Why MBAs mean business

Studying for an MBA can damage your love life and invite the sneers of colleagues. Lucy Aitken talks to four survivors about their experiences and finds the industry waking up to the benefits of business training.

A recent US FedEx ad echoed the feelings of many a frustrated businessman when it featured a dorky MBA-graduate office worker reluctant to get his hands dirty organising shipments. The ad ends with the caustic strapline: "So fast and easy, even an MBA could do it."

MBA-bashing is common practice across many industries and advertising is no exception. Perhaps it's more keenly felt in advertising, though, where MBAs are as rare as hen's teeth and where "doing an MBA" can be a euphemism when a senior figure is pushed out of a high-profile job.

MBA courses have traditionally attracted high-fliers from industries such as investment banking or consultancy, rather than creatives. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that having more staff undertake rigorous programmes of eduction could help to sharpen business practice across the ad industry. MBAs are gradually creeping up agencies' agendas, particularly in the light of discussions about how to make creativity and business more congenial bedfellows.

MBA graduates can be evangelical about their courses, describing them as life-changing, character-building and damn hard work. An MBA is an intense undertaking, and it is not for the faint-hearted: the hours are long, the study is intense and you quickly forget what your partner looks like.

The London Business School makes no bones about it, warning MBA students that they will have two out of these three things by the end of the course: a job, a relationship and an MBA. They're not joking.

Marci Adler is an executive coach with First Class Coach and an MBA graduate of Wharton. She concurs that an MBA is a tough proposition, saying: "Some of the MBA students I talk to are in shock. They are not used to being students. They have forgotten how to study, revise, or even prepare for classes. That's a lot of adjustment to have to make. It's very high-pressure." But those with the stamina to stick at the course can reap enormous benefits.

Adler says: "People who have MBAs can bring a broader-based business perspective to their agencies and their clients. Many clients have MBAs, so it puts agency people on a more equal footing."

The IPA is starting to address the lack of training available for senior staff by introducing a customised part-time MBA in 2007. It plans either to partner an academic institution that already offers an appropriate MBA, or to create a tailored course.

Other plans under discussion include a proposal to broaden intake beyond advertising agencies to incorporate senior staff from other related disciplines such as direct marketing or public relations.

Currently, only a tiny minority of students - less than 5 per cent of the MBA intake at LBS - come from creative industries and the school is keen to attract more applications from this under-represented sector.

The new Centre for Creative Business is trying for its own slice of the pie, introducing a New Creative Ventures module for LBS MBA and Masters students, which they study alongside students from the University of the Arts in London.

Greg Orme, a former journalist, is the chief executive of CCB. Orme was so keen to study an Executive MBA at LBS that he remortgaged his house to acquire the necessary £30,000.

He remarks: "One reason that many small creative businesses are not achieving their potential is that their founders are not taking their continued professional development seriously enough.

"We all know that true creativity drives these companies. But strategic business and financial skills are also required to capture value. After doing an MBA you feel like your entire take on business changes."

It is usually up to agencies or holding companies to support staff studying for an MBA. One of the greatest factors holding management back from allowing their staff to disappear inside an ivory tower is fear: the worry that once they've got their bit of paper, they'll be off before you can say, "Can we make that forty grand a loan?"

"This is a hoary old chestnut for MBAs, especially those funded by businesses," Orme says. "But the way to stop MBA graduates from moving on is to recognise that they have a changed perspective and powerful skills. People move on when their bosses don't see them any differently."

The chairman of WPP, Martin Sorrell, studied an MBA at Harvard. He is one boss who recognises the value of MBAs - indeed, he actively champions what they can bring to the WPP stable. WPP's MBA programme, established in 1996, recruits fresh MBA graduates and gives them three year-long rotations at WPP companies.

Omnicom has a similar scheme. It is proving an effective means of attracting bright young things.

So if you have ever thought about taking an MBA, or about offering one to somebody that works for you, read the honest testimonies of the four survivors featured.

If, after reading them, you still think that the very idea of an MBA is pretentious, you can enjoy the following LBS gag: How do you know if someone's got an MBA? They tell you.

HELEN CALCRAFT: "It reignited my passion"

Course Executive MBA at the London Business School, 1997-1999

Summary: Allows students to combine intensive learning with a demanding career Cost £28,000 (cost today: £42,500)

Before: (and during) Business development director, Abbott Mead Vickers

Now: Managing director, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

"An MBA gives you a rounded business perspective and that has made a difference to how we work at MCBD. I am much more able to understand advertising's role in a business.

"Clients are impressed when you have an MBA and they always remark on it. We bleat about not having a place at the top table, but if you have insights into a client's business, they invite you. If you think advertising is fluffy and irrelevant, they don't.

"I found the MBA incredibly exhausting. I was working until 4am. I was at AMV from Monday to Thursday, at college on Fridays and Saturdays and working on Sundays. I dashed back to the office, morning, noon and night.

"I wouldn't recommend doing it unless you're incredibly motivated: I have two children under three and I sleep more now than I did then. But it reignited my passion for the industry. I didn't take one course in entrepreneurship and yet I ended up starting an agency.

"It also taught me that I had got a fantastic education in advertising.

Before my MBA, I was thinking about going into management consultancy, but frankly, I would rather chew my own leg off."

DAVID PATTISON: "They teach you how to think"

Course: Three-month Advanced Management Programme at the Harvard Business School, 1997 Summary Provides the framework for executives to overcome outside barriers and improve their capacity to lead

Cost: $40,000 plus expenses (cost today: $52,500)

Before: Co-founder of PHD

Now: Worldwide chief executive of PHD

"I was living in Boston for three months, away from my family and my work, and it was like a sabbatical.

"It was life-changing, a voyage of self-discovery: you're in there with 160 incredibly bright people from a range of different backgrounds from all around the world.

"AMV, and particularly the chairman, Michael Baulk, allowed me to go. Not having gone to university, I had always wanted to do it. I went about nine months after we sold the company to AMV. It was perfect timing - there was a lot of change in the marketplace.

"I went along thinking, 'They'll give me a book with all the answers for all the business problems I'm ever going to come across.' But instead they teach you how to think, not what to think. Things that seemed incredibly difficult when I went there seemed incredibly straightforward when I came back.

"You realise what a big world it is. If I hadn't done the MBA, I wouldn't have gone to live in New York for two years. I'd love to do some further education at some point in my life. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

RICHARD HYTNER: "It's exhausting and all-consuming"

Course: The Sloan Fellowship MSc at the London Business School, 2002-2003 Summary This one-year programme is for senior people who already have a strong track record of leadership and success

Cost: £34,000 (cost today: £40,000)

Before: Chief executive, Publicis

Now: Chairman and chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi EMEA

"The first thing they do on the programme is to invite partners to a dinner and beg forgiveness. Mentally, I checked out for a year, according to my wife.

"I had thought of doing the three-month Advanced Management Programme at Harvard, but I wanted a full year to test myself academically. This course is 16-hour days, seven days a week. It's exhausting and completely all-consuming.

"It's designed for people who've had a minimum of 15 years experience: the average age is 39. I studied with an internet entrepreneur from Poland, a drilling engineer from Shell, an IT consultant from the Lebanon, a corporate financier from Denmark and an Indian management consultant from Mumbai.

"In this industry, we're generally not grounded in business practice. That's fine, because we learn a client's business and fathom how communications can help. But inevitably, when you learn about corporate finance, economics and accounting, you get a wider context that is unbelievably helpful. You see the common challenges and start to view the world through a different lens."

DAVID MUIR: "An MBA gives you broader horizons"

Course: MBA at London Business School, 1999-2001

Summary: A 20-month programme that encourages students to integrate learning with real-life experiences in the workplace

Full-time cost: £23,000 (Cost today: £45,000)

Before: New-business director, O&M

Now: Group development director, O&M "In our industry, people job-hop so they have a narrow mindset and miss stimuli and ideas from other industries.

"The biggest thing that I took out of my MBA was how to think about my own company: there are some clever things being done and an MBA introduces you to them and gives you broader horizons.

"LBS is very international: my study group included a Russian diplomat, a Kiwi lawyer and an American nuclear physicist.

"I'm still in touch with people who were on my course. Sometimes I will turn to them if I encounter a problem at work, and that contact keeps me fresh.

"Look at Martin Sorrell: a lot of his success is down to diligence and effort and a lot of it is down to his network from Harvard.

"An MBA improves your financial skills, which is important: since media has come out of advertising agencies, there's less numeracy in our industry.

"If we are not able to make a case based on numeric grounds, budgets are at risk. I have just written a book about this and I wouldn't have been able to do that without an MBA."


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