Advertising is not a profession


Ede and Ravenscroft of Chancery Lane, specialists in gowns, wigs and other legal paraphernalia. Photo courtesy of avtost

People still seem very keen to join advertising agencies, and in particular to become planners. And why not its a brilliant job.

One of the key questions is always how to get in. Since on the outside this can seem an utterly impenetrable industry.

And just to save anyone the trouble of traipsing to Clerkenwell for a nasty cup of coffee to ask me in person, the truth is I don't know.

There isn't a formal way in because there are no qualifications whatsoever that you need to have under your belt to do this job.

And that is because it is a trade and not a profession.

For sure, loads of people wish that advertising was a profession and many have tried to give it a veneer of mock professionalism over the years but this is to miss the point about what we do and what makes us good at doing it.

It is perfectly possible to go off and get a marketing or advertising degree, diploma or certificate. However, if you are trying to get a job you would be ill advised to follow this route. British advertising has an almost unique distaste for vocational qualifications (although an applied Masters or MBA as a second degree is perfectly acceptable).

I've never been entirely sure about why this is. I used to think it was the result of a class system that believes vocational rather than academic education is somehow improper - like wearing brown shoes with a black suit, passing the port to the right or bestiality.

But I think the real answer is rather less flippant.

Qualifications are a pretence that this is a profession.

"A profession is an occupation that requires extensive training and the study and mastery of specialised knowledge and usually has a professional association, ethical code and process of certification or licensing". So says Wikipedia.

And that doesn't sound much like advertising to me. Trade bodies do exist but membership is not compulsory in order to pratice (unlike the British Medical Association for example) and being good at this business patently does not require "extensive training and the study and mastery of specialised knowledge".

And why? Well for the same reason that it is possible to be too clever to work in advertising - because what we do is quite literally 'not brain surgery'. The communications landscape gets ever more complex but our jobs remain very simple, to work out how to sell things to other human beings. At its heart this is about simple human interaction and you don't need to go to college to understand how to do that.

Of course many people in the business did go to college but not to study marketing or advertising (my degree is in Geography). Academic qualifications are valued because they teach the basic skills of understanding, analysing and presenting information that is required in any 'knowledge' industry. And they also indicate an eclectic range of interests and intellectual stimulation that are the raw materials we draw upon when thinking about the world.

The reality is that like the trades and guilds of old the real way to get into and make a success of this business is to apprentice yourself to a master practitioner.

Most of people I really admire in advertising and specifically in planning, point to a master practitioner under which they trained. It is one of the reasons that BMP has had a far more dominant influence on the discipline than JWT (the co-founders of planning under Stephen King). Throughout its history BMP's planning apprentices have gone out into the world and in turn shaped their own apprentices.

I myself learned from Jon Leach, who was an apprentice of Adam Lury who trained at BMP.

In fact everything worthwhile I have learned has been at the feet of a master practitioner. Adrian Vickers taught me to take 'yes' as an answer from clients. Peter Mead instilled in me a respect for consumers. Michale Baulk taught me the business value of what we do and that if you write on a slide read what is on the slide. Adam Lury taught me that advertising was too powerful not care about it. Steve Henry taught me to be restless and uncompromising. And Jon Leach taught me how to make my mind do the weird shit that I need it to do to create interesting ideas.

Learning on the job is the only way to learn this trade. And the best training is with someone that you admire and want to emulate. Following them, picking up their approach, using their experience and then figuring out your own way of doing things in due course.

This is why there is no simple answer to the question about how to get into the industry and this is the real reason why formal marketing or advertising qualifications are not taken seriously.

No matter how much some people wish this a was a profession like being a barrister or doctor, we actually have more in common with bricklayers, furniture makers, glassblowers or potters - people who become experts through practicing their trade. This is the reason why we talk about learning your craft skills after all.

So let's stop all this nonsense about advertising being a profession and recognise, no matter how much your tutor at Oxford might loathe it, that you are in trade.

And if you want to get into the business - apprentice yourself to someone you admire by persuading them that you alone should be their prodigy. Bloody hard to pull off, bloody brilliant if you can.


To be good at anything you have to have a certain mix of skills, although they don't necessarily have to be explicitly listed, some can be formally taught, others are acquired over time (on and off the job). But when it comes to "professions", it's always seemed to me that the term in whatever industry is used to emphasise exclusivity and thereby raise incomes. No wonder industries aspire to that. It's self aggrandisement.

Posted by: John Dodds at March 20, 2007 09:19 PM

I knew before I left school that I wanted to work in advertising. But my criticism then and my criticism now is the ridiculous recruitment process which I think stems from the unprofessional nature of this industry.

I mean for gods sake where is the logic in dismissing vocational qualifications that nurture skill sets specific to the industry. History doesn't get you very far if you want to be doctor.

There are loads of really perceptive (which for me is the greatest asset in this industry) people who have massive potential and yet for no clear reason cannot enter the industry due to the draconian recruitment process. Secondly, most graduates have a preconception that the only place to work is 'London'. So we end up with a situation where demand exceeds supply and a poor perception of advertising agencies outside of the capital.

I believe that if we professionalise the industry we can:

- level out the playing field for new recruits
- advise academic institutions on skill sets/learning
- challenge the status quo that the regions contribute nothing
- provide clarity and transparency to clients on industry outputs/conduct etc
As it stands, people have got more chance of being elected on the Jedi council.

For anyone who doubts the need for deep-rooted change - just look at the quality of advertising of the past few years. The blame must surely lie at the door of those practicioners recruited by the very process talked about in your posting Richard.

Posted by: MM at March 20, 2007 11:17 PM

From now on i wll call my self "baby planner" my logo would be the baby bottle and i will become a planner. I almost agree with everything you writing there.... i have a cover letter i send to agencies that after 6 months i figured out how wrong it is...
it ends with the phrase: Inspiration is not a tool for professional success... it is a way of life.. Anyway... Nice thoughts over there

Keep Up


Posted by: Christos at March 20, 2007 11:40 PM


Posted by: mm at March 21, 2007 09:47 AM

Damn right it is a trade. Problem is that if you're inexperienced, out-of-uni planning enthusiast, you need to find someone that will see the potential and take you on board even if you cannot write a creative brief just yet.

Problem is, advertising agencies are businesses. and in business like in business you need ROI and new inexperienced people are not good at that...

After i got my first planning gig I wrote some ideas on breaking into the industry:

Posted by: Asi at March 21, 2007 10:40 AM

I've never met anyone with a 'degree' in marketing or advertising who was remotely interesting.

Posted by: Grumpy at March 21, 2007 11:03 AM

I TOTALLY agree with this, Richard.

I only got interested in advertising for the first time last year but with nothing more than ENTHUSIASM and a future-looking attitude, I've literally risen to the top of the tree.

That's 'pot black' for Janet, ha ha!

Posted by: Mrs Belmot at March 21, 2007 11:16 AM

Grumpy. I've met few people who work in 'advertising' that are interesting. When does a degree quantify the interest level someone might have?? Sums up the rhetoric bollox that exists within this industry.

We're happy for advertising to be a trade, but bang or heads against the brick wall when clients don't take the power of what we do seriously?

It doesn't stack up.

Richard, do you not really believe there are inconsistencies within this industry that could be ironed out were it recognized as a profession??

Posted by: mm at March 21, 2007 09:13 PM

The purpose of professional qualifications from the standpoint of the practitioner is to raise barriers to entry which raises prices both for employees and their employers.
The benefit to the client/customer is that you have a strong reason to trust the advice given and not to assume that you know better.
Given the downward pressure on margins and the freedom clients exhibit to substitute their judgement for the agency's, I can't share your enthusiasm for the present state of affairs.
Incidently, when I've worked with firms of consultants outside of an ad agency environment, it is really an eye-opener the contempt in which marketing and marketing practitioners are held.

Only about 5 of the FTSE100 have marketing directors on the board. Why? Because the people on the board have letters after their name. They are demonstrably expert in their field.

The failure of marketing (and hence advertising to become a profession, and even to recognise the body of knowledge that would form the syllabus if it did, means we suffer, our clients suffer, and business in general suffers.
IMHO of course ;-)

Posted by: David O'Hanlon at March 21, 2007 09:39 PM

Marketing people in client companies held in low regard - doesnt that depend on the industry? Some companies are much more marketing driven than others? In many industries marketing is a subset of sales, the people who produce the brochures. I met a founder of a big dotcom last week who told me that in his game marketing was about getting the service right and word of mouth. I've met people who say similar things in the BBC, at IBM & so on. It's only the old fmcg firms that put marketing on some sort of pedestal. There's a slight suspecion that it fares well in industries with low trust and low differentiation/innovation (banking being another example). I seriously doubt it is the qualifications thing though, although I take the point that it doesnt seem like a very hard job to people who do have prof qualifications in finance or engineering.

Interestingly in China (according to Peter Stringham who was on the board at HSBC) marketing gurus are much more sought after than almost any class of professional or business adviser. They have the factories. Now they need to build the brands. Similarly i remember in the early dotcom days everyone wanted a marketing person on their business plan from the outset. Why? Because it was about the adoption of new habits, lifestyles, products and ideas so alien that marketing was key to make them normal. A glorious exception to what I said earlier about marketing thriving in markets with no differentiation. The opposite in fact; making different stuff seem normal (not making normal stuff seem different).

Ad agencies are something else. The most up-itself trade outside hair dressing would be one view :) Occasional glorious and justified. But only very occasionally. One thing that bugs me is the way that agency people think 'looking clued up' is the same as being clued up. Agencies as a breed never learn, never listen. And David's right, it doesnt have a great rep. A shame because there are brilliant ad people (just as there are brilliant hair dressers). But it simply doesnt know its place in the scheme of things.

Now THIS would be an interesting IPA debate ;J

ps Richard, since when has bestiality been non-U?

Posted by: John Grant at March 21, 2007 10:17 PM

I unreservedly withdraw the comment about bestiality.

Posted by: Richard at March 21, 2007 11:13 PM

V true - and I totally agree that the best way to learn is to beg, plead, convince - attach yourself to a planner you admire and want to learn from. I did this a few months ago - I left a big corp to work with a start up - big paycut but the opportunities - they're HUGE and the best part is that I get to work with one of the best in the business - had i joined as one of the baby planners in his former organisation, I would've never got this chance. To be able to learn directly from him and be so lucky to have him believe in me enough to want to teach me - 6 months down the line I'm v glad I took this risk yayy planning - and I hope that some decades down the line, I learn enough to teach someone else. Also, I think that (at least in India) a lot of smaller agencies are starting to take planning far more seriously - and for people trying to get into this business, size should not the the concern - the people should. We work in advertising/ planning coz we love it - so choose people and an environment that supports it or one could end up bitter and disillusioned...

Posted by: Kajal at March 22, 2007 08:02 AM

The one thing I really agree with is that since it is a trade and a craft you have to learn from a master not from some business school which teaches you how to be good at benchmarks (how thrilling) instead of developing skills which are all about intuition, imagination understanding of the human condition and what is missing from our world. I was privileged to work with and learn from John Grant, Naresh & Dave, Steve Henry, Wally Olins & Nick Barham, what I have learnt from these guys was immensely more valuable than the rubbish I picked up in two very pretentious degrees. But I would also say that you have to go further than the masters of the trade look into and learn from the masters of other trades. What I've learnt from friends who are real filmmakers, writers, psychologists and other industries was equal if not more than what I learnt from ad legends.

Posted by: speed at March 22, 2007 01:13 PM

I think this would make a great IPA and CIM debate.

I think clients deserve better - across the board - whatever agency they opt to work with. This might also address the ridiculous pitch process which in some cases includes +15 agencies, 6 rounds and then a review within a year.. In other words a reassurance.

Posted by: mm at March 22, 2007 03:37 PM


Two sets of Qs for you in response to your post:

1. "[advertising] simply doesn't know its place in the scheme of things"

What do you believe "the scheme of things" looks like?

And where is advertising's place?

2. "It's only the old fmcg firms that put marketing on some sort of pedestal"

Let's put aside 2nd gen brands and businesses. What should a big old fmcg company be doing these days?

P.S. I don't think anybody has the monopoly of up-itself-ness. I've even met the odd consultant who has disappeared effortlessly up their own backside

Posted by: Grumpy at March 22, 2007 04:28 PM

Hi Grumpy

Yes sorry about that, just being deliberately controversial

1. The 'scheme of things' is the world in which their clients operate surely? I remember meeting Adam Lury when he had left advertising and worked with heads of some major corporations (eg BP). His comment was that advertising was a tiny little pond looking back on it. Yes CEO's and etc can take an interest. But I think it's very much in the way people do take an interest in their hairstyles.

What companies DO interests me a lot more these days, for instance their work on sustainability, innovation, service, retail, emerging markets... adding cultural ideas at these levels is where our old skills can find new relevance. A massive generalistaion I know, every one of my projects is different. but advertising as an activity is seldom a major factor when taking a broad view of company strategy, operations, innovation & so on. I think advertising people can have a very important place though, we can humanise, mythologise, demystify... we can do all the stuff they never teach you at business school - to make people want to go where businesses need them to go etc.

2. Dunno. FMCG looks like a bit of a sticky wicket. I'd rather be Tesco than a baked beans brand for sure. There are brilliant fmcg campaigns, but I'm not sure there is a suatainable business model for many such brands - the R is too low to justify the I? I'm a big admirer of many innovative P&G campaigns, communities etc. (there are about 10 or so absolute corkers on my blog). i must admit tho that i just dont do much work in these areas, nearly all my clients for the last ten years have been media-services-retail-software-mobile.... Maybe others can comment, unless you were simply putting me in my place ;)

What's apparent from outside advertising as Richard's original post says is the lack of substance. i've met some truly annoying consultants, especially among management consultants, but they are all able to back what they assert up with masses of expert knowledge. Consultants are like hospital consultants in being arcane specialists. there arent really any business gurus out there 9except for the occasional near-retired biz school prof). they are consultants in supply chain, business process re-engineering, change management & etc.

People in ad agencies seldom have that - which is why it looks like 'hairdressing' - the combination of pretensions with a lack of substance? Digital agencies, media agencies & so on do have specialist substance on the other hand. interesting contrast?


Posted by: John Grant at March 23, 2007 12:18 PM


My post is not pejorative about advertising merely the people that think it is or should be a profession. I'm happy to be a tradesman.

Posted by: Richard at March 23, 2007 03:17 PM

"...skills which are all about intuition, imagination understanding of the human condition and what is missing from our world."

That's a great line to explain what the best lawyers do for a living, in my experience. Difference is, they have to be qualified before they can practice. Thinking about it, perhaps that's at the heart of the difference between the marketing disciplines and the professions: if you're a lawyer, doctor, accountant, surveyor or whatever and you screw up there is a process to determine whether you were negligent - if you were you are liable and your professional body has the right to withdraw your right to practice. That will never happen in the marketing disciplines.

An extension of the comment about advertising and its place in the world, last weekend I had lunch with an old friend who's made a pile and is trying to blow the lot by building a national retail brand. When I suggested now would be the right time to invest in professional support to define and develop his brand (internally and externally) and begin to think about how to define and target his customers, so he could make his "consumer connection" and advertising mistakes while the business is a long way out of the limelight, he was utterly amazed: he's very interested in making sure his legal, accountancy, financial, product, property, supply-chain, and even HR advice is the best available but in the meantime marketing can be done part-time by his (unqualified in any way) wife and advertising is so far down his list of priorities that I thought he might actually burst with indignation at my stupid suggestions.

I was quite shocked but I suppose it bears out the old line about understanding the world by how it affects your work (or whatever the line is - being a bear of very little brain I'm not terribly good at remembering that sort of thing)

Posted by: Aitchaitch at March 23, 2007 04:32 PM


Don't apologise. I'm in favour of fanning the flames of controversy and would hate for you to do anything but pour jetfuel on the fire.

I asked the fmcg question because I don't see much attempt to apply 2.0 thinking to 1.0 businesses and brands. I'd never presume to put you in your place ;)

It is absolutely as you say, "a sticky wicket".

It would be nice therefore if slightly more of us were interested in taking it on. There are a lot of big, profitable 1.0 businesses that want and need our advice.

I get the impression however, that many of us find it all a bit too hard and would much rather sneer from the sidelines and dismiss them all as too old-school.

Yet what is our job if not to help open up new futures for our clients' businesses? Do only some businesses warrant this advice?

"I must admit tho that i just dont do much work in these areas". Total cop out, mate.

As for substance, I think you're being a little unkind (even if it is in the name of controversy!)

In my experience, for every vacuous self-serving numbskull, there's a serious, responsible, knowledgeable, and modest expert.

Our output is often intangible, or fleeting. But that - I would plead - does not make us lacking in substance.

The analogy of the hairdresser has been cited. A hairdo might well be superficial (in the minds of men at least), the job of hairdresser may well require relatively little in the way of formal qualification, but that does not make hair irrelevant. Ask anyone who has had a bad hair day. Or read the work of Grant McCracken for a deeper insight.

Not infrequently, I find that when someone dismisses something as superficial, the truth is they have failed to grasp and properly understand the matter at hand.

One can dismiss advertising as superficial froth. But without froth there's no cappucino.

Of course we can be flighty, silly, infuriating, self-indulgent, superficial, childish dilatantes. But you won't get what we do from a roomfull of Harvard MBAs. You get other (possibly more important) stuff. But not the stuff we do.

However, there's some truth in your comment about substance.

You write that consultants "are all* able to back what they assert up with masses of expert knowledge" so I take your comment to be about our industry's ability to speak with authority and from a position of expertise.

(*ALL consultants? I've met bucket loads of content-free charlatans)

There was a time when a few advertising people were deeply and passionately interested in How Advertising Works. I'm talking about the likes of King, Pollitt, Lannon, Hedges, Feldwick and so on. They were/are experts, thinkers, theorists and researchers. They took on the research establisment. They didn't pontificate. They theorised and analysed and were on a mission to understand and to move the industry forwards. They substantiated their arguments with evidence. And they left behind a body of expertise and knowldege that their alma maters have largely allowed to gather dust.

My own view is that the only route back to credibility and authority for agencies, is to reclaim the title of experts in the plenitude of ways in which advertising (in the broadest sense of the word) works today.

That requires a) investment b) courage to take on the establishments c) less creative ass-kissing d) the revival of craft skills e) a willingness to look beyond just 2.0 businesses f) a lot more than the Effectiveness Awards

I don't think the solution is in becoming profession. It's about the assumption of responsibility.

P.S. I never went into advertising for the respectability. Complaining that advertising isn't a 'Profession' seems akin to choosing to become a stripper and then complaining there's no career path. DUH.

Posted by: Grumpy at March 23, 2007 04:56 PM

Good heavens. I seem to have come down with blog comment diorreah. Apologoies for the endless stream of comment.

Posted by: Grumpy at March 23, 2007 04:58 PM

Wow, I really missed a topic relevant for me here...

I think one thing was clear from the Future Marketing Conference, far too many students are not being taught advertising and marketing in a way that makes them appealing to agencies.

The only reason I know anything about advertising and how I might get a job is by going and writing, meeting people and learning as much as I can from them. My uni course was pretty much three years wasted in terms of getting an ad job.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at March 23, 2007 05:42 PM

Hail fellow geographer.

Posted by: dan at innocent at March 24, 2007 11:31 AM

The reason the industry needs professionalising is to remove the strippers that surround us.

Posted by: mm at March 25, 2007 11:35 AM

Surrounded by strippers? I'll think I'll settle for amateurism in that case.

Posted by: Rory Sutherland at March 25, 2007 12:17 PM

On the whole consulting thing, I had a very interesting chat with Mark Read of WPP on this subject - he has spent quite a bit of his life working for a large consulting firm.

Consultants are, he agrees, spectacularly good at justifying a particular course of action. Hundreds of heavily-footnoted charts can be produced to explain why you should do A rather than B.

The quibbles are that a) you could produce equally impressive charts justifying B rather than A if you spent enough time on it and b) no time at all is spent considering C, D, E, etc.

It is an essentially unimaginative exercise - where the route to be recommended is decided in a couple of days and the rest of the (extremely chargeable) time is spent justifying it. A little like a creative team coming up with a first idea and then spending four weeks writing the creative rationale.

This bears out my experience of their presentations - where I am impressed by the rigor but thoroughly underawed by the thinking.

They are, by background, overwhelmingly engineers, with a highly mechanistic view of the universe.

But then most business at a senior level seems nowadays to be driven more by the need for self-justification than anything else. One of the reasons, perhaps, why Private Equity seems to be enjoying such a wonderful time.

Posted by: Rory Sutherland at March 25, 2007 03:20 PM


I am here from a client side and sick and tired of being a part of client. I want to change over to an ad agancy as I always think i am abetter fit there. Can anyone suggets which is the qualification i need to purse.


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