What I learned about advertising in college.


I learned my profession from one of the best universities in the country for advertising – the University of Oregon. In fact, when I was there, they were one of only a handful of colleges offering a degree specifically in Advertising. However it was only after I graduated that I began to realize how great of education I got there.

Back then, not many (if any) other universities had Dan Wieden or Tracy Wong teach a seminar or speak to your copywriting class. Hell, back then, not many colleges even had copywriting classes. But beyond any of that, U of O made sure to teach you the fundamental principles of advertising – principles that, unfortunately, I’m seeing less and less of each day.

So I figured it was a good time to revisit what I learned in college.

You must start with a concept. It’s sad how often this doesn’t happen. How often is it decided you’re going to do rich media before you even know if the idea needs rich media? I hear “Let’s come up with something using Foursqaure” way too much, since Foursqaure is a tactic, not a concept. And if I hear the client start out with “We want a viral video” one more time, I’m going to puke.

Have a USP. The idea of a Unique Selling Proposition seems to have disappeared from advertising completely these days, which is wrong. Today, more than ever, we need to communicate a clear reason to buy one product over another. Think there are too many parity products? Bullshit. That’s just lazy thinking. Check out these Snickers spots – one worked hard to come up with a way to own a true product benefit. The other one is just some hacks wasting the client’s money by producing crap.

Never settle for your first idea. Too often a writer will bring me 3 or 4 headlines to take a look at… and they’re the only 3 or 4 headlines they’ve tried. Or they’ll write one version of the body copy… and nothing else. Or I’ll see an art director who spent all day working a design in InDesign… and that’s all they’ll show. Your initial ideas are the most obvious ones – not the best.

Sweat the details. We knew how to kern properly – not just let the computer sloppily do it. We knew why it was important to write a headline in six words instead of ten if we could do it. We reworked copy to eliminate widows and weird line breaks. We knew there was a difference between “over” and “more than.”

If it doesn’t match the brief, you don’t get an A. It doesn’t matter if you write the funniest commercial in history – if it doesn’t communicate the key message clearly, you’ve failed. If it’s derivative or could be for anyone, you get a C. Try and do something cool-but-unrelated and then tack on the client’s logo at the end? D. Unfortunately, about 80% of advertising falls into these categories. (Which is why most advertising sucks.)

I think if we went back to the basics that we learned (or should have learned) in college, advertising as a whole would be a lot better off. At the very least, we’d have to endure a lot fewer Fs.


2 Responses to “What I learned about advertising in college.”

  1. 1 Joe

    Do you think that with the boom in “Advertising Schools” in the last 10-15 years that there are better prepared Jr’s now, or just a more watered down pool?

  2. 2 dognpony

    It’s a little of both.

    The kids with talent who would have otherwise taken 2 or 3 years as juniors to know what they were doing, now may only need a year or two to start figuring things out. They come in better prepared.

    But then there’s a ton of no-talent kids who get shuttled through the system and graduate with an advertising degree even though they have no talent, no work ethic or no real love for the career in the first place. Luckily, most of those kids don’t last too long once they’re out in the real world.

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