‘I’m very maverick, so I don’t have a timetable’

2nd December 2016 at 00:00
Brand value: Tony Cullingham prizes creativity above qualifications
Meet the FE course director who is feared and respected by the advertising industry

It has no formal entry criteria, no timetable, no written curriculum and no accreditation. But the Watford Advertising Course, based at West Herts College, has managed to become arguably the most prestigious in its industry.

Earlier this year, the advertising world’s oldest awards body, Creative Circle, honoured course director Tony Cullingham with its annual President’s Award, for the figure who has had the greatest impact on the sector.

“He’s the person I’m most scared of in advertising,” said Rob Potts, executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, in a filmed tribute. “I don’t think you can overestimate the effect he’s had on creative departments since he’s been teaching.”

How has a small course at an FE college become so central to an industry – and what could other colleges learn from its success? It helps that advertising is a small world, but if the course is sometimes known as “the Oxbridge of advertising”, it might be because of its tough, eccentric selection process.

“They’re all handpicked,” Cullingham says. “I can reject people two or three times over a period of a couple of years before they get on the programme. The real skill that students need, and a lot of people don’t have, is the ability to bounce back from rejection.”

‘What is the future of jelly?’

Just to be selected for interview, potential students need to answer a provocative, quirky creative test. Questions include “What does the future hold for jelly?” and “Create a range of T-shirts for when the world runs out of food.”

About 100 people try to respond to these challenges each year. “If I see clichés, or if I see a lack of creativity or imagination here, they don’t get an interview,” Cullingham says.

What learners don’t need is a degree. At least two A levels are officially required, and many students have degrees, but Cullingham says he has also accepted people who are “academically thick as shit” and seen them thrive.

Being willing to give these students a chance is a point of principle. Cullingham doesn’t have a degree himself and, for a long time, he was the college’s only unqualified teacher, until the former Labour government made it a requirement. “I didn’t gain a single thing from it,” he says.

“Years ago, agencies used to recruit from dole queues,” Cullingham explains. “What’s happened with the industry is it’s become very middle class. But the creative department should always be working class. We’re the ones talking to The Sun readers out there, the working-class people.”

The course, officially the “Professional Development Diploma in Art Direction and Copywriting”, is built around working on a range of speculative briefs for brands and concepts, so that students finish with a portfolio. “If, by the first day after the course, they’re not in a placement in an advertising agency, that’s a failure, and I get very few failures,” he says.

'I don’t have to tick the boxes. I have to prove I’m getting people jobs'

Cullingham, who worked as a copywriter at agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi for 12 years before switching to teaching, says he has an intuitive approach to what students need – and it’s different for every group.

“I’m very maverick,” he says. “I don’t have a timetable. I have quite a loose curriculum.”

He enjoys so much freedom partly because of the course’s longevity and significance within advertising: it began in 1961 as the UK’s first training programme for copywriters, later following industry trends to train creative partnerships of writers and art directors. It also helps that the programme is entirely self-funding, following Edexcel’s decision to withdraw the BTEC qualification that provided it with accreditation.

“There’s a whole slew of paperwork that goes with accreditation,” Cullingham says. “Fortunately I’m not part of that now: I don’t have to tick the boxes. What I have to do is prove to my college that I’m getting people in and finding them jobs.”

The 50 per cent government funding went with accreditation; now, students must pay £3,995. It’s still the cheapest course for advertising creatives in the country: the rival MA at Falmouth University is £6,500, or £15,000 for overseas students.

“Everything’s cut to the minimum; we aren’t much of a burden to the college. In fact, we run most of the course outside the college,” Cullingham says.

After an initial period in the classroom, the majority of the course takes place in advertising agencies. The whole class goes on tour, from agency to agency, working on briefs set by experienced creatives, with Cullingham monitoring and assessing their work.

Making connections

This approach doesn’t just give students experience of the culture and working methods of agencies, it also creates an ongoing relationship with industry, connecting students with job opportunities.

Cullingham says that the commitment of agencies to the course isn’t idealistic. “The advertising industry is incredibly selfish,” he explains. “People care about what you can do for them.” But it is built on personal relationships and connections with former students cultivated over 28 years.

Those relationships were reflected in the Creative Circle award. Winners usually have their work displayed behind them as they collect the trophy. But, for Cullingham, that wasn’t possible. He got the next best thing, a long, scrolling list of all the names of his former students and where they now work: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, South America, Amsterdam, Sydney, Tokyo.

“Everyone else who won an award, they showed their creative work,” Cullingham says. “I said, if I’m going on stage, I want all my ex-students with me.”

Joseph Lee is a freelance journalist. He tweets @josephlee

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