Ogilvy & Mather account planner Nick Docherty says that the greater professionalism the IPA Excellence Diploma promotes is a valuable goal for anyone involved in advertising.
In late 2004, I was asked if I would be interested in taking part in something called the IPA Excellence Diploma. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but it sounded a bit like one of those "Jeffrey Archer" degrees that you can send off for from the University of Upper Dakota. I was assured that this was a bona fide attempt to professionalise the communications industry and that a qualification of some kind would be involved.
With nothing but a decidedly non-vocational History degree to my name, this sounded like a Good Thing, so I agreed to give it a go. But the concept of "professionalisation" alarmed me slightly - bringing to mind rather grave, staid areas of expertise such as accountancy and law, quite divorced from the rather more colourful world of communications.
I embarked on the Diploma with the vague notion that this would be a bid to get us all to wear suits to work and behave more like bankers. Fifteen months later and I am the proud owner of two shiny bits of Perspex attesting to my Distinction and the DDS Award for Outstanding Body Of Work - and a rather different perspective on the value of professional qualifications in the communications industry.
The Diploma officially began with about 30 of us, from a variety of media and advertising agencies, turning up to a three day kick-off session in January 2005. Most of us had very little idea what we were letting ourselves in for.
A number of industry luminaries took it in turns to introduce us to the six key modules we would cover, encompassing brands, consumers, channels, creativity, measurement and leadership. It was very inspiring and we managed to combine work with a pleasing amount of alcohol-related play. We were suitably warned about the commitment the Diploma represented, but its scale only really hit home when I got into work one Monday morning to find two big cardboard boxes containing more than 40 books and articles. My account director had stuck a Post-It note to them, on which she had simply written: "Unlucky." This would prove to be a frequent occurrence as, with gruesome inevitability, new loads arrived at the beginning of every module. Over the next year-and-a-quarter, my greatest challenge would be to keep motivated in the face of a demanding job, a huge forest of reading and a 2,000-word essay to write every couple of months.
While the reading was a good way of ensuring we were all familiar with a range of thought at the cutting edge of the communications industry, I would not say spending a Sunday afternoon perusing Giep Franzen's Brand Equity: Concept and Research, when all your mates are down the pub, was much of a laugh.
Instead, I found that it was writing the essays at the end of every section that really brought the Diploma to life. Unlike other professional exams, which tend to focus on regurgitating information, the majority of the Diploma's marks were awarded for originality. The only stipulations were that each paper had to represent a personal belief, reference the reading and be directly applicable to the real world. As far as I was concerned, this meant I could have some fun.
I called my first piece "Tony Hart's Oak Tree" and managed to weave modern art, Morph, Oliver Sachs and Marcel Duchamp into a point of view on the nature of brands. A Distinction and some positive feedback from the module editors encouraged me. Subsequent papers included "The Goodfellas Principle" (based, of course, on the concept of respect) and "Just In Time Evaluation" (which applied common manufacturing principles to brand measurement). All the papers forced me to take a step back and think. When you are going about your day job, you rarely have the time or the inclination to challenge long-held beliefs, so getting the chance to do so was liberating.
After 15 months of late nights and lost weekends, the graduation ceremony was held at the IPA in June. It was a great night all round and particularly satisfying to win a special award after all that work. But other than some nice gongs for the mantelpiece, was it worth all the effort?
On balance, I think it was. An important consequence of the Diploma for me has been an increase in confidence - whether in formulating strategy, debating creative work or discussing broader marketing issues with senior clients. The IPA Excellence Diploma seems to have pulled off the neat trick of being both inspirational and applicable. And, more generally, I think promoting greater professionalism can only be a good thing. As long as the Diploma continues both to develop expertise and to encourage originality, I am sure it will come to be seen as the mark of a new professionalism - a qualification more in the spirit of Jeremy Bullmore than Jeffrey Archer.
"I found the course hard work. It needed a lot of commitment across the 15-month duration, but it seems to have been worth it. I think it is about time that there were examinations in this industry; all other industries appointed by clients have to go through rigorous training and be qualified." - Adam Hopkinson, business director, Target Media
"I feel like a different person after finishing the Diploma - more confident, contributing more to a client's business and to pitches, developing my own point of view, nominated for the Scottish Marketing Society Young Marketer of the Year Award, put forward for Drum's '30 Under 30 People to Watch', still the only person outside of London to have the Diploma, attending workshops and reading material organised by some of the best people in our industry." - Gillian McGhee, account director, Frame Agency
"The Diploma created time and space for me to think beyond the immediate issues on my business. It gave me a broader pool of reference to draw upon, and enabled us all to think bigger about the future of the industry and what our role in it might be." - Natalie Willbe (nee Tennyson), account director, TBWA\London and AMV BBDO
"As an account executive, the most useful piece of advice I ever received was never to stop learning. Completing the Diploma has been a hugely rewarding experience. It provided the perfect opportunity to remove oneself from the coal face, interrogate our business and ultimately form an opinion on the future of our industry." - Antony Hill, account director, JWT
- The DDS Award for Outstanding Body of Work is awarded to the candidate with the most Distinctions across the IPA Excellence Diploma's six core modules and the highest mean score across these modules.