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.