Uni or not Uni? That is the question

Chris CatchpoleIn this guest post, Chris Catchpole proposes an idea for how to bridge the gap between what fresh graduates in Asia seem to know when they leave university, and the real world of advertising, an issue that emerged at Mumbrella Question Time. They should not go to university, he suggests. They should pay ad agencies to be trained on the job instead.

A while ago I interviewed an advertising student from allegedly one of the best courses in Vietnam. After four years of studying, this sweet girl had nothing more in her book than I could have taught her in four weeks.

At around $25,000 a year for her tuition and a starting salary of maybe $400 a month, even if she was able to get a job, it made little sense to me why she had, in my opinion, just wasted four years of her life.

Of course I remember back to when I was a student and there was a spectrum of ability on my course too.

But back then we didn’t come out with such obscene debts so the pressure to turn talent into cash wasn’t so great.

But shouldn’t someone be held accountable for this girl’s future? How dare they take her parent’s money with the promise that their pride and joy would be career-ready after four years of study.

Internships for lecturers

At Phibious, we’ve had plenty of intern students. The same while I was ECD at Lowe. And at the agencies I worked at in the UK, including my own. Each one desperately keen to impress, most of them as naïve as a newborn.

I have uncovered a few real gems and some rough diamonds. But on the whole, I’ve seriously wondered what the rest have been taught and by whom.

After giving a lecture to lecturers a few years ago, I discovered that out of the 20 or so who attended, the least time any of them had last been in the industry was 10 years ago, 25 years for one guy.

With the best will in the world, most of them couldn’t possibly know how agencies work now. And the lecturers my colleagues and I spoke to were shocked to say the least, some of them telling us they would be changing the way and what they taught from that moment on.

Most advertising students are expected to get internships. I wonder if that might a good idea for lecturers too so they at least keep fresh and current/relevant.

A new idea

How about this. Paid internships. But this time the intern pays the agency, cutting out the middleman.

Side step university or college, learn on the job and pay agencies for the privilege of being trained by those currently working in the industry.

At least this way you’d get to see first hand if you really wanted to have a career in Advertising and you’d save a huge amount of money.

What’s in it for the agencies?

Forget the payments for a moment. Every year we’re expected to invest in graduates who often know very little about how we run, what we do on a day to day basis and need months if not years of training anyway. Students are always hungry to work on live briefs, so let them – and they might come up with something worth selling.

Maybe desk space is a premium and it is seen that training up kids from scratch is too much effort. Maybe it wouldn’t suit every Agency and every student.

But show me a single person in an Agency who learned more in three years at Uni than they did in their first three years at work. And show me a single Agency that took in a student that earned them money from day one.

Pay to work

Paying to work would bring in revenue for Agencies and give them a responsibility to train students. Students learn from multiple real-life situations in multiple places – I think it would be a good idea to move to different agencies throughout this ‘paid learning’ period.

There will always be an argument that students get time and space to express themselves at University in a way that’s difficult to do in the workplace, with all the pressure from clients. But then they’re simply building portfolios and experience that they hope one day will gain them employment. Why not prove yourself on the job? It would no doubt expedite salaried-work because they’d build a live portfolio with real experience.


This is not an attack on universities. It’s simply about finding a better way that’s right for those entering the industry and for agencies. It’s also about accountability. Unless a university can guarantee that their courses teach above and beyond what you’ll learn in the workplace, why waste your money? Go direct.

Chris Catchpole is the global executive creative director of Phibious


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