Do Creatives Need to Have a College Degree to be Successful?

I found an interesting article. It was worth the read for me; maybe it will be for you as well. Please visit the source for Parts One and Two!


By  on January 11th, 2012

Industry Movers & Shakers Chime In: Susan Credle & Jimmy Smith

Welcome to the third part of a three-part series on whether creatives need college degrees or not to be successful. In Part One, I featured a Q&A with industry veterans. In Part Two, I delved into the experience of both degreed and non-degreed individuals in the industry.

Now, in Part Three, I had the chance to speak with two award-winning creatives: Susan Credle, CCO of Leo Burnett USA, and Jimmy Smith, CEO of Amusement Park Entertainment. I might add that these are two incredibly down-to-earth people who have broken outside the box (yeah…I hate that term, too, but it applies!) to produce some of the best advertising out there today. Can you relate to Allstate’s “Mayhem” or Gatorade’s “Replay”?

When I was writing Part One of the series, Bruce Cohen forwarded me an email from his Creativity newsletter that featured Credle and Smith, along with other creatives in their field, in aroundtable interview that addressed whether or not ad schools produce the best talent. I needed to find out more about their opinions, experiences and thoughts on my current topic.

Initially, I asked both Susan and Jimmy if they felt that a creative should possess a college degree to be hired into the field.

“College is one way to enrich yourself creatively. The diversity of subjects you study, the people you meet and range of cultural experiences all become sources of inspiration,” Susan began. While she does not feel a degree would make or break a creative in the advertising industry, she doesn’t dismiss the advantages of getting a college degree. “There is a difference between a degree from an ad school and a liberal arts degree from a university. I believe the ad schools help you hone your craft and thinking when it comes to creative problem solving. But a liberal arts degree exposes you to subjects and worlds that give you more depth as a person.” However, she did note that life experience is the most important credential a creative person can have (and a great body of work) to be successful in the ad industry.

University is one way to gather some life experience fairly quickly.” In Credle’s opinion, craft schools are a deep dive into how to think creatively about marketing and advertising. “Many colleges simply don’t have the ability to go deep into preparation for a creative position at an agency. So a student leaves with a sense of whether he or she might want to pursue a career in advertising rather than killer portfolio. I studied advertising in school. It helped me understand what might be required of me in the industry. But the diverse classes I took have played at least as big of a part in my career as the marketing-specific ones.”

Susan’s first CCO, Phil Dusenberry, used to say, “make room for the crazy ones.” Dusenberry, according to Susan, worried that the overall corporate demeanor of the business could sanitize the creative department if room for eccentricity was not made.

In addition, Susan said that despite her concern about her college GPA and getting her diploma, in 26 years she has never been asked about either in an interview. “The work you do speaks for itself. A great book doesn’t need to come with a high GPA or a college diploma. Book smart doesn’t necessarily translate into whip smart. And whip smart will get you further in the creative department.” However, Susan has also witnessed incredibly funny, witty people who have had difficulty applying that creative bent to the business. “The best creative people in advertising have a keen sense of business needs that they solve by applying creativity to the problem.”

Jimmy’s response was even more emphatic than Susan’s. “No [they do not need a degree]. If a creative came in with an awesome portfolio, would I deny them? No. I’ve never heard of anyone tossing a creative’s resume because they didn’t have a degree.” Smith feels that ‘any of the big agencies will not toss them’ – meaning a creative’s resume – because they do not possess a college degr

ee. He did add that sometimes smaller shops in smaller regions may do so. “If you are living in a bigger city with major agencies, they don’t do that. [I’m] not against anyone having a degree. Bottom line, if you can do the work, can do it well and can produce work on an award-winning level, no degree is necessary.”

When asked if either have or would hire a person without a degree, here are the stories they shared:

“Yes,” Susan quickly responded. “One of my favorite hires was a guy who was doing an internship at the agency. He was working in paste-up. I believe he had dropped out of NYU where he had been studying animation or something like that. I found myself more and more frequently swinging by the bench to check out his incredibly sardonic cartoons. Most of his commentary was about the agency. They were brutally funny. So I hired him to be a writer in the group. Within six months, he was on a set in Los Angeles. He became a success without a degree. In fact, he didn’t even have a portfolio. He’s gone on to work for some of the best agencies in the business.”

“Absolutely,” added Jimmy. “I do things differently. [As a matter of fact], a resume is the last thing I look at. The first thing I look at is your best work.” He talks to applicants about their overall capabilities to produce top-notch work. Jimmy feels that the only reason to check a resume is to check references. “I’ve had non-degreed and degreed that both didn’t live up to the promise,” said Smith. “Then I’ve hired people that were incredible in both categories.”

I was compelled to ask both if they felt the higher educational system adequately prepares graduates for the ‘real business world’ with the required skills they need to work in a ‘real life’ business environment.

“It’s really difficult…some schools do a better job than others,” noted Smith. “The Brand Center at VCU does a very good job. I’m not saying the other schools don’t. I’ve just worked with The Brand Center, so I know firsthand. Some can play at the highest level within those schools, but it is very difficult to go from school to the professional environment.” Smith went on, “No matter how good they [the students] are there are different types of dynamics that go on. Clients can be difficult.”

Smith explained that often brands will connect with schools for work but won’t give them real-world feedback that all creatives get in the real world. “In other words, the people representing the brands are on their best behavior. There are no warts. HA HA HA! Even if they don’t like something, they’ll communicate it nicely. That’s not necessarily the real world.”

“[These kids] gotta figure out a great idea to sell them (the brands). They need to be faced with an all-star caliber ‘insane’ director that wants to do things differently.” Smith added that students can only prepare the best that they can for such a situation, but in the end, it would show whether or not they are ‘up to the task’ of the advertising world. [If it were me,] I would make it more challenging and tell the client/CD/brand to be as difficult as possible and change the whole thing up and [the kids] still have to make it great and give the client the most benefit for his money.” Working on projects in school is much different than working with a client or clients in a professional setting. He said that oftentimes, a student can work with their friends in school and be comfortable, but in the real world, they have to deal with a boss who may not get their concept(s) or offer more creative criticism than what they are used to.

Susan felt that schools like The Brand Center at VCU, Creative Circus and Miami Ad School provide students with teachers who have experienced the business firsthand. In fact, many teachers at these schools are still leaders in the industry. So these schools are teaching in real time the necessary skills to enter the business. “I’ve been impressed with the amount of collaboration these schools are requiring of students. By working with each other to solve problems, they are creating a mock business environment that I believe helps junior creatives assimilate more easily when they enter an agency. Also, the network these kids become a part of by attending these schools cannot be undervalued. The students, themselves, form a bond that I have seen over last decades. And the schools have great relationships with top agencies.” She noted that a student can secure a degree and a portfolio usually within two years. “It is a focused, disciplined way to get ready to enter the business if you can afford it.”

These schools typically run $40K excluding room and board for a two-year degree. “Of course, the experience the student receives depends on the school he or she attends. Not all schools are created equal and the recruiters are well aware of that. The right craft school can be like a super highway for a career. A talented person can probably get to the same place without the degree, but it might take a little longer to break in.” She added that the field is constantly changing and it is important for both the professors and the students to keep up with the trends while not ignoring the traditional or the “mass-scale mediums” that are the foundation of the communications industry.

I wondered if they felt college graduates needed to possess a degree in the particular creative field in which they were seeking employment or if they would consider applicants with great skills from another field for a creative position in advertising.

Susan mentioned that she asks recruiters to look outside of the creative industry for talent who may not have an advertising education but are creative nonetheless. People majoring in drama, fine arts, English or business might make amazing creatives. “I think there are a lot creative people out there who may not know they can express that creativity through a career in advertising.”

Interestingly enough, as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, Susan was majoring in drama. She switched her major to journalism her sophomore year. She admitted, “I think I was afraid I would be asked to do a nude scene on stage. The thought of my body as an instrument just was too much for me as a modest 18-year-old.” She started using the skills she had developed to play a character and applied them to understanding and writing for a brand. “Honestly, I think our industry remains exciting when we tap into people who may not have known this is a great outlet for creativity.”

Jimmy talked about a female producer. She was head of production at Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam. Later, she discovered that she wanted to create rather than produce, and Jimmy did not ignore her talents. Jimmy shortly brought her in as a creative director at Chiat/Day LA. In another situation, a gentleman presented himself to Smith as a director, but Jimmy chose to hire him as writer. “He was better in that position. If you keep looking in the same old slots, you’re going to get the same old thing.”

I then asked where each thought the creative industry was headed regarding the necessity for job seekers holding a college degree and/or if it was a deal breaker.

Susan gave me this perspective. “You will always need a degree in life to be successful. The real education is in the journey. Travel, read books, read anything, read everything, immerse yourself in art, hang out with fascinating people, scare yourself.” She believes a degree in life is even better supported by a traditional education. Her mother told her growing up, “School is really about whetting the appetite to know and experience fantastic things, to appreciate where in this huge world to spend time so that we eventually become fulfilled – or at the very least more interesting, more valuable human beings.” Credle recommends that those seeking to break into the industry study a range of creatives not just leaders in the advertising industry, including novelists, poets, artists, directors and musicians. “They inspire me every day to think differently about how to create a solution to a business problem.”

She doesn’t care where you get your education, in a classroom or in the real world. “If you don’t have a piece of parchment declaring you graduated, you can still become extremely successful in this industry. It’s all about the talent and the work.” For example, Susan said, “If someone told me that he or she had spent four years traveling around the world and experiencing life, I would probably be more inclined to hire him or her over someone who had a college degree but had never left the state in which he or she was born. “An education has a lot of value. It teaches us to open up to a world beyond ourselves. The key is to then live in that world.”

Credle pointed out that by “teaching” creativity – an odd set of words in her mind – most students are learning a certain way of thinking. She paused and queried, “I wonder if people weren’t taught how to approach creativity, would they discover completely new ways to advertise, market and build brands?” Now, there is something to think about!

Enjoying the conversations I was having, I just couldn’t stop asking questions…

I asked Jimmy how a person gets noticed by a large agency.

He said back in the day it used to be extremely hard to get into a place like Wieden + Kennedy. “People got into there by being creative period.” One person he knew would call Dan Wieden from a phone booth every day looking at his corner office; not stalking Dan but asking if he looked at his resume and samples. That got him an interview.  Smith actually wrote Dan a five-page letter to get into W+K. “If you keep using the conventional means to get into an agency, most likely your work will be conventional.  So why would I want to hire you?  Especially, since we don’t even consider Amusement Park to be an agency.  You gotta make like the crazies in Lee Clow and Steve Jobs’ Apple spot and think different, man.” asked Smith. “It takes a lot to break through to get them to recognize your abilities and get through to them with your creativity.” In essence, how you present or ‘get to’ someone within an agency or company can tell a lot about how you could eventually get through to the consumer and sell or support a client’s product.

Now we go open-ended. It’s a free-for-all, so to speak. I wanted to hear more views on anything and everything industry-related. Here are the results:

“Today’s ads look like reworked ideas,” exclaimed Jimmy. “There are only a few pieces of advertising that actually stand out.  But that’s the way it’s always been.”

During our conversation, Smith discussed how the creative industry could be compared (somewhat lightly) to a Navy Seal 6 team. “Helicopters and other equipment sometimes don’t operate correctly – so, you have to be quick on your feet and improvise often.  No excuses.  You can’t fail.  The work still has to be great. Real life teaches you that you have to be expecting the unexpected. People coming out of school [like those going into battle] may not be fully prepared for the unexpected.  As they say, experience is the best teacher. “


What an enlightening and invigorating experience this has been over the past several months speaking with veterans, the people in the field and the movers and shakers. One thing was apparent after all of my research is that no matter how you further your education…DO IT! It can come in many forms, open many doors, garner paychecks as well as introduce you to a world you did not know before that can enhance your life.

Many thanks to all that provided the excellent information and insight into this subject for all parts of the series – Part 1Part 2, Part 3. Now…where do you stand? Please share your thoughts.


One thought on “Do Creatives Need to Have a College Degree to be Successful?

  1. So much great advice to pass on to my students. Maybe coming from the pros they will believe what I have long been telling them, their GPA is irrelevant. It’s the book that counts. But I still question why when there are so many female students (the great majority) there are so few female creatives (the great minority)…

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