Award school is a 12 week, once-a-year, highly competitive course on how to have ideas. It is two nights a week. One is a lecture, the other is a hands-on tutorial at two different advertising agencies.

It was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

Aspiring creatives having their books torn apart (productively)

Where, when and how

I first heard about Award school from an Art Director at a Portfolio Masterclass run by The Loop early last year. I had been trying to break into a creative agency for a bit over a year at that stage. I was told that your work doesn’t really matter at that stage, as the first thing an agency looks for is if you’ve done Award School. I said okay, and started doing some research. It really is THE standard by which aspiring creatives are measured. As it turned out, I had missed the 2013 enrolment by a few weeks, so I resolved to apply and complete the 2014 course.

Applications at the ready

Fast forward to January 2014 and the application was released. They say the easiest part is getting in. Sure, in the sense that the easiest part of pearl diving is holding your breath. Easy is subjective.

There were only five questions on the application, but a mammoth amount of work. Three of them were creative briefs. I only had two weeks to complete my application and hand it in, and I worked right up to the last possible minute. Late nights and many, many scamps later, it was finished and ready to hand in.

Then the nervous, fretting waiting began. The future of my career rested on getting accepted. Every year there are over 700 applications and only about 200 students accepted across the country. I was worried. Were my ideas good enough? Had I met all the criteria? Do I know what the hell I’m doing?

As you might already be aware from the title, I got in. Hell yeah.

…and so it begins

March and the start came around quick. I was elated when I sat in my first lecture. I was in. Here we go.

The lectures were…inspiring. I came into the course thinking I knew a fair bit. I’ve been working in the industry for nine years, so I thought I’d picked up a thing or two.

Yeah, na. I knew a bit, but realised how much I had to learn.

The lecturers were incredible. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable and highly entertaining. About half the time I was furiously scribbling notes, the other half I was laughing. At the end of the first lecture, I felt massively motivated. Ready to go. Give me my first brief and lets get cracking.

Meeting and pizza’ing

The funny looking thing on the right.

The funny looking thing on the right.

My first agency was Momentum, a small creative agency in Pyrmont. There were five other students in my tutorial group. Mostly designers and creatives in production roles similar to myself. The tutors, Dave and Christie are a talented senior Copywriter/Art Director team. We met them and each other, had some pizza and got our first brief: A poster ad selling the easy parking ability of Smart cars. Dave also suggested one of the standard ways for rapid idea generation: working in a grid. Such as simple idea, but incredibly effective.

I got started on the train home. Ideas were coming, creative juices were flowing. I filled a page with notes and thoughts before I got home. The next day, another half a page. Then I started to struggle. I went back to my notes from the lecture and, reinspired, I got a few more ideas down.

The week went quickly. Too quickly.

Feeling the burn

The second lecture was just as inspiring as the first. Focusing on print, the lecturer detailed a series of ‘rules’ to work by to create brilliant print ads. I’m not going to give them away here (you’ll just have to do Award School, won’t you?) but they were fantastic.

The second tutorial, and first time presenting our work was…challenging. I went in with high hopes, thinking I’d come up with several brilliant ideas.

Yeah, na.

We learned pretty quickly that our ideas were both mostly rubbish AND off brief. What is the first thing you think of when you think of a Smart car? Small. But the brief was for easy parking, not size. What a wake up call.

Keep on pushing

The first six weeks were a blur of great advice, hard criticism and tons of homework. Early mornings, late nights and weekends spent with sketchbook and pen in hand. A new brief to work on every week, on top of absorbing the feedback from our tutors and incorporating it into our previous briefs. My wife quickly went from ‘How is your Award School stuff going?’ to ‘Okay, time to switch off now’.

Seeing a sunrise is not always a good thing.

On top of Award School, I was put in charge of a major project at work. 12-14 hour days in the office drove my brain

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into mush. On the night before the project was due to be presented, I had a long tutorial, got home at 11pm and went to bed. At around 2am, my seven month old daughter woke up and DIDN’T GO BACK TO SLEEP UNTIL 6.15am. I was a complete zombie.

Over Easter we had a week off, but no rest. A big portion of the time was spent refining and revisiting old briefs, trying to nail the idea. I found that as I progressed through the course, I got better. My ideas and creative approach got better. Which meant that my earlier ideas were…well, rubbish. The more I worked, the better my ideas got, but the less I was able to lock in a ‘final’ idea. It was both encouraging and frustrating at the same time. I thought I had nailed three briefs, then later discarded all three ‘final’ ideas because they were crap.

I filled two oversize sketchbooks with ideas and was only halfway through.

“Don’t worry, it gets harder”

This little nugget was said by our lecturers and tutors as we moved through the course. It was very true. Not only were we falling behind on our early briefs whilst trying to work on our current briefs, the current briefs were even harder. More complex, more elements, more challenging propositions.

It was fun. It was hard. It was exhausting. It was invaluable. It was Award School.

The end is nigh!

We were nearing the end of the course. About two weeks to go, and I still had to settle on a final idea for my first eight briefs. Time management became incredibly difficult, and critical. I had to work full time during the day AND pull together my final book AND be a husband AND father.

I’ve never felt quite so overwhelmed as I did right then. My wife supported me as much as she could, but responsibilities were constantly being juggled and I was almost never there. I dropped the ball a few times and the term ‘Award School’ became a dirty word in our house, eventually being referred to as ‘it that shall not be named’. I wanted to do my best ever work, but ultimately we just wanted it to be over.

We had the final review of our books at Momentum and the second agency BMF one week from submission date, and commenced the worst week of them all. Emails back and forth to our tutors at all hours of the night asking feedback on this idea or that. Jim and Ryan, a senior Copywriter/Art Director team and our tutors from BMF were fantastic, driving us to greater heights and providing honest, frank feedback. I couldn’t even remember what home looked like.

Aaaand…done.

Ingredients: Blood, sweat, tears.

Ingredients: Blood, sweat, tears.

Finish line. I walked into the Award office on a rainy Thursday morning, handed in my book and passed out on the floor right in front of the desk.

Okay, no I didn’t. I’m being dramatic. But mentally, I was completely spent. Tapped out. Drained. I spent the remainder of the week working the minimum required, then took a week off to get to know my family again. Without that, I may have snapped and ended up climbing a clock tower with a semi-automatic.

Okay fine, I’m still being dramatic, but it was hard. Really hard.

And worth it. Really, really, really worth it. If you love advertising like I do (not regular love either, that weird, obsessive love that gets people arrested occasionally) then you will get an amazing amount out of Award School.

My advice for surviving Award School

  1. Start early, go hard and listen. This is the most you will learn in the shortest time, probably ever.
  2. Write everything down and never stop pushing. If you have a good idea, the next student probably has a better one. Don’t stop.
  3. Take breaks. If you’re like me and have a family, make a schedule. This time is for family, this time is for school. If you don’t, you will find you’re not completely ‘there’, and you should be. I should have done this and I regret it.
  4. It’s only 11 weeks. It’s only 11 weeks. IT IS ONLY 11 WEEKS. Don’t forget this. Write it on your wall. Set reminders. Seriously.
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    It will help.

  5. Try to enjoy it.

That was Award School for me. Graduation night is at the start of July and we find out how we did. The best work gets on the wall, and the top 10 students get…top 10. After that, I have high hopes for my career.

Cheers guys.

You can view my work here, including my final Award School Book.