Looking for a way to mix book smarts with street smarts

—Deciphering dense academic jargon and theoretical musings can be difficult in an industry obsessed with speed, says Éric Blais—

University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Charles Harold Sandage is widely hailed as the “father” of advertising education.

Originally a professor of journalism, he noted the shortcomings in the then-existing advertising classes, and championed the creation of a fuller curriculum, leading to the birth of an advertising department in 1959.

His textbook Advertising Theory and Practice, first published in 1936, was an integral part of my education at Université Laval in Québec City in the early 1980s.

I haven’t looked at it since. Not due to its irrelevance, but because it diverged from the real-world nuances of planning, developing, and monitoring advertising in the roller-coaster-like day-to-day operations of an ad agency.

It’s telling that when I joined Young & Rubicam in 1983, I was required to attend the CAAP course. Offered by the ICA, the Certified Advertising Agency Practitioner course was delivered by industry veterans, and its teachings echoed the realities of advertising, transcending mere textbook theories.

Don’t get me wrong, I read many advertising books before my first job interview in advertising in order to learn about the craft. One of them was Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising, written in 1923. His teachings included prescriptions such as “Being specific—Are you being specific enough in your advertising? By using specific facts you can increase sales and out perform your competitors.”

David Ogilvy, whose own book Ogilvy on Advertising is considered one of the essential advertising guidebooks, thought Hopkins’ book should be required reading: “Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times. It changed the course of my life.”

I doubt anyone working in ad agencies today has read it once, let alone seven times.

In fact, most advertising professionals today haven’t read academic books about advertising. I conducted a small, unscientific survey of advertising colleagues, which revealed that some have read biographies of ad legends, or books with the lessons learned of celebrated advertising practitioners. While these books might not boast academic rigour, their authors compensate with indispensable insights and guidance.

Terry O’Reilly is one of those authors with much to teach, and a gift for telling stories we can learn from. The advertising copywriter, best known as host of the CBC Radio One series Under the Influence, is also the author of two books: The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture, published in 2009, and This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under The Influence, published in 2017.

O’Reilly was born in 1959. That doesn’t make him old, but in the ad business—an industry I once heard described as a high school social club with money—he’s an elder, with the authority that comes from age and experience. And he’s made it easy for those starting a career in advertising—who are likely used to listening to books rather than reading them—to learn a ton from 11 seasons of shows with topics ranging from “Passport Revoked: When Brands Fail Internationally,” to “The Future Is Furry: Animals In Advertising.”

And if there is less reading going on, there are also fewer formal in-agency training programs. In the mid 80s, I was fortunate to spend a month in New York City attending Young & Rubicam’s advertising skills workshop with 20 other young staffers from around the world. It was a rich learning experience, but a very expensive one. And it delivered a low return on investment, since many who attended would eventually leave for another shop.

Of course, some agencies still have in-house training programs, or “lunch ’n learn” sessions on a variety of topics, but they often lack the regularity and rigour of structured programs with a curriculum.

I have long thought that we did a poor job of leveraging the wealth of information and learning available through academic journals such as the Journal of Advertising Research, of Marketing, of Consumer Research, of International Marketing, of Public Policy & Marketing, to name a few.

Most of them are of little use to practitioners. Ever tried translating an academic paper into a pitch presentation?

Written by professors and researchers, they discuss theoretical constructs of academia that often use specialized terminology that can be difficult to grasp. The dense, jargon-heavy language often makes them more cryptic than a crossword puzzle.

But our industry must operate at lightning speed. Campaigns need to be drafted, approved, and launched within tight timelines. While academic articles provide valuable depth, they often lack the immediacy that practitioners crave. We need insights, and we need them now. Theoretical musings, no matter how profound, can’t always keep pace with the breakneck speed of advertising.

While academics seek to advance knowledge, practitioners are in the trenches, grappling with real-world challenges, tight budgets, and demanding clients. These worlds, though related, have different endgames.

Still, our industry needs to harness as much knowledge as possible to deliver value to clients.

Imagine the formidable advantage if we could seamlessly integrate the rich insights of academia with the hands-on expertise of the industry. We’d have the best of both worlds: the depth of theory, complemented by the pulse of practice.

Perhaps it’s time for a new chapter in advertising education, one that champions a synergistic blend of academia and industry. AI tools like Chat GPT could learn from a century of theory and practice and offer a synthesized, accessible version of advertising wisdom. An “open” one, searchable by anyone that has anything to do with advertising.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.com

Eric Blais