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Branding and the Liberal Arts

September 10, 2014

This post first appeared on Advertising Week’s Social Club blog. Visit their blog to learn more about advertising and branding from some of the brightest minds in the industry.

Warning – this post is hopelessly biased, full of gross generalization, and relies on anecdotal evidence to make a provocative point. Yet with each passing day, I feel more strongly that the profusion of pre-professional undergraduate advertising programs does a disservice to our industry and, most importantly, to those who seek a rewarding career in it.

The Advertising major clearly helps people get that internship or first job, but what are the academic credentials of those who get the big jobs several years later or who become truly great? They often come from liberal arts backgrounds. The reasons? Industry skills and practices can be learned on the job; cultural literacy and emotional intelligence cannot. Furthermore, great marketing is about connecting dots, something one cannot easily do unless he/she knows where the dots are located in the first place.

For those fortunate enough to have the time and space to ‘find themselves,’ the purpose of an undergraduate education is not to get a job but to make a life. This belief led me to mighty Davidson College, a quintessential liberal arts institution, where I majored in political science and graduated with no clue of what lay ahead.

I was drawn to political philosophy in particular, dealing as it did with fundamental questions of how free societies should be organized and what justice truly means. I expected to wind up in Washington DC because the seat of government is where those big ideas are passionately debated every day, right? Talk about naiveté!

After falling into an entry-level position with a branding agency, I fell madly in love with strategy. Now, almost 20 years later, I have the perspective to see why. Both political philosophy and brand strategy are about constructing systems of belief, galvanizing people with ideas, romanticizing the ordinary, and clearly defining differences.

Young people intrigued by this industry, take heed: if you are lucky enough to have the leeway to figure things out as you go, I implore you to only take functionally-driven advertising courses if you can layer them on top of a well-rounded educational core. Don’t take Consumer Behavior until you’ve completed a few Psychology courses. Don’t take Creative Strategy until you’ve taken enough Art, Music, Lit and Theater to fill your soul. Don’t take The History of Advertising until you appreciate history in general. And please take Economics to understand the forces that shape businesses and what your future clients will be thinking about.

From the perspective of a hiring manager, it makes sense to place a person who has the academic preparation to pay dividends from day 1 – but entry level hiring (and certainly advancement) is about realizing potential. Too many Advertising majors will start their careers 3 months ahead of liberal arts grads, yet will have unwittingly placed a ceiling on their potential. By 6 months, entry-level liberal arts grads will surpass their pre-professional peers and the gap will widen from there.

Our industry has always been short on businesspeople – rigorously pre-professional courses of study now threaten to leave us short on thinkers as well. Advertising, broadly defined, is not electrical engineering – the right preparation is to expand one’s mind, not to narrow and groove it.

Bill Gullan, President

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