Feature

IPA Diploma: How the Diploma makes a difference

The IPA Excellence Diploma exercises a profound and far-reaching effect on all who take part, as delegates, past delegates and mentors all attest.

HOW IT CHANGED MY LIFE

Opening my mind to exciting opportunities

- Victoria Findlay account director, Freud Communications (previously account director, FCB)

Three years ago, it felt as if my love affair with advertising was over, and it was time to move on to pastures new. But when I was put forward for the IPA Excellence Diploma, my inner square couldn't resist the prospect of piles of reading and colour-coded study guides.

Now, well over a year since completing the course, I have enough distance from the stress of deadlines and marketing book fatigue to appreciate just what the course did for me.

The Diploma has helped me adopt a more lateral and innovative approach to business. But, even more importantly, I now approach each challenge with renewed passion for the industry, and adopt a broader outlook on how we can achieve the best results for our clients.

In 15 months, the Diploma exposes you to a breathtaking and exciting array of experiences, from lectures and guidance from renowned industry leaders, through contact and debate with peers from other disciplines, to a reading list that would challenge even the most bookish of librarians.

And it is this reading list that is at the core of it all. Having so much carefully researched information at my fingertips has given my confidence a huge boost when dealing with colleagues and clients. It feels great to be able to call on case studies and relevant examples to support a strategy or an execution, rather than having to resort to traditional account management bluster and gut-feelings. And the broad range of subjects covered allowed me to step away from the reality of my day-to-day role and explore important areas such as the measuring of effectiveness, and the implications of media fragmentation.

As the industry continues to morph, we are all aware that traditional approaches may no longer suit the new landscape. The Diploma opened my mind to the exciting opportunities that this change is bringing.

- Sarah McBeath associate communications planning director, OMD UK

"During the Diploma itself, it was a case of head down and get through the reading. However, a year on, I can see how it has helped me improve in almost every aspect of the job, giving me perspective on broader issues than just media communications, more rigour in my planning, and greater usefulness when talking to clients. I now see my career in terms of pre- and post-Diploma. I definitely prefer the post-Diploma me."

- Steve Hopkins senior strategist, Mother (previously senior planner at McCann Erickson)

"In almost every profession, an understanding of its history, and the future challenges it faces, are vital for anybody who wishes to work within it. Doctors, for example, could not do their jobs unless they understood the history of medicine and what future healthcare models look like. The same applies to communications. The Diploma gave me this vital context of past and future communications."

- Mark Kirby business director, communications, MindShare Media

"The Diploma reinforced the fact that creativity and imagination often come from reinterpreting existing learning. The challenge is to allow the past to help liberate future thinking. The Diploma also helped me understand it is so important to apply your own personality to your work. As an industry, we are in danger of relying on process and tools to sell ideas, when what clients really want are passionate people who understand their business."

MENTORS' PERSPECTIVES

- Jo Reid planning director, WCRS, mentor to Anna Hellyer

"I'll be whatever you'd like me to be," I naively said, when talking about what Anna wanted from her mentor. Not a promise I've made often, but knowing what I know now, it seems a prescient one to have made.

The scale of the challenge became apparent when the first batch of big blue files of reading material arrived - materials which I was going to have to assimilate, too. Some of it was well-known words of wisdom from the big names (stuff you assume you've read), and the rest was stuff that makes you wonder guiltily how you've survived in advertising so long, having subsisted on novels and celebrity magazines.

But I realised being a good mentor was less about helping to absorb, interrogate and use vast amounts of content, and more about helping to create sufficient time, space and freedom for Anna to tackle questions of a nature unfamiliar in the daily grind of an account director, and to approach new subjects with originality.

Understandably, it's hard for an agency to strike a balance between capitalising on the current abilities of their star employees and investing time in developing their skills for the future. As each deadline approaches, so will pitches and client demands. An extremely valuable job for the mentor is to help defend, with lioness ferocity, precious spare time for coursework.

But there's more to the role than animal analogies. There are sporting ones, too: shouting morale-building encouragement, providing metaphorical oranges when panic sets in, cheering success when the assignment results come through. But, torturing the analogy further, a mentor is in the pitlane, not the driving seat. The person you're mentoring does the skilful bit; you're there to ensure they feel confident, are equipped to push themselves, and to be a gently objective resource for spell checking and fine tuning.

So what has mentoring taught me? First, 'mentor' doesn't do justice to such a varied role: confidante, critical friend and PR manager would be more accurate. And second, since I'll probably end up working for these IPA graduates, I'd better re-read the blue files.

- Henry Rowe managing director, Carat Digital, mentor to Ian John Edwards

After agreeing that Ian's stretch objectives were smart and challenging, I set to work on an interactive two-year project timeline, with bi-monthly 360-degree appraisals designed to ... no, hang on, that's what I imagined my approach would be.

In reality, it was more of an ad-hoc, two-way relationship with Ian managing me as much as I was supporting him. I did try to behave like the wise old man of media (for which I have zero qualifications), but the reality was more like an amateur sports coach, cajoling and encouraging more than it was inspiring and educational. Our best moments came from our ongoing chats. It was more out of the blue than pre-planned guidance.

During the writing, I like to think I refined Ian's approach, but I suppose my secret fear is that I stifled it with my classic Virgo personality. In many instances, Ian delivered the bigger picture while I helped with the minutiae, but therein lies a good partnership. As a mentor, you take on the role needed to balance the relationship.

I did learn that good mentoring comes from a genuine two-way partnership, and on a more philosophical note, the varied debates we had showed me that two heads are better than 100 lonely souls. Frighteningly, the role allowed me to step back and think about the bigger questions such as "Advertising. What's it all about?" and "Brands. What's their value in a world of infinite consumer connectivity?". I can assure you these are not questions you want to think about if you are approaching a mid-career crisis in media! Ian mentored me through this stage.

Ian scooped one of the two special prizes (The DDS Award for Outstanding Body of Work), and for that I am very proud of our work together, while knowing Ian could have done it without me, but I could not have done it without him. Key mentoring skill number one: bring the illusion of inspiration and serenity to every aspect of the project.

And I enjoyed stepping back for a few months to add to the debate from an intellectual rather than an implementational place.

HOW IT WAS FOR ME

Entering 'The Age of the Conscience'

- Caroline Rich senior account director, Saatchi & Saatchi

"No, I haven't passed my bar exams, but don't worry, I've read enough John Grisham to know how it's done.

"Yes, this is ridiculous. No-one would give a large proportion of their money to someone they don't have concrete proof is capable of representing their interests effectively. Or would they?"

Although predominantly for effect, this opening line does give pause for thought on exactly how we can believe that, after a few years working within an agency, we are thereby entitled to assume responsibility for a client's brand and, in turn, its business.

The IPA's goal to formalise our industry with a qualification process that goes some way towards instilling confidence in that responsibility is a gallant and timely one.

We need only look at the quality of the opinion delivered by its graduates to see why the IPA Excellence Diploma can help achieve that goal. Perhaps that is a grandiose statement, being a graduate myself, but such is the confidence that I have gained from the Diploma.

I remember reading the first supplement with trepidation as I sought to learn about my predecessors. This soon turned to horror as I realised the standard to which I would have to demonstrate thinking, not just on brands, but on so much more.

However, having waded through the first 12 months, gaining a valuable piece of knowledge from each of the six modules (brands, channels, people, measurement, creativity and leadership), my fellow delegates and I emerged triumphant with the full jigsaw, chomping at the bit to write our missives on how it really is and how it really should be.

So how do we solve the latest challenges facing our industry? Are there any new challenges at all, or is it the working of the industry PR machine to ensure clients revere us as the only Sherpas able to guide them through the increasingly complex marketplace? Is it really that complex? What do we think is the future for brands?

This is the joy of the Diploma. Not only does it teach a more robust understanding of this industry, but it also demands you formulate your own individual opinion.

For example, how often have you given yourself sufficient time to think about what you do?

Any soul-searching is usually confined to thoughts of "Next year, I really am going to take my entire holiday allowance" and "Could I have made it as a rock star?" But have you ever thought about what you actually do, rather than just what establishment you do it for? It is with this train of thought that the Diploma begins.

The day that I have renamed "Blue Tuesday" was the day I found the first blue binder of (double-sided) reading material on my desk. Its arrival, and that of its partner a week later, did little to warn me of how much the successive deliveries would go on to structure my social life - and even my sleep. Yes, I even started to dream in advertising vernacular!

But I quickly got into my stride, finding new ways of reading and places to "just get through one more article". I soon reduced each mountain into, well, OK, a hill.

Ever-committed to growing a new generation of hardened thinkers, the deservedly venerated module editors (having already painstakingly chosen not just the books we should read, but the passages within them, too) set about briefing us at the start of each module, making it clear how they'd like to see us develop our thinking.

They even made themselves available for mid-module panic sessions, although I found it more useful to get my mentor to talk me in off the ledge. Since he wasn't marking my papers, he wouldn't have to question my theories in the context of my sanity.

This is why the mentor's role is key to the Diploma. Mine not only gave me the necessary counselling needed two-thirds of the way into every module, but also challenged my theories, forcing me to better articulate them and to compel my audience.

Each module prompted six weeks of alternating pride, self-deprecation, fleeting arrogance, not so fleeting self-doubt and, finally, measured satisfaction, as each of my pieces, peppered with juicy anecdotes from the reading material, winged their way through cyberspace to the IPA.

And how fitting it was that the section of the website through which one entered each thinkpiece was called the "delivery room". Not aptly named for me, just because it featured the Saatchi & Saatchi "Pregnant Man" ad, but for the insight that each time you submitted your thinking, it would be like handing over a child after an excruciating labour (that you would immediately forget about come the date of your subsequent "Blue Tuesday").

As one might expect, I got wiser as the Diploma progressed. For example, it wasn't until the third module that I plucked up enough courage to challenge the theory of someone who'd had four books published and made a name for themselves outside the advertising circle ...

But, having completed the six modules, and trying to craft as many points as possible into the appropriately minimal word allowance, it really got exciting when we could write with free abandon on our subject of choice.

What, given our newly robust knowledge of the industry, do we think is next? What is the future for brands and how do we navigate our clients towards that?

This was by far the most rewarding part for me. Although I have a degree, I've never felt truly academic, and yet, here I was, at the end of 12 months and six modules, ready to put all my brand theories into one basket. Therefore, it was with a renewed vigour that I plunged myself into Mintel reports, TGI and even the Government's inner sanctum as I prepared to write on a subject I am most passionate about.

I believe that the future of brands is in responsibility, and that we are in "The Age of the Conscience".

That we are in an era in which consumers think about the far-reaching implications of almost every purchase made. Whether in the end they decide to shop responsibly or not, with each choice, consumers are making informed representations of how much they care about the effect of their actions on their surroundings and the global community.

I wrote that consumers and brands alike needed help in understanding how to be "responsible", because, from my extensive research, and the copious quantity of materials supplied in the previous year by the IPA, I discovered that the need for responsible brand behaviour is there, and the desire is there, but that the path is not.

I set about creating this path by outlining ten clear, simple steps for brands to follow should they wish to successfully include a responsible agenda into their business models.

I would never have been able to make such a reasoned argument had the Diploma not given me the tools to focus my opinions (not to mention the confidence to share them with whomever I could get to listen - and if you're still reading this, that now includes you).

If the IPA wanted to deliver (all the way up to) 11 children of a new generation, confident to lead the way in making brands more appealing than their competitors to the ever-savvy consumer of today, then in my opinion, I believe it has achieved its aim.