The “Real Classroom” vs. the Real World: Did an “Innovative” Approach to Advertising 101 Prepare Me for the My Job?

For those of you who don’t know, my educational background is not in business. No, I double majored in psychology and history. However, while in college I did take a handful of electives in business as something practical in case I didn’t head to grad school immediately after graduation. Most of these courses were like any other class. There were terms to memorize and concepts to understand, as well as the occasional test to study for. However, a couple of these classes, to one degree or another, had professors who prided themselves on implementing what they saw as an innovative approach to teaching: setting up a classroom environment based on what we should expect to encounter once we entered the real world.

More than one of my professors talked about doing this, but only one truly followed through. In other business classes, I found myself working on group projects with my classmates, and these were no different than working on a group project in any other class. Best case scenario, I’m working with friends and the group project is just one extra thing to talk about while hanging out at Starbucks or picking up lunch at Café Baci between classes, or maybe while standing in line at a movie. Worst case scenario, I’m the one conscientious person in a group of underage alcoholics and stoners, during a time of year when one of the local sports teams just made the playoffs. The idea was that, like the real world, you had to learn to work with a group of diverse people, each with their own schedules and their own baggage, and that at the end of the day, if you wanted to succeed, you would have to work together.

However, as I said, only one class, my introduction to advertising course, truly implemented the idea of the classroom-workplace. The class was not a class, but an ad agency. Our professor was not a professor, but a client. We were not students, but admen. And, some of us even got to be group leaders or team mangers. The result though, often made me believe that the ad agency I was working at was one you might see on TV or in a movie.

But what TV show or movie was I stuck in?  Definitely not Mad Men. We weren’t well dressed and charismatic, taking three lunchtime martinis and flirting with attractive secretaries between serious meetings where our Don Draper would have a moment of inspiration that would lead to an ingenious advertising campaign. We weren’t even like Darren Stevens and Larry Tate on Betwitched because at least they still presumably got stuff done, despite the many misadventures caused by Darren’s wife’s twitching nose. No, we were more like that bad comedy you saw last March, but can’t remember the name of. You know the one where the screenwriters needed a stock-white-collar job for the lead character and thought something in medicine or law would require too much back-story. Yes, in this class we sat at oddly shaped tables, looked up brainteasers online, stared at cognitive illusions, and analyzed the deeper meaning of Super Bowl ads, all of which were supposed to get the old creative juices flowing, which, in turn, would help us think outside the box as we tossed the idea ball around. We also used a lot of jargon that didn’t mean anything. For our final exam, we had to describe the people we worked with for our group projects using car analogies: Who was the engine that got us going? Who were the headlights that allowed us to see clearly when things looked their darkest? Who was hood ornament who looked nice, but didn’t do anything useful?

Although I didn’t think to write it at the time, my answer to that last one should have been not a who but a what. And that what should have been the concept upon which the class was based. Why do I say that?

Because the artificial business environment which was supposed to instill a sense of professionalism in us was…well, artificial. At the end of the day we were still students in an introductory advertising class. Our group leaders had no real authority. And, if our client was unpleased, all anyone had to lose was a good grade, as opposed to a salary, a career, or a reputation. And, like any introductory class, there were a number of people without much interest or passion in the subject matter at hand who simply needed an elective and were more than happy to take a “C”.

So, to answer my question, if it is not obvious already, I can’t say the “Real Classroom” really helped prepare me for the real world. (Honestly, I would argue my two years of academic research were better preparation for my current position working in social media, but that’s a topic for another time). But, even worse, I don’t even feel the “Real Classroom” was that real.

Tell me, those of you currently working in advertising and marketing, those of you with several more years of experience than me: what shape is the table or desk you sit at? How much time have you spent this week staring at cognitive illusions for inspiration? And how does knowing how to take a baby, a dog, and a jar of rat poison across a lake in a tiny boat help you discover your next big ad campaign?

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