Navigating the Brave New World

April 4, 2017 — by Kristin Brewe

As a part of a module I teach at the University of West London, Emerging Technology, Other Realities, I have students read a work of science fiction in addition to practical training about programmatic advertising and augmented/virtual reality campaigns. How do you prepare students to work in a world that often resembles classics in science fiction? How do experienced industry professionals manage to stay ahead of the game in which the “present” is often already too late? There’s one rather old-fashioned answer: training.

The digital skills gap is an equal opportunity employer

In the Government’s “Digital Skills for the UK Economy,” approximately 1 in 5 job vacancies relate to the digital skills gap. This is even more pronounced in creative industries, like advertising. Experienced industry professionals often fall hard into the digital skills gap; yesterday’s media planner is today’s statistician. Not that there’s anything wrong with statisticians, of course. However, as companies embrace the technological transformation of advertising, they fail to create a world that takes experienced staff along for the journey.

This comes at a business cost in addition to the obvious human one. Many companies making such technology shifts lose out on the deep knowledge that comes with experience. For example, I have worked with many media buyers who came up through radio and TV who would have been perfectly suited to more tech-centric media trading. In fact, they might have been better than the average entry-level employee, as they had years of experience negotiating and evaluating deals—something that’s hard to teach other than on the job. Those colleagues didn’t get the chance, however. No one trained them. The businesses in question lost out on all that knowledge, the people in question left wondering why they ever cared about their careers in the first place.

One might think that overlooking experience would lead employers to be overly satisfied with recent graduate hires, given that everyone always talks about tech-savvy Millennials. However, that is not the case. Both as an employer or an advisor to employers, I have found communications graduates woefully unprepared for the automated world we’re creating. While Millennials and Gen Z are adept at using their phones to use Snapchat filters, very few can tell you how Snapchat/Facebook/Instagram/display advertising might work to target them or be tailored to them.  As Accenture’s Mohini Rao wrote in The Digital Skills Gap in the UK, “This generation are consumers of digital technology, not creators.”

Creating opportunities to learn about machines vs. machine learning

Of course, we, as a society (with our industry strongly implicated in this), have created these consumers who lack context. But because we created that environment, we can also create a new one with opportunities to code, to use industry tools, and to understand how the machines in our lives work. (Note: This should probably start in pre-school, but since I teach university, I’ll focus on Uni students.)

This is where courses like our new Advertising & Public Relations course come in. At UWL, we are committed to ensuring that our students understand the basics of automation so that they can succeed in their careers. Even creatives need to know that programmatic ads are often certain standard sizes, much like we used to teach the dimensions of standard print. Admittedly, we have an uphill battle here. When you start diving into these topics with university students, responses like “WTF is programmatic advertising?” or “You can see all that data about me? Is that legal?” or “But making skyscraper banners is boring!” are common.

To help overcome such obstacles and to create a more positive environment for the next generation of professionals, our course is working with visionary organisations like the New Marketing Institute (NMI). A few weeks ago, the excellent instructor from NMI came in and managed to transform boredom and cynicism into excitement. Several students afterward came to me to express interest in knowing more about things like programmatic and in exploring ad tech as a career path. That’s both a testimonial to the quality of NMI’s instruction and also to the fact that, once this aspect of advertising is explained clearly, it doesn’t have to be a boring diet of acronym soup.

Would that more organisations like NMI visited universities. Would that more students were exposed to the advanced aspects of our practice. Would that my former colleagues had the chance to change with our industry, rather than outside of it. So let’s change all that, shall we?

Kristin Brewe

Kristin is the Course Leader for BA (Hons) Advertising & PR at the University of West London. Kristin brings nearly two decades of industry experience to her academic role. She leads her own consultancy, advising companies across a variety of sectors on marketing and advertising initiatives, focussing much of her practice on brand building for early stage start-ups. Kristin also served as the Marketing & Communications Director at the Internet Advertising Bureau UK, the British trade body representing the digital advertising industry. Before relocating to London, Kristin spent a decade in San Francisco with Esurance, where she led the company’s creative, communications, and brand marketing efforts. Her award-winning work helped take the company from an unknown start-up to a consumer brand name. (The company was sold for $1 billion in 2011.)