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As the power of cyber technology as a marketing tool continues to grow, educational institutions are only beginning to realize the full potential of the major category (Lincoln, McCain and Bullock, 17). During the first months of 1, it was estimated that only 60 percent of American colleges and universities had developed home pages, and experts suggest that most of those schools were not deriving maximum benefit from their sites (Marklein, 1a). Despite their status as latecomers to the online revolution, many more institutions of higher education are expected to go online in the near future. As growth continues in this area, a number of studies examining the relationship between educational marketing and the web have been published (Drea and McNally, 17; Kittle and Ciba, 17; Lincoln, McCain and Bullock, 17).

For those schools that have adopted the cyber technology as a marketing tool, students are a primary audience for web contact. In fact, some observers argue that today’s students, many of them web savvy, are more careful and prepared shoppers when choosing a college or other post-secondary institution (Marklein, 1b). Students who want to study advertising are among this sophisticated consumer group, and their options are more numerous than ever before.

Since well before anyone heard the term Internet, advertising educators and practitioners have debated what kind of training best prepares creative students for a career in the field. As many of the most visible creative programs establish an online presence, we are gaining insight regarding the philosophies and practices that make each one unique. This paper summarizes the commentary on training advertising creators, examines online marketing of higher education and investigates how web sites are being used to position creative programs.

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How Should We Educate Advertising Creators?

There is no question that a good education is necessary for any student planning a career in advertising. However, there are lots of opinions on what constitutes a good education for young advertising creators. It is suggested that an advertising education can ground hopeful creators in the basics, spark them to extravagant inspiration and teach them how to sell themselves (Simko, 1, p. 17). For many years, aspiring art directors and copywriters entered the field with no formal training, or studied the discipline in a traditional college or university setting. Even though the teaching of advertising at the college level is a fairly recent development, some charge that higher education has failed or... been inconsequential in preparing students (Kendrick, Slayden and Broyles, 16, p. 64). Professionals and even some educators see a disconnection between the teaching of advertising creativity and the needs of industry. Perhaps in response to this lack of confidence, alternatives to college training have emerged in recent years. Most familiar are the portfolio-oriented programs like Portfolio Center and The Creative Circus. Although students can enroll immediately after high school, these non-degree programs are usually attended by college graduates as a supplement to an undergraduate education in advertising or another field of study. Proponents of the portfolio schools suggest that they complement, rather than threaten, traditional advertising curricula (Otnes, Spooner and Treise, 1, p. 14). Nevertheless, the advent of these programs is indicative of an effort to provide what many claim is missing in a traditional advertising education.

A primary selling point of these non-degree programs is that they offer highly-specialized, intensive training that makes their graduates job-ready. With so many graduates going after a comparatively small number of creative positions, students who can hit the ground running are what this environment demands (Simko, 1, p. 17). Programs like Portfolio Center are also known for using creative professionals as faculty, and industry publications agree that programs benefit greatly from having well-known stars on staff (Simko, 1, p. 18). But what exactly do these programs teach? Students who choose to study advertising take a collection of courses devoted exclusively to that topic. In most non-degree programs, students receive a decidedly thorough, and purposefully specific education. Industry has responded approvingly, hiring many portfolio program grads and elevating them to top creative posts. The students emerging from these programs are highly skilled, with better portfolios than many graduates of traditional advertising programs can or will produce (Simko, 1). But even the portfolio programs have their critics, some of whom suggest that these schools are pushing packaging over content, emphasizing executional skills at the expense of sound strategic thinking (Simko, 1, p. 18).

In recent years, research has examined the education of advertising creators in an effort to determine how best to train these students. Robbs (16) surveyed agency creative personnel nationwide and reports executional speed as one of the most valuable skills a student can learn. An earlier study suggests that technical and computer abilities are highly important (Otnes, Spooner and Treise, 1). Despite this evidence of industry’s appreciation for practical skills, studies are providing more overwhelming support for the idea that creative students need to become better thinkers (Kendrick, Slayden and Broyles, 16; Otnes, Spooner and Treise, 1; Robbs, 16). Concepting and strategic thinking are identified as highly important skills by new creators (those with less than two years experience on the job) in one study (Otnes, Spooner and Treise, 1). More experienced creative directors agree, complaining that many of the portfolios they review are heavy on execution and light on idea or concept and characterizing thinking skills as weak among many job candidates (Kendrick, Slayden and Broyles, 16, p. 7). Students should be encouraged to focus more closely on the conceptual and strategic areas, according to Robbs (16, p. ) and this sentiment is echoed in other research (Otnes, Oviatt and Treise, 15).

It seems clear that industry wants the best of both worlds -- students that are technically adept but also capable thinkers and strategists. Today, creative programs of all types are trying to deliver the whole package to employers. John Littlefield, chairman of the advertising department at the Art Center College of Design, acknowledges a shift in focus

Our tradition has been to turn out great art directors, but what we must now do is turn out well-rounded creative people. We’re putting more emphasis on marketing and even writing, but we have to be careful -- we can’t do this at the expense of art direction skills (Simko, 1, p. 17).

For universities, a history of teaching theory rather than thinking skills may demand a conceptual reframing of the role a university education can play in preparing students for entry-level creative positions, (Kendrick, Slayden and Broyles, 16, p. 7).

For universities, a history of teaching theory rather than thinking skills may demand a conceptual reframing of the role a university education can play in preparing students for entry-level creative positions, (Kendrick, Slayden and Broyles, 16, p. 7). Texas Creative, the world’s largest traditional creative training program in advertising, seems to understand the importance of being more responsive to industry demands. Housed at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas Creative attributes its status as an industry favorite to training smarter graduates by exposing them to course content outside the realm of advertising creativity (Cooper, 15, p. ). According to Advertising Age, the program at UT sticks to the profile of a cutting-edge ad department via continual revamping of teaching tactics in response to a contracting industry (Simko, 1, p. 17). I think what sets our program apart is that we graduate very well-rounded students, says Jack Reed, a lecturer in the Texas Creative program (Shuford, 16, p. 1). If well-rounded is synonymous with exposure to a wide variety of course content in addition to strong advertising training, industry leaders would say that programs like the one at UT are on the right track (Otnes, Oviatt and Treise, 15; Otnes, Spooner and Treise, 1).

Armed with the understanding that industry recruiters are looking for students with highly-developed technical/executional skills and great creative minds, every program claims to have the right formula for giving them what they want. Arguably, a program’s success or failure is measured by the viability of its graduates. But all of these schools, both portfolio and traditional, engage in an ongoing competition to recruit new students and market their best and brightest to the profession. One way to gauge this competitive battle is through an analysis of the recruitment and positioning strategies they employ.

Online Recruitment and Positioning Higher Education Signs On

Some researchers examining higher education suggest that students provide most educational institutions with their reason for being (Kittle and Ciba, 17, p. 168). Given the important relationship between the student and the institution, schools must attract customers continually (Kittle and Ciba, 17, p. 168). As colleges and universities first began to establish home pages online, establishing long-term relationships with relevant publics was not a primary goal. Instead, recruitment and positioning were priority issues (Kittle and Ciba, 17). Some charge that a kind of conquest marketing effectively eclipsed relationship marketing, favoring the creation of more and more new customers (Kittle and Ciba, 17, p. 167). However, others claim that student recruitment is a form of relationship marketing, given that all marketing begins with an exchange between the consumer and the producer and the result of that exchange is a relationship (Kittle and Ciba, 17, p. 167).

Much of the recruitment activity that marked the earliest use of web technology by colleges and universities was a direct outgrowth of the positioning that was achieved using the same medium. In a higher education context, positioning describes the way one institution is distinguished from others along real dimensions in order to develop preference among certain market segments (Drea and McNally, 17, p. 10). This practice is a common one among schools taking advantage of online technology. Many use web sites to promote their own distinctive image and strength through positioning (Drea and McNally, 17, p. 10). Several studies have examined how higher education uses online technology as a positioning tool (Drea and McNally, 17; Kittle and Ciba, 17; Lincoln, McCain and Bullock, 17), and this paper supplements the research in this area while narrowing its focus to creative programs directed at advertising students.

How Online Technology Is Changing the Marketing of Higher Education

Despite the success some colleges and universities have had in using the web for recruitment and positioning, there is a collective realization that this new medium is changing the rules. Strategists understand that, with millions of teenagers jacked into the web, traditional print ‘viewbooks,’ college-fair booths and campus visits (other than virtual) could soon go the way of the inkwell (Gegax, 18, p. 7). Even though a significant percentage of schools in the U.S. have yet to go online, the home page is fast becoming part of a traditional marketing strategy (Kittle and Ciba, 17). However, most institutions are only beginning to realize the full marketing potential offered by the Internet (Lincoln, McCain and Bullock, 17, p. 161).

There have also been pitfalls associated with the adoption of online technology for campus marketing purposes. One of them is functionality, given that the usefulness and quality of electronic marketing varies in how Internet capabilities are put to use, as well as how useful the application is to the intended audience (Lincoln, McCain and Bullock, 17, p. 158). In other words, many school web sites do not take full advantage of online capabilities and are not appropriate for the end users of the site. Another common problem is the misapplication of web technology as a marketing strategy, as observed in a 17 study by Lincoln, McCain and Bullock

Many of the institutions we observed have simply applied Internet technology to their current ‘product’ and have not started with a carefully laid out plan as to how to use the Internet to help them achieve very specific strategic or tactical objectives (p. 165).

Many admissions officials and registrars say that the real promise for online technology centers on marketing and recruitment (Marklein, 1a). Colleges, universities and trade/professional schools are actively leveraging their relationships with students by contacting them online more often and with more accurate targeting (Marklein, 1a).



The Four Quadrants of the Online Positioning Strategy Model

The Online Positioning Strategy Model cross-compares (1) the educational focus of a school (advertising vs. creative) with () the educational philosophy suggested by site content (academic-based vs. industry-based). Both factors were determined for each site based on analysis of the informational cues presented in online content. The intersecting vertical and horizontal axes delineate four quadrants that characterize distinct positioning strategies.

The following definitions can be used to characterize the positioning strategies of the schools typed using the model.

Quadrant I Advertising Academic Strategy

The Advertising Academic Strategy represented by the upper left quadrant of the model describes schools that provide training to creative students with an advertising focus in a traditional academic setting. These programs are likely to stress the importance of a broad-based education as a support to creative ability applied to advertising. For example, the Texas Creative / University of Texas at Austin site’s Student Work section assert that successful advertising creators must also be well-rounded learners

Texas Creatives are successful because they graduate having taken a full load of advertising classes -- research, media, campaigns, and management -- in addition to their elective creative classes. Their books reflect this attention to strategic detail. The four-year degree offers the professional world people steeped in advertising, communication, and creative thought (Paragraph , 1).

All of the schools typed in Quadrant I are degree-granting institutions rather than diploma programs. The University of Texas at Austin is the only traditional university represented, however. Both the Academy of Art College and The Advertising Arts College only offer degrees in advertising or related creative areas.

Quadrant II Advertising Industry Strategy

The Advertising Industry Strategy represented by the upper right quadrant of the model describes schools that provide training to creative students with an advertising focus in an environment strongly influenced by industry personnel and practice. Programs typed in Quadrant II maintain strong ties to industry and focus more on technical and artistic skills in preparing students. The prevailing philosophy is that advertising students emerging from these programs should be ready to hit the ground running and require little or no on-the-job training. The Creative Circus web site reflects this viewpoint in some of its recruitment copy

The Creative Circus... where youll team every day with other equally enthusiastic, driven young creators. The same young creators who, a hectic twenty-four months or so later, will be your colleagues, rivals and friends at agencies and studios all over the country and the world. Our unique program just seems to attract the high achievers, apparently. Did somebody say... networking? And where youll develop not only your talent, but something so-called attitude cant ever substitute for your professionalism. The professionalism creative leaders have told us theyve come to expect from Circus graduates (Paragraphs 6-7, 1).

Programs typed in Quadrant II are primarily two-year trade schools with the exception of Virginia Commonwealth Universitys AdCenter. VCU AdCenters program, part of a private university, is supervised by a board of directors comprised of top industry creators. It is the only four-year degree program within this quadrant.

Quadrant III Creative Academic Strategy

The Creative Academic Strategy represented by the lower left quadrant of the model describes schools that provide training to creative students in advertising and other creative professions in a traditional academic setting. For these programs, teaching creative skills pertinent to advertising in a context with other subject matter (design, photography, and film, for example) informs the work of students across those disciplines and enhances their training. The Art Center College of Design site explains how creative students who intend to work in advertising are offered a broader perspective

Art Center has developed a liberal arts and sciences curriculum that helps students build knowledge of different disciplines and a capacity to synthesize information, think critically, and look at issues from different perspectives. Classes are intended to promote critical discourse in an open and engaged discussion of issues facing all of us as artists, designers, and citizens of the world (Paragraph 1, 1).

With the exception of the International Academy of Design, a trade school, all of the programs typed in Quadrant III offer bachelor’s and/or master’s degrees.

Quadrant IV Creative Industry Strategy

The Creative Industry Strategy represented by the lower right quadrant of the model describes schools that provide training to creative students in advertising and other creative professions in an environment strongly influenced by industry personnel and practice. Positioned as schools where students can be trained in a variety of creative fields by experienced professionals, programs in Quadrant IV are perhaps the most strongly focused on skill acquisition compared to those typed in other quadrants. The following quote from the School of Visual Concepts site underlines that program’s emphasis on teaching by industry practitioners

All of our instructors are working professionals. Actually, they are more than that. They are successful working professionals with significant clients, creative awards and credentials to their credit. Think about it. Who’s better equipped to tell you what it takes to succeed than people who are doing it right now? (Paragraph 1, 1).

Schools typed in Quadrant IV offer only associate degrees or diplomas and do not require or teach any courses outside the creative disciplines in which they specialize.

Overall Trends Identified In the Study

Not surprisingly, sites of degree-granting programs were more often classified as reflecting academic-based philosophies than diploma programs, which were generally classified as industry-based. Sites with an academic-based philosophy usually offered course descriptions, information on research facilities/resources and student organizations, and detailed faculty bios. Industry-based sites featured awards won by students, a listing of industry board members, highlights of speakers and guests to the program, and placement histories.

Although the sample size for this study was too small to offer findings of statistical significance, a majority of the sites evaluated demonstrated an advertising focus rather than a more general creative focus.


The debate over what type of creative program best prepares advertising students will persist, and schools will continue to position themselves in different ways to attract them. Online technology offers the educational institution a new means for carving a niche and distinguishing itself among competitors. The Online Positioning Strategy Model proposed by this study offers insight into the techniques that have emerged to date. Site planners for creative programs may find the model useful as a template for future designs.

The author acknowledges several limitations to the study. First, the qualitative evaluation of site content and the identification of the informational cues was a largely subjective process. The study could benefit from replication or extension by future researchers as the number of creative programs using online technology increases. Second, it is recognized that the small sample size limits the generalizability of results. Despite these conditions, the study does represent a useful contribution to a new area of commentary within advertising education.

Further research might examine the content of recruitment messages used by creative programs as a complement to this typology. Given the influence of positioning on the audiences targeted and messages used for recruitment, investigation in this area is a logical next step.


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