Attack of the Ad Nerds/Adweek

September 3, 2012/ Adweek

At 17, Anne Chiu stood in the middle of her family’s tchotchke-filled Brooklyn, N.Y., living room to pitch her father. Since visiting the small ad agency where her uncle worked two years earlier, she’d been dreaming of ditching her destiny as a math and science geek at New York’s Stuyvesant High School for a future as a Mad woman.

Her traditional Chinese parents preferred she choose abusiness career. Instead, Chiu joined her school’s ad club andcampaigned for her parents’ support—and cash to study advertisingat the college level. Though skeptical of any field that requiredpaying for art school, her father, Jung Ling Chiu, offered a

compromise. Sell me, he said. So one night,while everyone else was out, the self-madeChinatown jewelry store owner plunked down on the red leather sofain his pajamas, ready to hear her case.

Anne Chiu argued that whether the economy was up or down, businesses would always need advertising to boost sales. Very clever, thought her father. “There was only one road to take,” he now recalls of that evening nearly a decade ago.

The kid won the account, so to speak, entering the four-year BFA program in advertising at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, where tuition today goes for $15,500 a semester. Now 25, she’s an art director/copywriter at the Brooklyn Brothers agency with many honors, including a Silver Addy and bragging rights over a Brazilian agency that seemingly ripped off her school project, a mock Nike ad.

Chiu isn’t just good at advertising—she’s obsessed, boasting a roster of precisely 798 ad and design Tumblrs on her blog roll. Her regular reading includes everything from BuzzFeed’s Copyranter to a blog run by fellow twentysomething ad wonk Stepa Mitaki in Russia. Chiu gushes over industry legends like Eric Silver, Gerry Graf and Jay Chiat. “They are creatives whose brains I want to eat to absorb their powers,” she cracks on a recent day before heading to work sporting blunt-cut bangs, polka-dotted skinny jeans and black patent Nike high tops. In her spare time, she makes her own wrapping paper and tinkers with typography. (These days, her favorite font is ITC Caslon 224, especially black italic.)

Behold the ad nerd, a new breed of ad professional who grew up admiring the industry as much for its ability to entertain as to sell. Long before Mad Men unleashed a new era of Madison Avenue retro cool, these millennials were being influenced by campaigns such as Budweiser’s “Wassup?” spots, which became a cultural phenomenon. As kindergarteners, they watched TV for the commercials. In high school, they joined newly formed ad clubs, and many studied advertising in college and graduate programs. They eat, breathe and tweet advertising, possessing the natural 24/7 Web habits of their generation. Addicted? Definitely.

The trend reflects deep generational shifts influencing agencies. In the past, the ad business was seen as a way station for the likes of Andy Warhol and Kurt Vonnegut on their way to more “legitimate” forms of artistic expression. “Once upon a time, advertising was a catch-all place that artists went when they didn’t much care to be starving artists,” explains Patrick Scullin, 55, a managing partner at Ames Scullin O’Haire in Atlanta. “Now they’re in it for the advertising.”

During the 1970s and ’80s, idealistic creatives grew disenchanted by advertising’s truth problem, which led to a wave of tightened FTC enforcement. The new generation sees the field as helping consumers and fostering corporate responsibility, as well as entertaining. “Kids don’t have the barriers of cynicism and doubt that they might have had a few decades ago,” says Greg DiNoto, 52, chief creative officer at Deutsch, New York, noting a marked uptick in enthusiasm among his agency’s young guns. “There was a generation before that fell out of love with advertising and I think we’ve emerged from that.”

The ad nerd tends to get hooked young, and in unexpected ways. Andy Pearson, 27, vp, interactive associate and creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, was a sixth grader in Georgia when he first learned about the supposed dangers of subliminal messages during a media literacy class. “The whole point was to teach us the evils of advertising, but I just thought it was kind of funny,” he says from the shop’s Boulder, Colo., base, sporting an artsy T-shirt from Etsy and scruffy beard.

In college, a Jägermeister spot that relied on some clever wordplay led to an epiphany for Pearson. “I was like, ‘Oh, somebody gets to write those for a living,’” he recalls. He ended up switching from journalism to an advertising major at the University of Georgia, later earning a certificate at the advertising-focused Creative Circus in Atlanta, where a two-year program costs about $44,000.

Ad schools proliferated in the ’90s, then really took off in the last decade. From the fall of 2001 to 2011, applicants to SVA’s undergraduate BFA program in advertising increased by 41 percent, with a record number of applicants enrolling for this fall. VCU Brandcenter, the portfolio program at Virginia Commonwealth University, went from 40 students and three study tracks in 1998 to 102 students and five tracks in 2012.

Portfolio school is practically de rigueur these days, says Amy Hoover, a recruiter at Talent Zoo in Atlanta. “In the past seven, eight, nine years, they’ve flooded the market with talent,” she says. With leaner budgets, studios and agencies can ill afford to train young staff, so portfolio degrees have become more of a necessity for those looking to get ahead in the business. “If nobody’s going to pay to train you, then you have to pay for your own training,” says Norm Grey, executive creative director and founder of the Creative Circus. “These schools are basically training camps … to hit the ground running.”

The “Circus training” kicked in after Pearson and his three student cohorts learned they were nominated for a Cannes Future Lion. Within hours, they organized a photo shoot and launched a fundraising site peddling $500 cookies to pay for their trip to France. In just 24 hours, they pulled in $10,000, helping Pearson land a gig as a freelance copywriter at Wieden + Kennedy at age 23, before even graduating.

Pearson quotes one of his idols, the iconoclastic ad legend Howard Gossage, who proclaimed: “Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, sometimes it’s an ad.” Today, that means telling stories with humorous setups that encourage pass-along. A prime example is a spot promoting the launch of TV channel TNT in Belgium, which racked up 36 million views on YouTube. The top viral video of this year, the ad is set in a small Flemish town that erupts in mayhem after a curious passerby pushes a red button placed atop a post in the main square with a sign reading, “Push to add drama.”

“Advertising has broken out of the 30-second TV spot,” says Pearson, who worked on a hilarious infomercial parody for Old Navy starring Mr. T that went viral this past spring. “If you stripped away the brands, they would actually become art pieces or happenings,” he says. “If I were just writing Web copy, I’d shoot myself in the face.”

The art of the pitch lured many millennials when they were still very young. Marc Duran, 26, a copywriter at the Wing agency in New York, recalls making up games about TV commercials with his brother when he was growing up in Spain. In a favorite one, they would see who could guess the product first after the opener, exhilarated by how much an ad could make them feel in just a few seconds. “I didn’t care what they were trying to sell me, but I loved feeling the joke,” says Duran, who represented the U.S. Hispanic market’s Circulo Creativo at the Cannes Young Lions this year, blogging every second of the 48-hour contest. (About his team, a media blog quipped: “Young Creatives Win a Trip to Cannes, Are Forced to Work the Whole Time.”)

Advertising has evolved from touting product attributes to storytelling that incorporates humor, irony and subtlety—oftentimes to the point that it’s not quite clear what product is being promoted.

“It’s this interesting time where we’re working our damnedest to try and look like we’re not saying anything of interest,” says ASO managing partner Scullin, pointing to the wildly popular, tongue-in-cheek campaign for Old Spice from Wieden + Kennedy and the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” spots by Euro RSCG. Then, there’s the Healthy Choice ad Anne Chiu helped create, featuring a character who points out to her boss that she’s eating lunch at her desk to show what a hard worker she is—even though she’s not working at all. The boss then shares a disturbing factoid about his belly button. The spot ends with a voiceover heralding Healthy Choice as “an honest-to-goodness lunch that’s maybe too honest.”

The ad’s message was, well, truthfulness, Chiu says, pointing out that it was inspired in part by the 2001 short film Truth in Advertising and Ricky Gervais’ 2009 feature The Invention of Lying about a world where no one had ever deceived. Pop culture references supplant overt salesmanship and earnestness, which reek of old fogey.

While early exposure to brand marketing on the Web and to the industry itself have propelled ever younger creatives into the limelight, it was nonetheless remarkable when 20-year-old Hong Kong design student Jonathan Mak Long landed a contract this past spring to create a Coca-Cola ad for Ogilvy & Mather in China, after famously fusing Steve Jobs’ profile into the Apple logo following the tech icon’s death. In the past, it took years for newbies to build a substantial portfolio, elder creatives point out. For example, Guy Barnett, 45, a partner at Brooklyn Brothers, says he “crawled” his way up from small agencies after studying English and drama in college.

Today, the crawl begins even before college. In 2008, the country’s first accredited public high school focused on marketing and advertising opened in Brooklyn called the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media. This June, the school, which was founded to encourage minorities to enter the field, graduated its first class of 48 seniors. During his four years there, Jermaine Richards from Canarsie created real ads, designing an integrated campaign for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative to combat childhood obesity. He also pitched Jaguar after mastering Photoshop and marketing courses—as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. (In a recent conversation, Richards swooned over a Bose ad for “baby-crying-canceling headphones.”)

This fall, Richards heads to the City University of New York after winning a $20,000 scholarship from the Advertising Club of New York. At 18 and with an eye on becoming an art director someday, he already has a portfolio that includes Web, print and video work, and an iPhone app. By the time he graduates in 2016, he’ll already have a considerable client portfolio plus eight years of advertising experience.

So listen up, recruiters. That’s Jermaine with a J.

[cover art: Adweek]