At Age 50, It Isn’t Your Parents’ Certification Program Any More

A half century ago, distributor Jim Albert, in charge of launching the first education seminar for the promotional products industry, was confronted with a unique problem. One of his instructors, scheduled to give a presentation on bookkeeping, was succumbing to an acute case of stage fright. Albert and a colleague turned to the obvious antidote: They poured the stressed-out businessman round after round of Dutch courage. To no avail. “He still made a botch of his presentation,” Albert later recalled.

Such were the early travails of James T. Albert, generally recognized as the “father of industry education.” Fortunately, during those eight days of classes, things got better and the program’s steady upward progress continued over the next 50 years. This year marks the golden anniversary of PPAI-sponsored industry education leading to MAS/CAS certification.

Called the Executive Development Seminar, that first class, in February 1961, was conducted under the auspices of PPAI’s forebear, the Advertising Specialty National Association (ASNA), at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Albert had spent months away from his business scouting Midwest college campuses before recommending that site.

The faculty, led by Case Western professor Bill Cox, dispensed a broad-spectrum, general business curriculum integrated with a smattering of topics relevant to—as it was known then—specialty advertising. Of the 36 ASNA enrollees, many such as Bill Vernon, Jr., of The Vernon Company (UPIC: VERNON), and Jay F. Shaw, of the former Shaw-Barton direct house, would go on to become industry leaders.

One of the positive outcomes of that first seminar was the opportunity for industry people to interact with their peers. “There weren’t many venues at that time that offered both distributors and suppliers a chance to come together,” recollects Vernon. “I think that was a step in the right direction. It definitely was a good beginning for the education program.”

Getting industry opposites—representatives of the production end and the distribution channel, sometimes at odds—to break bread together occasionally led to heated discussion. Margaret (Margo) Custer Ford, MAS, of MARCO…Ideas Unlimited (UPIC: MARCO), witnessed this. She recalls Atlanta distributor Walt Barber, with “his wonderful Southern drawl,” as the great harmonizer. He challenged his sometimes clashing colleagues to imagine what other industry, if any, they could be in and still make as much money and have as much fun. Certainly Barber couldn’t—not with blue-chip accounts such as Coca-Cola.

“The thing I took away from that first seminar and others that followed,” says Ford, “was that it was important to put ourselves in the chair, mentally, of the buyer. And then, to help that buyer put himself in the chair of his buyer.”

In April 1964, ASNA merged with the Advertising Specialty Guild to form Specialty Advertising Association (SAA). The job of coordinating the Executive Development Seminar fell to William G. Gregg, vice president of SAA, who was also in charge of membership, research and advertising activities. “Bill was a great guy. He ran a pretty good ship,” remembers past board chair Harry S. Rosenberg, Ariel Premium Supply (UPIC: Ariel). Ford agrees. “I give a huge amount of credit to Bill Gregg,” she says.

With the program passing from infancy to adolescence, Gregg worked out the transfer of the seminar to collaboration with the University of Missouri-Kansas City and later to the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. A consistent component of the curriculum was the case problems, patterned after the teaching process initiated at the Harvard Business School. You know the challenge: Here’s the XYZ Company, its financials, markets, other details and its marketing problem. You and your team fix it, using a solution heavily invested in advertising-imprinted merchandise.

To reach these solutions and present them the next day, many teams pulled all-nighters. If they needed some advice, either Dr. Cox or George L. Herpel, marketing professor at Temple University, were just out in the hallway.

Also nearby were member volunteers charged with seeing that everything went as planned. Rosenberg, then chair of the Executive Development Seminar Subcommittee, and Shaw, board chair, were among those who sacrificed a week away from their businesses. The seminar was too important to fail for lack of oversight.

To say that the Executive Development Seminar became well received by the industry would be the mother of understatements. In 1976, one freshly minted CAS designee expressed a widely held sentiment: “I have only one question: Why does not everyone in the industry take advantage of this course?”

Well, they were trying to. Since enrollment was limited to 40 or so persons, many applicants signed up six months in advance to avoid being wait-listed.

During his term as board chair, Ernest Hazel, III, examined the responses to a survey of what members wanted from their Association. “Do you hear what they’re saying?” he demanded. “They’re saying they want more education!”

The response was already in the works. About this time, the Executive Development Seminar had some company: the Advance Seminar on Marketing and the Advance Seminar on Creativity.

Since day one, meaning that date in April 1904 when PPAI’s predecessor, the National Association of Advertising Novelty Manufacturers, opened its doors, the organization has been on a mission to gain acceptance for promotional products as a bona fide form of advertising. The advent of television advertising made it even more important to demonstrate that promotional products salespeople could be just as clever as the ad agency creative departments that devised catchy TV commercials. Hence, the industry became obsessed with creativity in terms of innovative products and originality in promotion ideas.

Chosen to lead the Advance Seminar on Creativity and subsequent variations was Sidney X. Shore, an industry supplier. With an engineering degree and more than 30 patents registered under his name, he had also been an instructor at the Creative Problem Solving Institute at the University of Buffalo. In coaching his promotional products students through his “Creative Fitness Exercises,” he cautioned against responding to an idea with an automatic no. Instead, he insisted, ask, “What’s good about it?”
A later generation of industry scholars would gain creativity skills at The Selling Edge courses, learning from Jeff Tobe to “color outside the lines.”

When the Association moved its headquarters to Irving, Texas, in 1979, the seminars moved, too, settling in for a spell at the University of Houston. Many in that first generation of industry scholars were World War II vets; some had never gone to college, and others got their degrees thanks to their GI Bill benefits. The tie-in with big universities appealed to them. “They liked the image of it,” Rosenberg believes.

Houston, however, would be the last regular campus venue. There was a new breed entering the distributor and supplier ranks. These people had different preferences, needs and time allotments. And to confound what had heretofore been pretty much an all-men’s club, many of the newcomers wore skirts.

Bill Vernon remembers that 1961 inaugural group. “In our class, I think there were only two women. I think women are now in the majority in the sales force. If you had a class today, I think there would be more women than men,” he guesses.

No question about it, the women were there in the mid-1980s, about the time that past board chair Wayne Roberts, MAS, of Pioneer Balloon Co. (UPIC: Pioneer) headed the Education Committee. “I think they caused the Association to look differently at some of the courses it was offering,” he says. “I think there was a definite shift to gear things to both males and females.”

Also during this period, the idea that attending a couple of courses made you industry educated was a notion deader than disco music. For individuals to remain competitive, their education had to be continuous. Having already introduced a Master Advertising Specialist (MAS) designation, PPAI’s board voted to borrow a leaf from other industries and adopt Continuing Education Units (CEUs) as the criterion for achieving MAS or CAS designations. The idea, Roberts believes, was to give the education process more credibility. “There were so many other seminars that people went to that were just meaningless,” he declares.

If education programs had a weakness it was the absence of proof of achievement. Course attendance is one thing; demonstrated proficiency is quite another. The latter could be achieved only through testing. Consequently, PPAI added spine to the process by installing a certification program. MAS and CAS could be earned only by applicants passing an examination that covered specified curriculum tracks and was administered by the PPAI Board of Certification. Seven applicants sat for that first certification exam in 1999.

The industry’s passion for education, or professional development as it was becoming known, prompted other organizations to traffic in skills-improvement presentations and CEU collectibles. That could be a good thing, or not. The proliferation of learning options got so it resembled a runaway pharmaceutical industry flooding the formularies with a plethora of drugs, many of dubious efficacy. The situation recalled Roberts’ observation about so many meaningless seminars.

By the time Melissa Hendrick, PPAI’s director of professional development and business media, arrived on the scene in 2009, it was time for a fresh look at what the Association was offering.

Surveying individuals who had attended PPAI-sponsored education
events and those who hadn’t, she developed a gap analysis to determine what was working, what was stale and no longer relevant and what was missing, and what was needed to speak to a new generation of industry professionals.

The challenge, she sees, is that “for the first time in our history, we are dealing with four generations in one work force. So, trying to convey the value proposition and integrity—the ‘what’s in it for me,’ and message and education content that appeals to all four generations is a task in itself.”

Baby boomers, she observes, are comfortable learning from books and live sessions, but Gen Yers demand content that is delivered digitally on their mobile devices in various electronic formats. “So the opportunity for PPAI Professional Development is to deliver the right blended learning model that provides relevant and timely content, a compelling value proposition and appeals to all four generations.”

And has the Association figured that out?
It appears so. In collaborating with member volunteers on the MAS/CAS Certification Committee and the new Professional Development Action Group, the staff team last year set in motion a blended-learning program that, Hendrick says, “moved PPAI’s Professional Development program from the 20th to the 21st century.”

Exactly what is blended learning? She explains it involves delivering content through myriad multimedia channels, among them:
• Live events, such as the North American Leadership Conference (NALC), Women’s Leadership Conference (WLC), Suppliers’ Forum and The PPAI Expo education
• Webinars and education online, in live and on-demand formats
• The PPAI Resource Center offering products and services
• A new entry, called the Social Media Launchpad!
“The PPAI MAS/CAS Certification Program now has more tools than ever before to assist the promotional products professional with everything from pre-exam prep materials to engaging videos promoting certified individualism,” says John Campbell, manager, certification and instructional technology. The program is poised for growth in 2011 and beyond with the following current and planned resources:
• MAS and CAS Study Guides to prepare the certification candidate for the MAS and/or CAS examinations
• 24-hour MAS and CAS info hotline at 888-I-AM-PPAI x 4
• Two MAS and CAS marketing videos: one providing general info on what is MAS and CAS, and one speaking directly to end buyers on why they should work with a certified professional
• Enhanced ways to track your progress and view your transcript at www.ppai.org/mascas
• Access to the new PPAI Education Gateway—an online learning portal for accessing CAS-required courses, elective courses and on-demand webinars

Clearly, all these choices recognize that not everyone learns in the same way and addresses preferred learning options as well.

Another important aspect is the blending of instructors, combining subject-matter experts from outside the industry with other knowledgeable voices from within the promotional products industry.

PPAI Professional Development is referred to as “The Difference,” the program in 2011 is “not your old professional development anymore,” claims Hendrick. Years ago the CEU credit was discontinued for CAS/MAS certification in favor of a point system. And because PPAI can monitor the quality of its educational offerings—but not necessarily those of other organizations—only PPAI’s approved programs, as a rule, are accepted for certification eligibility.

Over 50 years, thousands of industry professionals have gained certification. “So you could say that PPAI has defined and shaped how the industry operates today,” asserts Hendrick. She points to the Association’s long history of self-generated course-and-format origins instead of mimicking what someone else has done. “That’s why our certification and education programs are the gold standard,” she says.

Rick Ebel is principal of Glenrich Business Studies, a marketing communications and research company in Corvallis, Oregon. For 26 years he was PPAI’s director of marketing and is author of PPAI At 100: A Century Of Promoting Products, People And Business. He was inducted into the PPAI Hall of Fame in 2008.


Certification Step-By-Step
Get started on earning your MAS or CAS by clicking on Education/Certification at www.ppai.org.
1. Submit the MAS/CAS Registration Form to PPAI to enroll and confirm you are actively pursuing certification.
2. By registering you will receive:
• Advanced information on PPAI programs, special offers and ways to acquire points
• Priority assistance in tracking your progress and processing credits
• Recertification assistance and notification
• A Personal Identification Number (PIN), which is your individual, unique record number used for tracking your personal activities and training for professional development and certification reporting purposes
What’s next?
• CAS certification requirements are outlined in the MAS/CAS Program Overview Brochure found online
• Attend PPAI professional development seminars/classes, live webinars and on-demand courses
• Attend any regional association’s pre-approved classes or training
• MAS/CAS points will be posted to your transcript by PPAI for pre-approved classes
• Request credit for industry-related classes, training, webinars, On-Demand PPAI webinars or books not pre-approved or sponsored by PPAI or a regional association by submitting a Credit Request form
• Industry service credit is given for approved industry volunteering or sharing expertise by developing and presenting approved education sessions, serving on PPAI board, committees, councils and task forces, and regional association boards, committees and task forces. Credit is also given for developing approved courses for PPAI or regional events, presenting approved courses for PPAI or regional events and fulfilling the role of a PPAI ADvocate.

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