Like most things in life, I have ended up doing the IPA Excellence in Branding Diploma through a series of chance events.  It did start two years ago, however, with a request from Tania Banotti who asked me and another planner if we would “road test”  The Eff Test (an exam that forms part of the IPA’s continuous professional development agenda) to see if we would recommend IAPI adopting this as a training course for Irish planners or other client-facing staff. Despite the momentary trauma caused by having to do “sums” as part of The Eff Test, we happily recommend it as it creates focus on a deeper understanding of effectiveness.As a result of being an Eff Test candidate, I end up on the IPA mailing address. I  start to get mailed about stuff happening across the water and it piques my interest. I note a common theme emerge across all the mails I open: there is enviable scale to what our neighbours do. Clearly these lucky creatures work with much bigger budgets than we do, but more importantly they also work with much greater knowledge.  The UK is a centre of excellence for advertising and the IPA reflects this with a databank spanning 30 years which Peter Field and Les Binet used to create their seminal work “Marketing in the Era of Accountability”.

I continue to receive mails, even invites from the IPA and think how nice it might be to trot along to these erudite-sounding gatherings to advance my understanding of what we do, albeit in a fashionably London manner.

I get mailed about a course in the IPA about Excellence in Branding. I think about brands and how much useless talk I have heard in the name of brand. I also think how differently each client understands the word brand and that it might be interesting to get to the bottom of what a brand truly is.  I then meet with another planner colleague Ken McKenzie. He tells me he ended up doing The Eff Test as part of the IPA Excellence in Branding diploma he is doing. He also tells me the course is “pretty heavy-going”. I think of this course now as both equally fascinating and intimidating. I think maybe one day when I have more time and when I am on top of things with a life lived by unerring routine and prompt time-sheets, I just might consider doing this course. I quickly forget this as I get sucked back into the madness that is working in the business of advertising while also trying to raise polite children.

I get a few persistent mails telling me about the IPA course and asking if I would like to enter to get on to it.  I note that the entry requires that I must write about why I want to do the course and why my agency wants me to do it. I also have to write an essay about a topic of my choosing but it must be structured around what “I believe” in and “therefore” what changes I would create as a result of this.

I decide to fill out the entry form and write my essay about death and why I think it is time we need to change our attitude to deal with it more positively. I hope my UK colleagues understand my Irish morbid ways.

I quite enjoy writing about death. Little do I know it will be the first and last time I approach this structure of “I believe……. therefore…..” in such a carefree fashion.

I get a note telling me congrats I have been accepted onto the course.

I break the news to my boss Ray that I may need to go to London a few times over the next 10 months. But only 4 times to be exact. He kindly enquires after my workload and whether the course will create more pressure. I assure him that I can think of no better ways to spend Saturdays than in a library side by side with those mature enough to revise for their leaving cert.

And then it kicks off and I am off to London for the induction. We are asked to read Steven King’s landmark piece “What is a brand” by the Chair of the course Nick Kendall.

We meet and discuss. It’s interesting to hear all the views. I can feel my previously unquestioned  yet also nebulous ideas about what a brand is, begin to wax and wane.

We hear from previous candidates who describe the course as “falling down the rabbit hole”.  Nick Kendall implores us to enjoy it, to speak to each other, to share views and learn from each other. He also tells us that there is a lot of rubbish out there about what a brand is.

We get an outline of the course. There are three modules or Deep Dive sessions each containing a theme. The first module is defining what we mean by Brand. The second is all about the financial or business aspects of brand.  We will meet for a 2 day workshop per session. There are excellent quality guest speakers lined up for the workshops such as Peter Field, John Grant, Paul Feldwick and many more. We are given plenty of notice in advance of dates so this is easy to arrange. The reading list is indeed “pretty heavy-going” for the first module but one of the absolute joys is taking the time to really read deeply around the subject, so with a full range of conflicting views you get to form strong beliefs about what a brand is.

The course involves a lot of reading, with the first two modules entailing an essay and the last entailing a presentation. For those who haven’t yet done The Eff Test you must also sit this as part of the first module. The course culminates in a final dissertation of 7,000 words and requires that candidates generate an original idea/ belief on what a brand is and how this new theory could be applied.

I am halfway through the course and I have read so many definitions of what a brand is, while also learning that no legal definition for the word “brand” exists making them “fiddly” things when it comes to financial valuations. All original thoughts I may have smugly held on brand are, I quickly learn, most likely not so original after all.  There are so many conflicting views on brand that I am still wading through but I guess this is me half way down the rabbit hole. I am just hopeful that there is a way back but don’t expect it to be straightforward.

If anyone would like to know more about this course please feel free to mail me at or you can tweet me @sineadcosgrove

I would be happy to answer any queries you may have as long as they aren’t about what a brand is.

Sinead Cosgrove works as ‎Planning Director in Chemistry Dublin.