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Who’s teaching who?

By Jason Cascarina

Forget all you’ve heard. If you can, teach, advises deputy ECD Jason Cascarina, after a trip to the Accademia di Communicazione in Milan.


Twice a year, I disappear for a few days. When people ask where I’m off to, I reply that I’m teaching. This is almost always met with surprise, followed by the question, ‘Ooh, what do you teach?’


I usually reply (only half joking) that I find the question hurtful – obviously, I teach advertising.


But then again, maybe it’s not so obvious. After all, how do you teach creativity?


Between you and me, I don’t really.


Every year, the Accademia di Communicazione in Milan is kind enough to fly myself and my old college tutor over to help their students tackle briefs from the D&AD New Blood  competition. These are ‘real world’ briefs set by real clients, brands and charities, intended to give young creatives an authentic experience of what the industry demands. Even some of Proximity’s clients, such as John Lewis and Bacardi, set exciting challenges.


The competition has its own big awards show every year, and D&AD as an organisation does its utmost to bring the work (and the students) to the attention of agencies. Most of the briefs have prizes on offer from mentorship opportunities and paid work placements, to the chance to make their ideas become reality.


When such a brief hits an agency, we’re a bit spoilt. We have entire departments offering boundless expertise at every stage, such as planning, strategy, data, design and UX.


In a college, they don’t have any of this. All they’ve got is each other.


Each student has to do their own research, come up with the insight themselves, dream up a creative solution themselves and design the output themselves.


But then the other things they don’t have are quite so many restrictions. They don’t really need to worry about client relationships or budgets or delivery plans. This is all about the art of the possible and demonstrating true creative thinking.


I can promise you, the students need very little assistance to do that. Over the past few years, we’ve entered some amazing and inspiring pieces of work.


For the WWF, a solution to air pollution was to encourage people to wear clothes treated with a photocatalytic treatment that can absorb nitric oxide and dispose of it safely simply by being laundered – effectively turning the wearer into a human air filter.


Last year, a group of students suggested crowdhacking predictive text to counter the fur trade. Basically, if enough people type the words fur and murder on their phones, the predictive database will learn to suggest one word when it sees the other. So you literally won’t be able to see the word fur without seeing the word murder. 


And one particularly self-aware entry dramatised that their own age group care more about wi-fi as a basic human right than they do about actual basic human rights.


So what do they need me for?


In truth, not a great deal. All I try to do is help them spot what the really smart bits are in their work. Then keep their focus on telling a story using the great bits of thinking that comprise their ideas.


I try to get them to make sure the flow is logical, from what sparked their idea to how it is expressed and what they want the audience to do as a result of seeing it. The biggest job tends to be cutting away anything that doesn’t serve the idea or that meanders off into a different one.


And helping to focus so many great ideas (there are usually around 25 every year) has given me plenty of practice in discussing how to express an idea as simply and purely as possible.


We’ve been pretty successful, with countless wood pencils awarded, a couple of graphites, a yellow and even the coveted white pencil in 2016.


For whatever it is I actually contribute, the students have been most appreciative. This year, one group insisted on taking us out for a drink. Being from England, naturally we sat there with pints of beer. Our students ordered ‘aperitivo’, light and delicious Martini spritzes accompanied by small plates of nibbles.


So whilst I’m going to Italy in order to be a tutor, I come back having enjoyed being around fresh, unrestricted creativity, sharpened my own storytelling skills and discovered an eminently more civilised way to enjoy a drink at the end of a long day.


It sounds cliched, but serving as a teacher, if only for a handful of days a year, is massively rewarding.


Because the more I teach, the more I learn.