - past students include the Lowe joint executive creative director Damon Collins, as well as Fallon's Richard Flintham and Andy McLeod.

Both courses follow the same path for the first year, allowing the 20 students to choose between various options, including media and integrated, for the remaining two years. Dave Morris, a former agency creative, leads the media side of the course from the second year, along with the former Saatchi & Saatchi creative Zelda Malan, who also teaches on a similar course at Central St Martin's.

Focusing heavily on above-the-line creative briefs such as poster, print and TV, students tackle lots of theory, including copywriting and art direction at a fast pace, also working on their own ideas from conception to final campaigns.

In the second year, they work in teams, and agency workshops are routine, according to Morris. Placements are sought for this year too.

"The third year is when we really drum home the importance of getting 'out there'," Morris says. The integrated option was developed four years ago in response to the changing face of agencies and client needs, according to its tutors, Julie Morris and Leah Klein.

"It's for people who always wanted to be Valerie Singleton," Dave Morris laughs. "We focus heavily on media-neutral ideas, encouraging students to think about the vast potential of integrated advertising." The course has supplied below-the-line agencies such as Leonardo with creative teams, as well as above-the-line shops that recognise the power of integrated campaigns.

The Leonardo creative partner, Gary Sharpen, claims the course makes for "savvy, clued-up creatives who want to do great work", and cites the award-winning team Stuart Button and Wesley Hawes, who won at 2002 D&AD and Cannes with posters for VSO, as good examples of former students.


Course: BA (Hons) graphic design

Duration: Three years

Further information: (020) 7514 7000

The course leader, the former D'Arcy copywriter Clive Challis, is supported by the part-time tutors, Zelda Malan and Maggie Souter, on this intensive degree.

Students spend a common first year, studying typography, advertising, photography, audio-visual design, drawing, print-making, illustration, computer studies and multimedia, before specialising in advertising, design or illustration for the second and third years. Although the variety of the syllabus is second to none, the course is not studio-based and does not attempt to mirror agency life, which can be frustrating for the students.

The 20-odd students choosing the advertising option spend the second year learning about strategy as well as art direction and copywriting.

"They spend lots of time learning about truth - advertising is about using those truths to sell products, so it's an essential skill," Malan says.

The course does not arrange placements, but it is important that students begin networking within the industry if they want to find jobs. Third years benefit from an annual study trip to New York, which takes them on a whirlwind tour of some of the city's best creative agencies. They must also complete a thesis; last year's was a group project focusing on London and its architecture.

"In the third year, the pressure comes off them academically, but they must work hard to get their books in shape for the job market," Malan says. While the college's reputation is no doubt an attraction for the students, particularly those from overseas, the advertising course does not offer the same vocational qualities of some others. "It's all about the quality of the book and the ideas of the students," Malan counters.


Course: Postgraduate diploma in creative advertising

Duration: One year

Further information: 01326 211077

The course leader, Alice Taylor, a former J. Walter Thompson copywriter with 25 years' experience, says she has to whittle out applicants who might be too distracted by the Cornish landscape to do any work on the intensive creative course. In her search for what she considers to be the best blend of class - arts, humanities and graphics students with 2:1 degrees or above - she must also be on the look-out for those who might miss the hurly burly of urban life.

Now in its fifth year, the three-term course takes up to 25 students a year, working in an environment that Taylor claims mirrors the average agency. Strategic thinking is high on the agenda, and students are bombarded with briefs from the outset.

At the end of the first term, the course departs en masse for London, for a week of rushing from agency to agency, meeting teams and creative directors and attending workshops.

As ever, placements are also seen as an essential learning tool, and students are encouraged to work throughout the Easter break.

Taylor claims that the college's distance from London is no barrier to students getting placements or jobs there, although the course's few critics argue that it is. Taylor's cut-and-dried approach to candidates' prior education also supplies a possible downside. The distance factor is solved by the internet, and the faculty has its own lively website showcasing the class members and their work.

A former external examiner, Dave Droga, now Publicis' worldwide creative director, says: "My main concern about courses is their relevance - sometimes you see students who've clearly been taught the wrong thing - but Falmouth is brilliant at drumming home the importance of the idea."


Course: BA (Hons) advertising

Duration: Three years

Further information: (023) 8031 9000

The tutor Nik Mahon has run a successful HND course in advertising alongside a top-up module to bring it into line with BA accreditation for some years.

For entry in 2004, however, the courses have been rolled into one BA degree that concentrates on all aspects of the industry, rather than just creative work.

Mahon, who worked as a creative director at a Southampton agency before joining the institute, wants the course to have as good a reputation as "somewhere like Bucks", and, when devising its content, lobbied the industry to find out what it wanted from students.

"We're going to focus on combining creativity with other disciplines such as planning and account handling - it's been proven that the best agencies are run by people who can do both, and we aim to develop creative people who can think strategically and strategic people who can think creatively," he stresses.

Alongside coursework including interpreting client briefs, conducting and using research, planning strategy and developing campaigns, Mahon encourages placements and has a programme of agency workshops planned.

Past students on the HND and top-up course have gone on to be creatives at Bartle Bogle Hegarty as well as account handlers at J. Walter Thompson.

Throughout the course, Mahon seeks to reflect agency life and its pressures, with which he considers essential for students to get to grips if they want to get a job. Regular briefs and crits add to the workload.

"Some students are very naive about what the industry is like," he says. "It's never been harder to get a job, and the landscape is changing all the time. They need to be aware of that from day one."


Courses: BA (Hons) design and visual arts - advertising

BA (Hons) design and visual arts - graphics

Duration: Three years

Further information: 0161 958 3414

These two courses have supplied regional and London-based agencies such as Mother and St Luke's with a steady stream of creatives, according to the course leader, Ian Parkin.

During the first year, students from each course learn alongside each other as well as taking options in illustration and textiles. They specialise in the final two years.

"We let students relax into thinking creatively in the first year, building their confidence through theoretical studies and lots of briefs," Parkin, who studied on the graphics course 12 years ago and returned to teach, says.

Students must find their own placements in the second and third years, but these can lead to permanent jobs, often in northern-based agencies such as JWT Cheetham Bell.

Parkin admits that the college's distance from London can be a negative factor for the students. "There's plenty of good work all around the UK - it's not all about London," he adds. A plus point is the smaller class sizes - there are only 15 students per year for each option.


Course: BA (Hons) graphic design

Duration: Three years

Further information: (020) 8547 2000

"Ideas are the name of the game on this course, and when we set a brief, it can materialise in any medium the student wants," Kingston's head of design and course leader, Penny Hudd, says.

She claims the three-year degree is more than a bog-standard graphics degree. Former students include the Mother art director Sam Walker, who worked on Egg's "Brilliant Industries" spots and the new Hoegaarden ads.

First-year students are exposed to a full range of media, from typography and photography to film and computer-generated graphics, and only specialise in year three, when they receive one-to-one tuition on project work.

Placements come at the end of the second year, and although Hudd has solid links with design companies, she admits that students who want to work for ad agencies have a harder time getting placements.


Course: BA (Hons) advertising

Duration: Three years

Further information: 01772 201201

This specialist course was born out of the university's established graphics and design course eight years ago, and follows a structure of theoretical modules combined with weekly projects and one-day intensive brief-cracking sessions.

First-year students "crit" each others' work from the start and, in the second and third year, are encouraged to team up with students on the corresponding graphics and illustrations courses.

Integrated media has equal importance alongside radio, press, poster and TV, according to the course leader, Lin Sinclair. The third year is spent solely on building up books, working to the tight deadlines of agency life and pursuing jobs.


Course: BA (Hons) graphic arts and design

Duration: Three years

Further information: 0113 283 2600

The course leader, Alice Morgan, claims the university's recent £1.5 million revamp of its graphics workshops is testament to the success of the course. It is competitive from the word go, with Morgan fielding more than 700 applications for 100 places every year.

She stresses that, while the course is structured to include practical, social and cultural theory as well as placements and in-house projects, the success of its students relies on ideas and their implementation.

"Following a rigid pattern year in year out doesn't make sense, as the industries they are aiming to enter are so fickle," Morgan says. She particularly recommends a three-year course, saying that it gives students time to mature.


Courses: BA (Hons) visual communication

BA (Hons) art and design

HND advertising graphics

Duration: Degrees, three years; HND, two years

Further information: 0113 202 8000

The three courses offered by this college, accredited by the University of Leeds, give a wide choice to graphics students aiming for a job in advertising.

The HND course teams students up, focuses on ideas, some theory and developing their books for the job market. They can tack on a further year's study to gain a degree.

The visual communication course encourages placements in Leeds and London and offers graphics plus illustration, film and photography and advertising.

The art and design degree course is good for students who want to use a broader range of media, including ceramics, printwork and digital imagery.


Course: BA (Hons) graphic design

Duration: Three years

Further information: 01603 610561

The beauty of the Norwich course is its variety, according to the senior lecturer Ray Gregory, who teaches students in their final year. "No-one can specialise before they've sampled all the options," he says.

They include photography, animation, illustration, drawing and design for publishing. He claims that although the number of students entering the ad industry after the course is small, its core purpose - generating and developing ideas - makes it useful for students wanting to work in advertising. Students do not work in teams, reflecting the course's focus on the design industry, and most placements are taken with pure design agencies. Norwich also offers an HND in graphics, which takes two years.