We're making Mad Men for the digital future

Napier University's ad expertise is bringing results, writes Iain Macdonald
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men. Picture: APJon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men. Picture: AP
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men. Picture: AP

These may be dark days in the oil industry and around Aberdeen, but in the other Scottish docks of Leith and Glasgow’s Pacific Quay, the lights are burning bright as our other major industry grows new digital pipelines.

New York had its Mad Men and London its Saatchi brothers, but Scotland has its own style of creative thinking and advertising. As new creative companies establish themselves and old ones develop new digital lines of advertising, branding and communication, they seek new talent to bring on and prepare for the challenging work ahead.

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Ten years ago a unique partnership was formed in Scotland to meet that challenge.

In 2006, Edinburgh Napier University, with the support of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), established the first Masters in Creative Advertising in Scotland, one that had a focus on what the advertising industry wanted.

The creative direction and teaching was led by Susie Henry, who had returned to Scotland with a cabinet of D&AD advertising awards (six Pencils) after working at global agencies DDB and Saatchi & Saatchi, and having been the first woman to have her own successful London agency.

Recognition has come to many students who have won Roses Creativity Awards, and on the international stage at D&AD with Black and Yellow Pencil Awards.

Over the last decade the course has developed to meet the changing needs of the ad industry and its clients. Other industry professionals joined the University’s teaching staff: Brian Williams and Iain Macdonald, Jim Fraser, Gillian Govan, Chris Muir, Andy Archer and Bill Walsh.

A range of art directing, film directing, copywriting, planning and digital experience that has come from years of professional practice has contributed to ten years of Masters students who have gone on to find employment: jobs in Scotland and across the globe that were not even thought of ten years ago.

How can higher education prepare for future jobs that have yet to be invented? There are several approaches that can be learned from Edinburgh Napier University’s MSc Creative Advertising programme.

The first is to be close to industry: embedded in the course structure are live briefs and visits to agencies where networking opportunities can be encouraged and lecturers can remain engaged with their own creative practice. We also have a mentoring programme currently focussed on providing female students with female role models in creative departments (too few).

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Secondly, three quarters of our students come from abroad. International students may find Scottish culture rather nuanced when working on local campaigns, but the wider cultural benefits expand the horizons for all students.

Having Polish, Italian, French or German as your first language is a very attractive proposition for Scotland’s agencies that have eyes on European-wide clients. 

Thirdly, it helps to be part of a university that has a mix of practical programmes taught by creative practitioners as well as academics. Advertising, like all creative industries, relies on teamwork and collaboration.

It is fun to work and make with others. Combining people with different skills is an alchemy that Don Smith, Creative Director at Realise, has become very successful at and is encouraging universities to replicate.

Breaking down, or ignoring, the silo tendencies of universities and other institutions is going to be essential to experimenting with new combinations of copywriting, art direction, production, programming, user experience designing, data analytics, planning, research and…

There is a tremendous amount of goodwill in Scotland’s advertising industry for higher education. Logically there is a commercial motivation to have dialogue with educators that will help train future recruits, but this can also help to foster academic research as well as practice-based learning to benefit all.

• Dr Iain Macdonald is Associate Professor Programme Leader MSc Creative Advertising