The phenomenon & frailties of the Watford Advertising Course, in leader Tony Cullingham’s own words

Tony Cullingham has run Watford Advertising for almost three decades

After almost 30 years at the helm, the unassuming Tony Cullingham has sailed a small practical course in advertising into near-mythical status. What’s his secret – and what’s his future in a digital world?

If advertising is a form of sorcery, and many would have you believe it is, then magic is made just off the A411 in West Herts College. Tony Cullingham’s Watford Advertising Course has run almost entirely unchanged in curriculum since 1989, periodically destroying the confidence of young graduates who think they have talent only to build them up again into substantive, employable creatives.

Watford’s list of alumni reads like an illustrious who’s who of the industry; past students include Grey’s Caroline Pay, Mr President’s Jon Gledstone, Lucky Generals’ Danny Brooke-Taylor, CHI&Partners’ Yan Elliott, 18 Feet & Rising’s Anna Carpen and Saatchi & Saatchi’s Rob Potts. The Creative Circle’s chief executive, Jeremy Green, recalls an audience audibly gasping when a roll call of Cullingham’s protégés was read aloud at the organisation’s awards last year.

Roughly 15 students are taken on each year after completing a seemingly bizarre test, which, Pay remembers, reduced her to tears with questions such as ‘What does the future hold for jelly?’ and ‘Why should you never underestimate a handsome bear?’ They undertake five months of rigorous training before being let loose on placements in the agencies of London, in order to develop and showcase their skills at the heart of the job market.

Danny Brooke-Taylor, founding partner at Lucky Generals

“Tony taught me two things: to keep digging to find the thing that really matters to people, then to make that thing as beautiful, funny, noisy and heart-breaking as you can.”

In training Cullingham still uses the same analogue methods that he developed pre-internet. Briefs come in fast and ideas are dashed, hard. Work is more likely to end up at the bottom of a bin than dashed in red pen, and crying is par for the course at the beginning of each new school year.

“Tony has this great but intimidating line about working your brain harder than any formal education ever has,” recalled alumnus Paddy Fraser, creative director at CP&B. “And he’s right. Our heads hurt like fuck for the first few months. The man rewires your brain. And does it whilst gleefully destroying your ideas daily.”

When it comes to the daily pitching rounds, Cullingham pins all the work to the board and tears down every idea that doesn’t meet the brief he set an hour ago. Out of 100 bright ideas, he’s happy to leave – on average – just one pinned to the board.

Sometimes he doesn’t leave any.

“The advertising world is tough,” Cullingham says. “The students have to produce a lot of ideas quickly and they have to be good. The ability to bounce back is important. I need students that can be rejected five or six times a day and go, ‘so what?’”

While screens proliferate modern agency life, the course’s director is a paper evangelist. Each cohort goes through stacks of the stuff due to Cullingham’s belief that creatives need to cut themselves off from all communication technology in order to generate good ideas.

“Creativity is best when you lock yourself away from your phone, so you’re not getting email alerts or texts from your friends,” he asserts. “Paper and a pen in your hand – that’s all you need.

“Technology should only come into being when your idea demands it. It’s also a good inspirer – when you’re not thinking you can use [the internet to] watch films and view art. But it creates lazy creative, and I think should be churning out energetic creatives that don’t rely on technology to develop ideas or look to be inspired in that way. Inspiration comes from life. That’s what they should be engaged with.”

Caroline Pay, joint chief creative officer at Grey London

“Tony taught me a million things. Kill your babies. It’s not personal. Grow a thick skin. Read the room. Never give up. You get back double what you put in. No puns. No borrowed interest. Tony knows EXACTLY what he’s doing. If you can’t crack it, crack something else, then come back and crack it later.

“Get up and out and chat and see and listen and learn. Inspiration never comes from a blank sheet of paper.”

This dedication to analogue borders the religious, and as time goes by and the course’s curriculum remains essentially unaffected by the course of time, it’s difficult to marry the digital workplaces most students will enter into with an education delivered on Post-It Notes and reams of A4.

Grappling with the new technological skills that marketers now require is a challenge most acutely felt by academic institutions, according to Douglas West, a professor of marketing at King’s College London, who believes training courses are “slightly on the back foot, in that the industry reacts much more quickly than we can react”.

“It takes us about a year to plan a course, test the market for a course and sort out the content, and it takes a second year to market that course and make sure that we have the appropriate people teaching the course,” he said, when giving oral evidence to Parliament’s Select Committee on Communications. “The course will start in the third year. So our planning cycle for MScs and degrees and so forth is, inevitably, on the back foot.”

Andy Jex, chief creative officer at TBWA\London

“Tony taught me about lateral thinking: thinking differently, surprising, delighting and emoting with people through the power of ideas – never through the power of TV or a press ad. What he teaches is as relevant today as it was all those years ago."

Cullingham – who teaches the course himself with only the support of one part-time tutor – does not have to worry about finding teachers. There’s also no need for him to test the waters with new content because his course is underpinned by a set of immovable, almost ideological truths that he hopes will go unchanged in spite of digital’s entrenchment in marketing.

“I like to think every single one of my students finds work very easily and that’s because there’s still the demand out there for ideas people,” he says. “I find the demand for my students is greater than it’s ever been, because there are more channels out there, more companies ­and more creative leaders that want ideas people.”

Stuart Harkness, executive creator director at 72&Sunny Amsterdam

“Watford moulds your brain in weird and wonderful ways and teaches folk how to think laterally, have fun, and believe in six-word briefs rather than pages of waffle.”

Constantly talking up the value of the ethereal idea does, of course, tend to veer into idealism. And there are the pragmatists in advertising – usually of the suited variety – that deem his methods to be out-dated in a time of data analysis and multitudes of developing digital channels.

“I think some people see me as irrelevant,” Cullingham says, when asked what he reckons the London ad scene makes of him. “They think I’m old fashioned and traditional and I’m not very good with digital media and I’ve been doing the job for too long. Some think that I don’t have any liking for craft, which is completely rubbish.

“But some people see me as really relevant, and I’d rather be at two ends of the spectrum. Anything in between is not right for me – that’s average.”

Watford alumnus Ben Tollett, now Adam&Eve/DDB’s group executive creative director, counters that while the methods in the classroom may be theoretical, “Watford students spend most of their time inside agencies like ours, learning on the job, working on live briefs”.

“So I don’t really see how the course could be any more bang up to date,” he says, “unless Tony has invented a time machine that he’s using to send his students to work in the Soho ad scene circa 1989.”

Ben Tollet, group executive creator director at Adam&Eve/DDB

“The main thing we learnt was how to come up with lots of advertising ideas. And then we learnt how to judge which of those ideas were any good. And then we learnt how to come up with even more ideas once we’d rejected the entire first batch. These are skills I now use day in day out.

“Of course we also learnt lots of other important stuff like tenacity, doggedness and how to survive on baked beans on toast.”

Looking ahead, the course of steady Watford’s future will be dependent on external factors. Cullingham has honestly admitted in the past that the scheme is receiving fewer applications than it used to, attributing the drop off to the rising costs of living in London. He’s also posed the idea of an industry funding system that would help those who struggle with the £4,000 fees and rent in the capital finance the course.

But now, his tone is one of unambiguous frustration.

“This year I have 12 students and I'm falling below my break even target, which is 16,” he says via email, a few months after first speaking to The Drum. “Kids just don't have the dosh. Kids from Swansea, Glasgow and Hartlepool have even less dosh.

“I've always tried to recruit students from less privileged backgrounds [because] that's what the industry needs and that is the audience I want to see in front of me. But that creates huge problems for me – I have some students this year who can't afford the train fare to get to London for an agency workshop.”

Cullingham also believes plans to make his course more international are being scuppered by the Home Office’s student immigration policy.

“I actually recruited an Indian chap from Mumbai, a Russian and a Singaporean but they couldn’t get visas,” he recalls. “I think there’s a real problem at the moment in terms of my goals and trying to make the industry more diverse. I try and look worldwide for creative talent but that’s been constrained at the moment.”

The Creative Circle’s plans to launch a free ad school have “put the worry worms” in the “Watford head” of the industry veteran. He’s been debating running a part-time option or a Skype course in order to adapt to today’s economic climate.

For the first time in nearly 30 years, Cullingham has found himself in an “adapt or die” situation.

Yet he almost certainly has the backing to do more than lessen the offering’s intensiveness, which many believe is the key to the course’s success; he has a venerable sweet shop of the UK’s finest creative talent to tap up, should he want to.

Paddy Fraser, creative director at CP&B

“Tony taught me about single-minded ideas. Start with truth. Be relevant but different. Lateral ideas are only one logical leap. Write like people talk. Practice. Craft. Have fun. Don’t move to Watford.”

Perhaps Cullingham’s problem is he feels more comfortable promoting his alumni than he does himself. His suggested angle for this very article was about the talent he has worked with – not his role in engineering their success – and he doesn’t even keep a headshot on file.

“Tony is one of the most under-appreciated overachievers in the industry,” according to Stuart Harkness, former pupil and 72&Sunny’s executive creative director in Amsterdam. And while the tutor remains modest regarding his obvious talent as an educator, he doesn’t hold back when reeling off the list of students he’s proud of.

So in some way, it’s up to the industry to rally behind and save Watford. But if it doesn’t, Cullingham has an immaculately droll plan B.

“If all else fails I'll run a clown school,” he says. “Apparently, there's a worldwide shortage of clowns.”

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Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter for creative and video, based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as Anatomy of an Ad, Creative Pursuits and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing.

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