Close-Up: Live issue - Are art colleges adapting for the digital age?

Are top art colleges doing enough to prepare adland's next creative stars for success in the digital future, Danielle Long asks.

As the academic year draws to a close, more than 80 graduates from colleges such as Watford, Central St Martins College of Art and Design and Buckinghamshire are preparing to start beating down the doors of advertising agencies, hoping to get a leg-up into the ad industry.

But as the market changes, and ad agencies reorganise around integrated models and digital divisions, how are colleges preparing students for the digital future?

"At Watford, and in the industry, it's all about the strategic idea," Tony Cullingham, the driving force behind the Creative Advertising course at Watford, says. "If young teams can out-think others with different routes which sell brands, then they will be snapped up."

He adds: "A lot of my students are getting jobs in digital agencies, such as Lean Mean Fighting Machine, Dare, glue London, AKQA and Tribal, because they are strategic thinkers. They don't have any special digital training. The agencies can train the technical side in the work trial."

Cullingham has taught the course since the late 80s, and he says the number of digital briefs has rapidly increased in the past couple of years. This has given students a greater exposure to how digital campaigns are shaped.

"We do workshops with agencies, and the training is largely done on the hoof by answering the agency briefs. Advertising is about ideas. Always has been. Always will be.

"At Watford, our philosophy is based on an old Chinese proverb: 'A leaf is a thought that needs rescue from the wind', which means, get your idea nailed on paper, and then see where it goes from there."

At London's Central St Martins, Clive Challis, the head of advertising studies, echoes his counterpart. He believes the best way to prepare students for the ad market is by encouraging them to think "big" and strive for that "big idea".

"Advertising is all about ideas. You need to train people to use their thinking muscles before you show them how to make a print ad. If you've got people who can do that, then they are going to get hired," Challis reckons.

He adds: "As far as teaching digital, we don't really teach the heavyweight technical stuff. My view is that you don't want to get too good at the washing-up."

Colleges are doing something right, with increasing numbers of graduates finding work at digital agencies. Last year, around 20 per cent of Watford graduates found creative jobs in digital, as did the majority from St Martins.

But even for those who don't go on to work in digital advertising, this generation's inherent understanding of new technologies and media must be an advantage in the integrated workplace.

Martin McAlister and Theo Bayani, creatives at TBWA\London, who graduated from Central St Martins in 2006, believe students have such a "good grounding in digital", that it is better to teach them how to think about creating ideas.

"The course prepared us a bit for digital, but we were never taught how a digital brief works practically, in the same way that we were never taught how a TV brief works practically," McAlister says.

The pair, who completed placements at Mother and TBWA\, believe the digital skills can easily be picked up on the job.

McAlister continues: "I don't think our course did prepare us all that much for digital. I don't think it needed to. Digital does require a slightly different mindset, and the new crop of graduates have that mindset inherently. As long as the ideas are strong enough, and you know the landscapes, you can pick the rest up on the job."

Across the industry, views about the requisite levels of digital preparation for graduates are mixed.

"Young creatives don't have any problem with 'digital'; they have grown up with it. It remains all about ideas that can be expressed in any medium," John O'Keeffe, the executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says.

But it's a completely different story in digital agencies.

Seb Royce, the creative director of glue London, argues that an inherent understanding of digital media is not necessarily enough for a career in digital.

He says: "Just because someone has a great understanding of digital, it doesn't mean they will be great at digital advertising. They need an understanding of the basics, and the dynamics of good copywriting, good design and good ideas.

"The colleges are not preparing students for digital. Luckily for us, their eagerness to learn outweighs how unprepared they are."

Royce says one of the big problems with advertising courses is that, in many cases, the students' understanding of digital is ahead of their tutors' and lecturers'.

Challis admits he is sometimes baffled by his students' work. "There are times when something appears in a 'crit' that I don't understand, but I get them to explain it. They're already creating integrated campaigns using new technology."

According to Royce, tutors need to take an interest in online work; they need to understand it so they can let their knowledge filter down to their students.

"Students are ahead of tutors because they're living it. It's hard for tutors to get to a level where they know more about digital than students. It will be tricky until they embrace it and we write a book about digital advertising," Royce says.

The colleges maintain that with limited time to teach students, the most important role they can play is to train strategic minds.

"The new generation of students are old masters at the new technology," Cullingham says. "They are interacting, creating, sharing, and are self-taught about the opportunities of digital media in a way their parents couldn't be with traditional media such as TV or posters. The engagement and involvement is the lesson. Carry on teaching about strategies and ideas. That's what will make them hireable."

The digital agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine was more than happy to hire the Watford graduates Claire Baker and Zoe Hough, despite the two not having any digital experience. Equally, Baker, who graduated three years ago, maintains that she isn't too concerned if a team comes to the agency with limited digital experience, just as long as they have good ideas.

She says: "It's all about strategic thinking and the big idea."

Baker thinks if ad courses could do anything better, it would be to provide a greater focus on interactivity and the practical possibilities for engaging digital audiences.

She says: "The main thing is learning about engagement. The hardest thing is getting someone to interact with your ad. If courses can get people thinking more about that and combine that with strategic thinking, it would be great practice for the digital market."

Cullingham agrees: "The trick for new creatives is to stay media-neutral. A thought can go anywhere. How it manifests itself is largely a straightforward process; and the creative mind doesn't demarcate in terms of media.

"What colleges need to train is attitude, resilience and energy. They need to prepare students for rejection and failure, and how to rise above that. Success is not about how high you go. It's about how well you bounce."