Where does the time go? I feel like it was just yesterday that I was working on my Miami Ad School application video in New Orleans, naive to what the future would hold, but excited nonetheless. Now, nearly two years later, I sit writing this post in Chicago between finishing school at the San Francisco Base School, and heading back down to New Orleans to look for full-time work. Overall the experience that attending this school afforded me has been incredible. I feel I have lived an entire life-time through this program. I’ve seen places I otherwise probably never would have seen, met people I may have never had the pleasure of knowing, and produced work I certainly wouldn’t have had the ability to execute if I had not chosen to attend MAS.
But at some point during this last quarter it hit me: A pretty horrifying and sudden cognizance that I felt entirely underprepared to graduate. Suddenly the end of the line was in sight, and though I truly felt I worked hard throughout the whole experience, I did not feel like what I had to show for it accurately reflected my abilities or the effort I put into the program. The realization was crushing, and sent me into a frantic and panicked state of mind. Was I going to be able to find work when this is over? Have I completely squandered 2 years of my life and countless dollars in a way that it is too late to repair? I found myself thinking about work and school through a very negative filter, and was constantly avoiding or consumed in negative thought cycles about my efforts. What’s worse, for making great creative work, this attitude is about as debilitating as it can get.
Every great journey is bound to be characterized by a series of ups and downs. My experience at Miami ad school was no different at all, I had countless and fluctuating periods of elation and sorrow. This balance is to be expected, but I can’t help wondering if some of these low points could have been avoided with better choices or a different actions. At this point I can say with certainty that the answer to that question is a definitive “Yes”, which is why I am writing this post. I hope by writing these words I can help a young creative avoid some of the situations that I believe may have prevented me from squeezing the maximum amount of positive juice out of this program. Since I have written extensively about the different stages I experienced through this school, from my time beginning in Miami (Here, here, and here) to my quarters away in Amsterdam, Chicago and San Francisco, I want to use this post to impart what general knowledge I have gained that may equip someone else to avoid the mistakes I feel I made. Although everyone is bound to have a different experience of the school through meeting different colleagues, travelling to different places and working on different projects, I hope to keep this post as much of an overview as possible so that it may be helpful no matter what path one may find through Miami Ad School.
Miami Ad School is a portfolio program for creatives looking to break into the advertising industry. When I applied and was accepted to the school’s Art Direction program, I really had no true perception of what an AD did. I just figured it had something to do with design and visuals, which was something I thought I was decent at and would like to improve as my career developed. Little did I know that even though art direction and design are inexorably linked, the duties of one in a professional setting are really completely different than the other. I thought it might be useful to lay out the different programs MAS offers, and do my best at explaining what is expected from professionals in each of these positions in an agency setting. First, a little disclaimer: Miami Ad School has many locations throughout the world. Some of these may be stronger than others when it comes to certain programs, and vice versa. I am speaking only out of the experience of the base schools and internships that I attended.
Art Direction: Art directors cultivate the visual side of a creative idea that they will then turn into pieces of advertising for a brand. Art directors work with copywriters to create concepts for a campaign or piece, and then it is their responsibility to produce the first iterations of a visual representation of that idea. Let me be clear about this: It is as much of an AD’s job to be good at coming up with conceptual ideas about a brand or their product as it is to be good at designing visuals and layouts. Being good at design is not congruous to being good at art direction. Art directors must be able to recognize human truths, and create ideas that that allow a brand or product to interact with that truth in the audience’s head. I may not be explaining it in the most easily understood way, but that is because it is a difficult thing to truly understand! It took 2 years at school for me to really grasp this, but the main point I want to get across here is that Art Direction ≠ Design, as I believe this is a fairly common misconception of young people desiring to enter this field. That being said, it is important for an Art Director to have a good grasp of graphic design, especially in a small agency where he or she may need to fill a number of different roles in their position.
Copywriting: Copywriters work with art directors to represent an idea about a brand or product through words or text like headlines, taglines and body copy. The best pieces of advertising happen when the visual side of the idea creates synergy with the copy side of it; that is, that the sum of the two parts creates something greater than either of them possibly could alone. You could write the most amazing prose that has ever graced the eyes of a human being, and still be an awful copywriter. Amazing copy takes the ability to be truly creative within certain confines or rules. I’ve found that truly great copywriter’s are few and far between, but many find their start at Miami Ad School.
Digital Design: Generally, in an agency setting, it is the designers job to take what an art director has created and get into the grit of the design. Designers painstakingly make sure that the visuals of each piece of the campaign are pixel-perfect.
Digital Photography and Video: Miami Ad School offers this program for creatives that are interested in getting into the imaging side of advertising, fashion or whatever else they may want to use it for. I have seen people who had barely held a camera before attending the school become amazing photographers over the course of the program. I would definitely say that Miami Ad School offers a competitive education in this field of the industry.
Miami Ad School also offers courses in Account Planning and Social Media Engagement, a Masters of Communications program in collusion with FIU, and some professional workshops as well. I can’t say much to any of these on a personal experience, but from what I have seen they are top of the line.
A Unique Opportunity: One of the most unusual and amazing aspects of the Miami Ad School program is that it offers the opportunity to study and work abroad. Students can visit a number of foreign cities either taking classes at a Miami Ad School Base School, taking classes while based in an agency with an Agency Lab, or working a paid internship in an Intern Lab. There are too many offerings in too many cities to list here, but you can get the overview by visiting the school’s site. I took full advantage of the opportunity to bounce around during my time with the program. I began in the Miami Base School for a year, which was incredible, then hopped over to Amsterdam for my first Agency Lab, Back to Chicago for a paid internship, and wrapped up at the San Francisco Base School to take classes and work on my book. I have written fairly extensively about each one of these experiences previously on this blog. If you are interested in the specifics of any one of these parts of the program, check back a few posts and you will find everything I have to say about them. Overall, each one has been a powerful and positive experience.
The Right Mindset
If there is one thing I have learned throughout this process, it’s that attitude is everything. This is the most powerful truth there is when it comes to good creative work. If you can harness a positive mindset about the work and projects you’re engaging in, you’ll be so much more likely to create amazing work… You’ll feel excited when you’re working and your attitude will be contagious to those around you. Talk about a perfect recipe for great advertising. Unfortunately, things are easier said than done, but keep those positive vibrations radiating from you as often as possible and you will be set. I’ve gathered some do’s and don’ts that might help keep a good attitude and healthy mindset throughout school. Some of these might be useful to consider as you make your way through the program and others may seem redundant or contradictory, but the idea is to try to strike a balance that will help you get the most out of this school.
- Attend undergrad before coming to Miami Ad School. I think the program has more potential to be a home run if students have gotten the undergrad lifestyle out of their system and know what they want to achieve by coming back to school… But hell, if you live and breathe advertising and know its what you want, nothing and no one is going to be able to hold you back.
- That being said, DO socialize fairly heavily with classmates. Frequent interaction and shared experiences will bring you closer to the people you are working with. This will make it more obvious who you’re going to work well with and who you won’t.
- Work with as many different people as you can. You will learn a ton, and figure out who helps you make the best work you can.
- At the same time, DO make note of who you work best with. Many students end up teaming up with their favorite copywriter/art director and working mostly with that person. There are a number of advantages to this; if you work well with your partner you will come out of school with more work you’re proud of, plus many agencies like to hire new creatives as a team since it is known that they click. I never found that special copywriter, but that is probably mostly my fault. I would say the best course of action is working with many people at the start of the program, then slowly analyzing and narrowing down as time moves on and working bonds grow stronger or weaker.
- Take advantage of the travel aspect of the school. I mean come on, this is about half the reason we all choose MAS, am I right? While learning how to make great advertising will make you grow in one way, living and working in a place that lies miles and miles from your comfort zone will transform you in a different but just as important way.
- Take walks. Especially when you’re feeling creatively blocked.
- Keep in touch with the people you meet. These people aren’t just your classmates and professors, they’re the next and current generation of creative professionals. This entire program is one huge networking event. That person right there might have a job at your dream agency with the potential to catalyze getting you a job there as well!
- Get to know the agencies and their work. This is something I did not do as much as I should have, and I would have been better off if I did. Have an answer when someone asks you what your dream agency is, or what your favorite recent campaign has been. It will help you sound like you know your shit, but more importantly, it will help you start to know yourself and your style.
- Enter contests. There’s nothing to lose… And school pays for them! This is another thing I did not do enough of. Ad/design/writing contests are a great way to get your name out there, and it is a wonderful affirmation of what you’re doing when you get some recognition.
- Be proud of what you do. It’s never going to be perfect, let me tell you that now, but you will see yourself progress and that is something to be stoked about. Projects end up better if you like working on them.
- Be creative outside of advertising. Draw, write, design, paint yourself like a rainbow unicorn and then run through your neighborhood naked… I dunno, just keep that creative energy alive. Being creative solely for advertising can be oppressive. You may find yourself exhausted at the notion of trying to come up with another idea for some random product you truthfully don’t care much about. One way to battle this creative sluggishness is to always make sure you’re doing something that makes you happy, even if its just for a few minutes a day. Plus, agencies love to see side work in your book. We call these statement pieces; anything creative that tells someone about you or what you like to do. They are a must.
- Be a dick. This is not the last time you will hear this advice, and there are many reasons for it. People simply don’t want to be around them, much less work with them, even if they are the most talented dick of all the dicks that walk the land. They are still just a dick.
- Take life too seriously. This was probably my major fuckup throughout the entire program. Loosen up! Getting obsessed with what you’re doing is great but if it ends in a negative attitude (like it often did for me) your work and relationships will suffer. The best creative work happens when you’re happy.
- Be afraid of going to base-schools second quarter over Internships or Greenhouses. I found that Base Schools were the best places to work on my portfolio; Internships and Greenhouses are great for real life experience, but would always end up being very busy and distracting. What you need to get out of this program is a good book, and whatever is going to help you get that should take priority.
- Let a project die when the quarter ends. Always be looking to improve the work you’ve done in previous quarters. Again, I am so guilty of this misstep. As soon as the quarter would end, that would be the last time I would want to even look at the work I’d just “finished”. I learned the hard way that book-worthy work takes many many iterations to be ready. Always be getting new feedback on your work and looking to improve and refine it.
- Graduate early. It may seem tempting, but having done just this, I can honestly say the extra quarter would have been a major help.
- Hide your work away. I hated showing my work because I was shy about it. Don’t be bashful! I would recommend taking every chance to get your work in front of new eyes as you can. This way you will get enough feedback to identify patterns in what people are saying about your pieces and will make it easy to determine how to improve or change the project.
- Compare your work to that of others. Well, at least don’t do it TOO much. While looking at the work of others is an important part of our job, it must be broached with a more explorative state of mind rather than for drawing comparison. We should look at the work of others and feel inspired, not jealous. Stay focused and excited about what you’re doing, rather than getting too distracted with what your colleague is up to.
- Let professors give you weak feedback. The last thing you want to hear after presenting is, “That’s great! Who wants to go next?” Although it may be an ego boost, it is not doing you any good. Never let an instructor get away with being soft on you. Kick them, scream at them, I don’t even know, do whatever it takes but make them rip apart your work. That is the ONLY way it will get better. Get used to getting your butt kicked, start liking it even; this is how you will become great. This Don’t is a great segway into my next section…
The whole damn reason you decided to come back to school is to build a body of work. In advertising, your portfolio is the final word. Sure, you get a pretty certificate for graduating from MAS, but show that to a creative director and he will laugh in your face unless you wrote 150 damn good headlines on it. Here’s a little bit on how to steer your book toward success throughout the program.
The Importance of Feedback
Despite having covered this multiple times already, I feel it is important enough to warrant its own section. Feedback and collaboration are of paramount importance when it comes to creating good advertising. The ideal advertising student would learn to welcome and thrive on the constructive criticism of their instructors and class mates. Feedback is mainly important because after your project has survived enough of it, it will have transformed into something that can be understood by many people without question. Think about it this way, if an extremely talented creator made a campaign in a vacuum devoid of feedback, theres no way that person would have any way of knowing if the idea would be understood by anyone else; even if it made all the sense in the world to that individual. My advice is to show your work to as many people as you can. Everyone has their own opinions, and some feedback is going to be better than others. But when you get enough of it, you will see patterns and congruencies in the things people are telling you, and then the changes you should make will become obvious. Once again I will stress this: Never let an instructor get away with giving you weak feedback. Good feedback should include some very concise advice on how to make your campaign or idea work better. I wish I would have hunted that shit down with a thirst for blood. If there is a shortage of time in class, seek them out afterward; the best instructors will find time to help you out, even if its over email.
The Ideal Student Book
Ahhh, the student book, the whole reason we all gather in this extended convocation of creative minds. So, what does the ideal student book look like? Again, this is an important aspect of breaking into our chosen industry that I felt fairly clueless about until pretty late in the game. It’s not that no one was providing me with guidance on the matter, its just that the advice seemed to differ so much! Although there is really no true formula for what a student book should look like, I think I have a decent idea of what agencies want to see from a young creative. First and foremost, your book has to reflect you. There should really be some tangible aspects of your personality represented in your portfolio; whether that is doing a campaign for a product you really like or identify with, or maybe including some wacky statement piece that speaks volumes about you or your sense of humor. I think the ideal book includes these aspects:
- 3-4 integrated campaigns. No one particularly “likes” making these, but it is necessary to show that you can cultivate a creative idea that can be executed across many different media. Again, the most important part of these campaigns is a compelling idea.
- 1-3 other advertising pieces: These can be more one-off kinds of ideas. Had a great idea for a print campaign? Or a billboard that does something really cool or interesting? These are the kinds of things I’m talking about here. Sometimes an idea feels really great but is hard to fully integrate with print, digital, social, out of home, etc. Don’t force it, these speak volumes as single executions as well.
- 1-3 Statement pieces: These are the outlying, advertising-esque pieces that say something about you or what you like. Don’t underestimate the power of a good statement piece. Agencies are really hiring you for your personality, that other stuff is just in here to show that you can do it. These could be a collection of illustrations, photographs, some weird product you thought of, really anything that you had fun doing. Use these to surprise recruiters and creative directors and make them think, “well, that certainly came from an interesting mind!”
- Honestly, in my experience, that’s all you really need. You’ll be in really good shape if your book looks something like what I described above, and has been polished and well executed over the course of school. Another thing to keep in mind is that variety is a good thing when it comes to your book. Try to avoid multiple pieces for a certain kind of industry… Show that you can ideate for food, service, sports, entertainment, technology, health, charity, and on and on…
A Difficult Truth
Just like anything, you get out of this school what you put into it. If at any point you feel like your just cruising along, its time to change something up. Pour every bit of yourself into this program and it will pay dividends. It will be very obvious who put in that extra effort because the next thing you know you’ll see them with a badass job at some amazing agency you’ve only dreamed of.
Very much in line with some of the themes I’ve been mentioning throughout this post, I think it is important that I include a bit of my feedback on the program as a whole. I had a very positive experience of the school, but no matter how good something is, there is always room for improvement and we should always be striving to be better!
Why Miami Ad School worked:
- The duration. It took me nearly the full 2 years of the program to really know what I was doing. Anything less and I feel I personally would have been a much weaker creative (not to discount any shorter programs).
- The abroad program. This aspect of the school ensures that your education is more well-rounded than the average creative. Creativity works asymmetrically in different parts of the world, so experiencing that firsthand provides you with a wide foundation to build on.
- The environment: Incredibly encouraging and open. Unlike any other school setting I’ve ever experienced. MAS is really the perfect petri dish for a creative to grow in.
What I would change:
- I wish MAS helped students out a bit more as they’re trying to find housing abroad. Although it always ended up just fine, this was a very stressful aspect of the program for many.
- I think students could benefit from a bit of old-fashioned tough love from instructors. The environment should stay encouraging and friendly, but maybe there is a way to do that while being dead honest about why a piece of work is not going to cut it. I left year one thinking I was the shit only to be completely blindsided by the fact that there was still a great deal for me to learn in the second year.
- I think there should be portfolio class every quarter of the second year. Portfolio class was incredibly helpful for me to feel ready to graduate (mostly because I had a very honest instructor). I think I would be in an even better spot at this point if I had been involved in this professionally-guided close up examination of my book for more than just one quarter.
Each and every one of the instructors I had the pleasure of learning with had something unique and incredible to offer my education. Some of them in particular made a bigger impact on me, and I just wanted to take a second to pay them back with a quick shout. If you happen upon any one of these creatives in your time at school, you’ll be in good hands.
Ginny Dixon, Miami Base School: She’ll kick your butt into a good photographer before you know it. She was pretty much my mother figure while I was attending the Miami Base School for a year and I love her.
Ralph Budd, Miami Base School: Anyone attending the Miami Base School will know Ralph soon enough. He teaches a video storytelling class which is an important step on the journey to thinking creatively.
Flo Weckert, Miami Base School: I took a class from Flo my very first quarter. He is a very honest instructor that I could not appreciate that early in my schooling. I wish I had known at that point that he wasn’t trying to be a dick, he was trying to help us grow into great thinkers.
Diego Guevara, Miami Base School: Diego left an impression on me because he awoke my love for type, which has quickly become a passion of mine. He is a fantastic designer and creative, and there is a lot to learn from him.
Tom Biondo, Miami Base School: Photoshop whiz, he’ll show you how to use that program in ways you’ve never imagined.
Thom and Eoin, Amsterdam Greenhouse instructors: I recently heard that they are no longer involved with the program which is a damned shame, because they were the first instructors to kick my butt into realizing that I had a long way to climb before I’s be a competitive creative.
E Slody, San Francisco Portfolio Instructor: Can’t say enough about what E did for my book. He helped me take it from a steaming pile of bullshit and polish it into a shinier mound of dung that a Creative Director might actually be interested in. Really great mind, even better feedback.
Kyle Lin, San Francisco Base School: Kyle is the fricken man. Super positive attitude and the definition of a contemporary creative. He has the unique ability to provide helpful feedback without a single mean vein in his body.
I am sure that I am leaving someone out here, so I want to make it expressly clear that without each and every individual that molded me throughout this process, I would not have emerged with the ability to think the way I can now. It is an incredibly empowering feeling and I owe it to everyone working to make MAS the best portfolio school out there.
I hope that these words have been useful in describing the program and imparting a few ways to try to make the best of it. I felt I could have done so much more at MAS if I had known some of the things I do now, so if this post has helped anyone considering attending Miami Ad School, or any other portfolio program for that matter, feel better prepared or more acquainted with the journey they are about to embark on, then I’ll feel like it has done its job. I wish the best to any young creatives (or anyone for that matter) who have read to this point. Thank you, now go forth and do the damned thing!