I graduated from the IPA’s ‘Excellence in Branding’ diploma in January and many people, both client and agency side, have asked me about the course and whether I would recommend they do it. They could just be making polite conversation. Or perhaps I prompted these polite queries as the diploma was, pretty much, my only conversation topic for a year. (That is, if you don’t include my children: conversation material to be tolerated only by blood relatives). Not to put anyone off but, to complete the actual course, I had to forfeit activities that make daily conversation possible, never-mind interesting. So when asked if I had seen Netflix’s latest viewing “Making a Murderer”, my bleak riposte would be something along the lines of “No, but did I tell you about the course I’m doing?”

I jest and jest not. The truth is, to complete the course I did have to forfeit indolent little pastimes such as boxsets, fiction-reading, rearing my children and at one hideous point even went on “the dry” for 6 weeks – a feat usually reserved only for the pregnant in Ireland. But before I scare anyone off, let me reassure that I do recommend the IPA diploma as I found it a positive experience even when it got excruciating.

Now that I am out the other side, I can share my experiences for anyone interested in doing the course which is currently recruiting for 2016/2017.

The positives
The positives

The course introduces you to a lot of material that even the most downright eager of us wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to in our day jobs. From case law of brand history, to the technicalities of brand evaluation and a huge amount of conflicting “expert” views on what a brand is, you get to wade through some pretty deep material. Indeed, one of the chairs of the Excellence Diploma, Stuart Sullivan-Martin, tells us that “reading deeply and not just widely” is one of the course’s privileges. I notice this assertion is timed just as we receive another hefty reading list.

Once you have waded through all of this material and survived its cavalier attempts to drown your mind, a curious thing happens: you begin to get purchase on the many, often contradictory, perspectives of what a brand is. Better still, you get a real sense of where your convictions lie. This is helpful, as our industry feeds off hype, leading to a gravitational pull to whatever is the latest in “brand” snake oil. (It can’t just be me who deeply suspects most “Brand Purpose” is really just “Brand Phoney”, can it?) The raison d’être of the course is to give you the push and eventually the confidence to develop your own beliefs and put these to the ultimate test of presenting these on to others for critical assessment.

It’s stimulating. You are reading or being exposed to material that relates to what you do for a living. This makes your day job more interesting and you more interested. I vow to keep reading. It’s not about being a “know-it-all”, even if this is the status to which many a planner may secretly aspire. But I believe building up fundamental knowledge about what we do really helps, particularly in an industry that often mistakes knowledge with hype. It’s fun. You get to meet other people and hear what they have to say and because we don’t hold down proper grown-up jobs, some drinking is involved.

The excruciating bit
The excruciating bit

Perhaps surprisingly this isn’t about the time it demanded or the workload. I have three children and am permanently bereft of that elusive concept we call time. So though the course will inevitably create more pressure on your time, it’s a case of how you manage this. As I don’t have that much free time, the angst around managing it and workload was largely absent: I did what I could in the time I could make free. That said, it’ll help enormously if you like reading and of course, writing.

But what was challenging, at times excruciatingly so, is that you couldn’t get away without baring your soul. (Yes, we advertising people have them). The whole point of the IPA course is to get you to develop personal beliefs so that they can be put into practice. And in my book, you don’t get to do this without consulting your soul.
Beliefs cannot be confused with opinions. Opinion is a matter of opinion. Beliefs are something you must be willing to put to the test and prove by convincing yourself and others that these can be applied.

Sounds easy? It isn’t. This isn’t just an intellectual exercise: it involves establishing what you really believe even if this sounds unhinged or unimpressive. For those yet to find their inner brand beliefs, the act of finding them can feel agonising. The agony is not helped by inevitable moments of intimidation. People don’t just nod along, indulgently, like some kind parent might do, to your new found beliefs: as you express these mostly in the form of essays, they MARK you on them. And the pen can be cruel. There is an essay per each of the three “Brand” deep dives of ca. 2000 words and the course culminates with a dissertation of ca. 7,000 words. Each essay entreats you to create an original point of view and new tools to apply this. The practical application is the part people have most difficulty getting their head around. But that again is the difference between opinion and belief. The latter must prove it can be applied ideally in a way that improves on existing brand practice. Writing and thinking in this structured manner takes getting used to. After a few attempts, something clicks: I get my head around it and write in a style that’s not too bookish and feels more me.

My soul baring resulted in me forming the belief that brands should pick fights as this is a great way to wield influence. If you would like to read the long version, please click here or a shorter version will be appearing in this month’s IMJ.

This wasn’t the only belief I formed. My first essay was all about the “dual lives” of people and how much contrast there is between the external and internal self; with the latter being the much more interesting concept to brands, because of how prone to fantasy it is and how much it lives in denial of reality. It’s a belief I keep returning to but which needs to be structured for practical application. And after completing the Excellence Diploma, I believe I am in a much better position to do just exactly that.
If anyone would like to know more about this course, or to see how much my ability for casual conversation has dramatically improved since completing it, please feel free to mail me at Sinead.cosgrove@chemistry.ie or you can tweet me @sineadcosgrove.