Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Training Programs Need To Be Reinstated Properly

During the forties, fifties and well into the sixties ad agencies had real training programs which involved both the agency and its clients. Those training programs were for every department. The best of those programs lasted six months or longer, where new recruits spent weeks in each of the major departments – account management, creative, research, media and production. They learned what each department contributed and how they functioned; people in those training programs were given real responsibility and tasks.  Account managers also spent time on the road with their clients – I spent six weeks going out with Lehn & Fink route drivers, (Lysol, Beacon Wax, Stridex Pads and other well-known brands), checking and loading inventory, setting up end-isle displays, installing shelf-talkers and basically learning what is today called shopper marketing.

Over the years, these training programs kept being reduced.  By the 1980’s, they were diminished to the point where they had become a series of lectures, mostly about the various departments of the agency. The lectures were generally given by agency executives who, for the most part, might have been interesting but were not teachers (running a department does not mean being a good teacher).  Since then, almost all ad agencies have ended their training programs claiming they did not lower turnover nor do much to foster the loyalty of employees.

The problem, I believe, was not the concept, but the execution. The truth is that if 50 employees started these abbreviated programs and in two years only ten remained at the agency, the program is/was for those ten; however, however agencies didn’t see it that way.  For most, it was merely a time consuming expense  with little benefit.  Agencies never examined that if so many people left the agency, the company needed to examine itself in order to determine why turnover was so high, which probably had little or nothing to do with the training.  

However, I would like to deal with the training programs themselves.

As the training programs evolved they developed into two categories.  In the first, senior agency executives gave lectures on their departments and functions, occasionally accompanied by case histories.  In the second, some lectures were given about the different functions and then the trainees were split into groups consisting of people from each of the agency’s departments and were given a case history or problem to solve together.  Those results were presented by the teams to a panel of agency executives.  The winning team got some sort of prize and/or recognition.  

Neither was particularly effective and actually taught very little about advertising.  People who went through these programs tell me that in retrospect they were boring and had no relationship to the day-to-day problems of the business.  And therein lies the problem.

There is a story told to me by a copywriter which is illustrative of the problems resulting from the lack of training.  The agency was the old Jordan, McGrath, Case and Taylor.  A client asked the agency to create a coupon ad for a reformulated product.  The agency presented an ad which essentially said, “25 cents off…” The account supervisor, who had been in the business about ten years, presented the ad and sold it, but a day later came back and said the client wanted to add that the product had a great reformulated taste (I wonder if she knew that in the first place?).  So the copywriter wrote, “25ȼ off great new taste.”  This, too, was approved.  But then the AS came back and told the writer that the client wanted to add something about its new packaging.  This time the writer said no, the message had become too muddled and they could not do 25ȼ off new taste in a new package.  The account supervisor and the writer got in a big hassle because the writer explained that this simple coupon ad now had too many elements to be effective.

The ensuing argument was one of those small things that got out of hand and ended up in Jim Jordan’s office.  Jim looked at the supervisor and said, “You’ve been in the business long enough to know that an effective ad should only contain a single communication or message.”  The supervisor’s response was stunning – “I never heard that, how should I know it?” 

And therein lies the issues with training programs or lack of them.

As training programs evolved they did nothing to contribute to the creative product or to good advertising.  Agency employees really learned nothing about advertising and what makes it good and effective. (I remember being in the print production department and being taught how to view and evaluate retouching.)

These programs should have taught advertising that matched the agency’s philosophy and should have been be taught by professionals, not a creative director whose mind is on too many other issues (and who sent a substitute most of the time).  And while bringing in professionals – perhaps from local colleges and universities – is expensive, the results could be significant.

If juniors knew more about their business and how it really operates, clients would be far more accepting of their contributions and require less time of seniors.  This, in turn, would increase agency profitability and, in turn, pay for the investment in real training.  And, of course, juniors have this amazing habit of becoming more senior.


  1. At the risk of sounding self-serving, I couldn't agree more. After a career at The Martin Agency, Fallon and TBWA\Chiat\Day, I started my own training company, conducting presentation skills workshops focused on selling good work. What has surprised me more than anything else is the vast appetite for these kinds of training programs. I've never done a workshop where afterwards people didn't express how much they appreciated it. And more, how much they NEEDED it.
    Some agencies are reluctant to pay for training because, as you stated above, people leave and the investment goes with them. What's ironic is reconcepting costs agencies far more than presentation training. Work that could have lived had the presenter possessed some selling skills, unnecessarily dies, sending teams back to the drawing board over and over again.
    Second only to being able to create great work is the ability to stand in front of a roomful of people and sell it. If you don't train people how to do that, don't expect to have good agency morale or strong client relationships. As the saying goes, penny wise, pound foolish.

    Kerry Feuerman

    1. Fabulous comment, Kerry. Thank you. I think that many agencies forget that in addition to creating work they have to both sell it AND keep it sold. Very important skills. They need to be taught and learned.

    2. Been thinking about your comment, Kerry. Agencies need to look at training programs as an investment rather than an expense.

  2. I am in violent agreement with both you, Paul, and with Kerry Feuerman.

    I've been conducting workshops based on my book, "The Art of Client Service," for nearly 20 years, and I've learned a hard truth: the big, New-York-based shops no longer invest in training their people, either with internal leaders or with external experts.

    The good news, if there is good news, is that smaller, more specialized, more entrepreneurially focused shops outside of New York still DO believe in training.

    The challenge for these shops is simple, but hard to solve: the money needed to make their people better at what they do.



    1. Robert, Somehow, even small agencies need to figure out how to get their people properly trained. It pays for itself.

    2. I agree with "It pays for itself," Paul, but is how do we convert an opinion into a fact?

    3. It is a fact. Every agency manager should read Peter Drucker, among others. It requires agency management committed, truly committed, to its people and its work - not just the bottom line. If I had the real answer as to how to make it happen, I could become rich!

  3. Paul, your story about the coupon ad brought to mind a very funny video that was circulating around the agencies back in the '90s, long before YouTube. I think your readers would love it:

  4. I don’t think we will ever see agency training programs making comeback, because I can’t imagine any CFO today approving a $500,000 - $1,000,000 line item in the agency’s annual budget for such purposes. Yes, I was the lucky beneficiary of having cut my agency teeth at Ted Bates & Company in their MBA account management training program in the ‘70s, but Ted Bates was a privately-owned worldwide agency, set on grooming its trainees to become future Bates “lifers”. No such thing anymore! Today, as the Japanese taught us decades ago and as Amazon has proven, it’s still JIT (Just-in-time) delivery of needed parts/agency talents; relevance REQUIRED. Because the likes of WPP, IPG, Omnicom, Publicis, Havas, Dentsu, et al, now invest in dollars, pounds, Euros, yen, francs, etc. – not people and training programs! So, here’s my advice for all who want to pursue a career in the agency business … 1) Whatever your major, take a basic BUS 101 and MKT 101 course in college; 2) Read Rosser Reeves’s “Reality In Advertising” and David Ogilvy’s “Ogilvy On Advertising”; and 3) Stephen Fox’s “The Mirror Makers”. Not exactly a training program, but at least you’ll know where we’ve been and the fundamentals of what we’re supposed to be doing now.

  5. Also, if you really want to dig in and get up to speed fast, read Miles Young’s more recent “Ogilvy On Advertising In The Digital Age”. This, and my previously mentioned books, all for only $100 at Amazon. You just have to make the time to actually read them and learn. A great investment in YOU!

    1. Books make interesting reading, but there is no substitute for a proper training program that has give and take among the participants.

  6. You could say that ad schools swept in to fill the vacuum. However, those programs are extremely cost prohibitive and they don’t address continuing education, which is key as things are changing so fast these days.

    1. Anon: Ad schools are good to a point, but they do not foster loyalty to a company, only to a discipline. There are ample opportunities to bring in trainers who understand the business and they are affordable. See Robert Solomon's comment above.

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