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Dri­ving Forward

An Inter­view with Jim Woj­tow­icz: Acad­emy of Art Uni­ver­sity, San Francisco

This is the first in a series explor­ing how com­mu­ni­ca­tions degree pro­grams are address­ing cur­rent stu­dent needs. As an adjunct at NYU SCPS I am no stranger to the for­ti­tude it takes to hold the atten­tion of a room full of stu­dents. Lets start off by get­ting Jim’s viewpoint…

Q: What core skills do communications/advertising stu­dents require in today’s rapidly chang­ing marketplace?

Jim: The list of indus­try expec­ta­tions of a grad­u­at­ing ad stu­dent con­tin­ues to grow and morph. What remains a con­stant is that every­thing begins with an idea and the abil­ity to tell a story – the abil­ity to syn­the­size a ton of infor­ma­tion and process it into a clear strate­gic mes­sage. Once a stu­dent can do that the rest is sys­tem­atic – Pho­to­shop, Illus­tra­tor, InDe­sign, know­ing what good design is, blah, blah, blah. Also, a key but often over­looked skill is bring­ing some­thing to the party besides the abil­ity to gen­er­ate ideas and have tech­ni­cal skills to pro­duce them. By that I mean being an inter­est­ing per­son with a point of view. It comes from being curi­ous and embrac­ing your own likes. It’s not as much a skill as it is a belief in yourself.

Q: Have any stu­dent projects have wowed you recently and why?

Jim: I am struck in gen­eral by the rise of stu­dents embrac­ing the idea of being agents of pos­i­tive change. I recently gave The Ace Hotel as a project. The stu­dents didn’t develop ads per se, but their solu­tion said more than any ad could. What they came up with was remark­able and had the poten­tial to change lives. Stu­dents devel­oped a com­plete repur­pos­ing plan for the defunct Michi­gan Cen­tral sta­tion in Detroit, as an urban cen­ter that would act as a cre­ative hub for the entire region – com­plete with a hotel, artist’s work spaces, gallery spaces, a museum, restau­rants and a plan to engage with and help expand the sur­round­ing bur­geon­ing art scene. They did such a good job they were politely asked by The Ace Hotel to not have the spec project be pub­lic on the web because they were receiv­ing a del­uge of calls about when the “Ace Hotel Detroit “would open. That to me is a suc­cess­ful project on many levels.

Q: It has been said, what you learn in school is not how things work in the real world. To what extent should a mod­ern pro­gram pre­pare the stu­dent for this divide?

Jim: I think a more accu­rate ver­sion of the state­ment would be “What you learn in school is a map not the actual ter­rain”. With that said, I feel the more a school can offer real-world learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties, the more suc­cess­fully it will pre­pare stu­dents for day to day func­tion­ing in the field. At the Acad­emy of Art Uni­ver­sity, School of Adver­tis­ing, we have begun empha­siz­ing expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing. Stu­dents can apply to take the “Agency” class, where they become part of Young and Hun­gry – a func­tion­ing, stu­dent run adver­tis­ing agency. Under the guid­ance of their Teacher / Cre­ative Direc­tor they meet with actual clients, develop briefs, field phone call and emails, develop cre­ative solu­tions and pitch to said real clients. The results have been amaz­ing. Stu­dents leave the class with a sense of con­fi­dence and pur­pose that can’t be repli­cated in a tra­di­tional classroom.

Q: What are your top rec­om­mended resources?

Jim: Go outside.

Peter: Can you elaborate?

Jim: I say that not to be flip, but to make a point. Stu­dents (and pro’s) are addicted to google to the point that it sti­fles cre­ativ­ity – there is often a glut of sim­i­lar solu­tions early on in many projects and web search is often to blame. Stu­dents come to the same top five posts or ana­lyt­ics and think they know every­thing they need to know. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a lud­dite – Google is an incred­i­bly pow­er­ful resource, but it shouldn’t be the first option, it should be the last. Go out­side – do shit! Live life. Data is great, but it will never replace wak­ing up naked on the hood of your car after a party to under­stand the mean­ing of cold and alone.

Peter: As a teacher of inno­va­tion — Where do you find inspiration?

Jim: Eleanor Roo­sevelt said it best “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Q: Many ad pro­grams know­ingly grad­u­ate more stu­dents than the indus­try can hire. Thoughts?

Jim: I think there are pro­grams that over-promise or obfus­cate the real­ity that not every­one that goes through an ad pro­gram is going to get a job they train for, but that is the real­ity of many types of pro­grams, not just adver­tis­ing. The good news is that with the frag­men­ta­tion of the indus­try, there are more types of places a stu­dent trained in adver­tis­ing can land. I actively encour­age some stu­dents to not pur­sue jobs in “tra­di­tional” agen­cies because they will fail. Not because they are not tal­ented, but because the arena is not appro­pri­ate for their per­sonal skill set. Also, we are start­ing to see dig­i­tal natives grad­u­ate. By that I mean kids who grew up not know­ing that life existed on this planet with­out cell­phones. They have an inher­ent deep under­stand­ing of the dig­i­tal land­scape that puts them in a power posi­tion next to non-natives (any­one born before 1990) and this in turn opens more doors for them.

Q: How do you go about prepar­ing stu­dents for an indus­try that’s still uncharted?

Jim: There is no way to be com­pletely pre­pared for the mas­sive amount of change hurtling toward us. Mike Tyson said it best “Every­one has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.” If you leave school con­fi­dent in your under­stand­ing that cre­ativ­ity is a learn­able skill and a process that can be applied to any spe­cific prob­lem that you define, then you will be in a power position.

Q: To what extent does your pro­gram teach entrepreneurialism?

Jim: It depends how you define entre­pre­neuri­al­ism. As I men­tioned ear­lier, we are ramp­ing up the expe­ri­en­tial aspect of the pro­gram and that in turn empow­ers stu­dents to think beyond just get­ting a job. It gives them an early taste of what they can do with the skills they are devel­op­ing and being lead­ers. I def­i­nitely see it as a growth area – imag­ine the pos­si­bil­i­ties of highly trained cre­ative thinkers/problem solvers har­nessed to solve big­ger issues than gum and soap sales.

Q: What cam­paigns, agen­cies, com­pa­nies inspire you at the moment?

Jim: Any­thing that stops me for more than a nanosec­ond is inspir­ing. I recently came across an app that changes your face­book page to an info­graphic chart and then par­al­lels that chart to other sim­i­lar info­graphic matches. The app is put out by a bone mar­row donor match com­pany. They take a very seri­ous, slightly scary thing and take away the fear. Also, I don’t feel pan­dered to and I feel good about the com­pany. It’s some­thing I’ve never con­sid­ered doing before, now I might.

Q: What will be dif­fer­ent about teach­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the next five years?

Jim: It’s sad, because many schools have great pro­grams, but loose site of the future while star­ing at their past suc­cesses. To me that’s like dri­ving for­ward really fast and mak­ing steer­ing deci­sions based on what you see in the rearview mir­ror. Schools that thrive in the next five years will be much more flex­i­ble. They’ll still need to teach solid think­ing skills and sto­ry­telling, but I think the ones that take the lead, will be be able to adapt to a frag­ment­ing indus­try that needs spe­cific train­ing fast. Pro­grams that teach rapid imple­men­ta­tion of new tech­nolo­gies through com­pressed “short burst” classes will do well. There is a large body of peo­ple out there that have gaps in their knowl­edge base but have no need or desire for another degree. Schools that address that will attract a new type of stu­dent — the pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment learner.

Q: What’s the most impor­tant thing a reader should take away from our dis­cus­sion today?

Jim: It’s a great time to be in this field. There are more types of oppor­tu­ni­ties for cre­ative thinkers emerg­ing every­day. The abil­ity to prob­lem solve cre­atively and deliver the result in a way that makes me feel some­thing is a pow­er­ful and sought after skill. Do every­thing you can to max out that skill and cou­ple it with your unique way of look­ing at the world and you will def­i­nitely succeed.

As a cre­ative with a wide pas­sion base I’m always on the look­out for peo­ple I can learn from and pass on those key insights to my fol­low­ers. If you are a thought leader, trend­set­ter or just have an inter­est­ing view­point please con­tact me to be part of this inter­view series.