Perhaps more now than ever before, ours is an age of marketing. Working on the assumption that if you don't shout nobody hears you, everything from pizzas to parenting, from laxatives to lifestyles, is pitched at us with unprecedented volume and frequency.
No surprise, then, that more and more young people look for a way into the often exciting and sometimes lucrative twin worlds of marketing and advertising. The problem, though, is not just getting in but, once in, getting on. Traditionally, most marketing and advertising skills were learned on the job. However, company downsizing policies resulting in the loss of many middle management jobs now bring fewer opportunities to "Sit by Nelly" - to learn from those who know. Today, in marketing as in so many other occupations, formal qualifications are a must.
At least this is how David Royston-Lee, chief executive at the Communication, Education and Marketing Foundation (CAM), sees it. Formed 30 years ago and currently supported by such organisations as the Advertising Standards Association, and the Royal Mail, CAM is the body that oversees part-time and distance learning courses in marketing communication at 35 colleges throughout the UK.
CAM is now moving its operations online. It already has its own website and is holding discussions with FT Knowledge and TSL Worldwide Learning, two major distance learning providers, with a view to developing global Internet and e-mail learning systems. This would enable CAM to provide up-to-date information tailored to the needs of students working in a social and economic climate very different to that of the UK.
For Royston-Lee, formerly human resources director and management consultant at two of the most successful British advertising agencies, the twin strengths of the CAM courses are skilled and knowledgeable teachers and an integrated approach to teaching and learning. "Most of our teachers are practitioners who want to put something back into the industry. They teach as much from their own experience as from any theoretical perspectives. This means that they have the kind of overview of the industry that teachers with a more academic background sometimes lack. They know that if you deal with the whole problem, not just one dimension, the client or the company will be better served."
Just as the teaching is practitioner-led, so are CAM examinations set and marked by advertising and marketing professionals, people who, says Royston-Lee, are able to ask: "Has this person grasped the reality of working in this field?" It is this emphasis on actual industry practice that appeals to many who enrol on a CAM course.
For example, having worked temporarily as a waitress at the Harrogte branch of Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, a part of the Yorkshire family business Bettys and Taylors, history graduate Fiona Hunter was promoted to the company's PR department. Realising that further study would help in her new job, she enrolled on a certificate level course at a local college. Two years after passing, she gained the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers award for an outstanding result at diploma level. Now the sales and communications director at Bettys and Taylors, Hunter has nothing but praise for both courses.
"I enjoyed them enormously. We had a really good mix of lectures and more informal talks about real, live issues, and I especially liked being taught by people who were actually in marketing, advertising and PR. I always got the feeling that they were trying to put something back into the industry, to improve professional standards. Historically, PR has always been a bit hit and miss, but my CAM qualifications have given me a far more informed view of my job."
Hunter's verdict is endorsed by classics graduate Jill Beardon, head of logistics management development at the Post Office. Having taken her diploma by six-month crash course, Beardon has only praise for its content and delivery. "The greatest strength of the diploma course is its breadth. It gives you an excellent understanding of the range and diversity of communications, and you look at organisational issues from all possible angles. What was especially good was the way in which guest lecturers - from marketing, advertising, the press and PR - talked from actual experience.
Coincidentally, both women opted for a CAM course rather than any of the more widely-known Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) options because of what they feel is CAM's less theoretical, more work-based emphasis. Yet both acknowledge that, contrary to the claims of CAM's Guide to Qualifications and several colleges' course publicity, employers are as often unaware as not of CAM courses and qualifications.
Royston-Lee laughs: "We're the industry's best-kept secret." The problem is money. "There's never been enough for us to market ourselves effectively. And because we don't, not many students know of us, which means less income for publicity and, of course, low enrolment numbers as before. It's a classic vicious circle."
And the numbers are low: only 1,635 students at combined advanced and diploma levels last year. The irony of courses that deal with advertising and publicity being unable to sell themselves is all too apparent. But the recent alliance between CAM and CIM and the move online to a wider student base should improve student recruitment, as should the anticipated inclusion of a module on marketing e-commerce. After 30 years of relative anonymity, CAM's time might have come at last.
Communication, Education and Marketing Foundation, Moor Hall, Cookham, Maidenhead, Berks SL6 9QH