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The creative industry lacks diverse talent - Here's a way to change that

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It’s ironic how closed the creative industry is historically renowned to be. It applies to several sectors, from advertising to publishing. Entry level roles are the most coveted for and, for this reason, quite often the most difficult to reach. While many advise in favour of at least getting a foot in the door, it’s pretty challenging to do so when everybody keeps slamming an entire medieval gate in your face.

It is ironic, because the creative industry is also known for being progressive, inclusive and overall a warm place to stay for everyone. True, that becomes a trifle difficult to believe when episodes of discrimination and racism still happen in office environments, but such speculations are beyond the scope of this piece.

The core of the matter is that diverse talent is extremely difficult to find in the industry, and not because of a lack of candidates. If anything, there are way too many candidates for way too few roles – a problem that a global pandemic could only make worse. Understandably to an extent, some agencies are not willing to risk by taking on board creative professionals with little-to-no experience – no matter what kind of unexpected, diverse contribution they may bring to the team, nor the sheer fact they could inject new and fresh vibes into the business.

For this reason Melissa Smith, CEO at the Industry Club, has envisioned an extremely effective scheme to bring some pivotal change to organisations: Marketing Debuts, an apprenticeship programme designed for young talent between 18–25 years old, conceived to equip them with the necessary skills for a career in the advertising industry. Whether it be in creative agencies or brands' in-house marketing functions.

Melissa kindly put me in touch with a good number of agencies who have signed up for the programme and will be starting the first apprenticeships in early 2021. The piece below includes quotes and comments from:

  • Tanya Brookfield, CEO of Elvis;
  • Gareth Davies, Managing Director at Leagas Delaney;
  • Dominic Cook, CEO & Co-Founder of 33Seconds;
  • Dave Robinson, Operations Director at BigBrandIdeas;
  • Charlotte Williams, Founder of SevenSix Agency;
  • Tilly Morgan, Operations Director at Wilderness.

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Image credit: Tag Collective Arts

The barriers of entry and how to break them

Entering the creative and advertising industry is a challenging task in itself. Some barriers are unfathomably high for a number of ambitious creatives, either due to geographical location, financial issues or even access to higher education. According to Tilly from Wilderness, these restrictions “can prevent some people from even applying."

Young people are of course the most affected by this, but the problem extends to underrepresented talent too, coming from diverse backgrounds. With low entry salaries and difficulties accessing higher education, some creatives are just entirely cut out of the picture. In some cases, candidates “might not be able to afford to travel to the interview. Or perhaps they do make it this far, but when offered the role and the salary, are unable to afford to move closer or the cost of a long commute,” Tilly added.

And while there is a huge pool of talent and variety in the London area and around big cities, there is also an equally huge variety outside of London that cannot afford to move.

Historically, the creative industry has relied on word of mouth to fill entry level roles

The advances in remote working from 2020 are likely to reduce the impact of this problem slightly, but it won’t happen if the industry doesn’t stop looking in its own garden for brilliant candidates. This involves looking for talent in your local area, but also relying heavily on recommendations to fill your entry level roles.

Dominic from 33Seconds said: “recruitment costs are high and there is a lot of talent about, so often junior level roles are filled through recommendations – either from employees, clients or people in the industry. This means that, to get a foot in the door, you need to know someone. The risk is that roles are filled by similar sorts of people time and time again.”

Gareth from Leagas Delaney confirmed that much: “Historically, if you were not in a circle which benefitted from word of mouth, not only were those doors closed, but you wouldn’t even be aware that they existed.”

Conceivably, the pandemic hasn’t helped this year and it is likely to make the issue worse. Gareth added: “A recent report by LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance found that more than one in 10 people aged 16-25 have lost their jobs since the pandemic began. The same study also shows that young people are more than twice as likely as older people to lose their jobs. Then factor in how much harder it is for young people from diverse backgrounds to gain access to the industry. The doors to entry-level jobs have been closing and once they’re shut, reopening them is hard.”

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Image credit: Africa

What can be done?

Fortunately, there are some who are working to change the way things have always been.

“We have changed our recruitment process and reduced the need for face to face interviews,” Tilly from Wilderness said. “This is something we were forced to do whilst hiring during the pandemic, but it’s been a valuable change to our process. By conducting telephone or video interviews, we can now access a far greater pool of talent and provide opportunities to those who couldn’t access it before.”

On the other hand, Dave from BigBrandIdeas would like to see more initiatives from schools bringing talent into the agencies and showing them how things work. “I’ve been involved with and helped facilitate a few initiatives like School of Thought 2018 & 2019 at my previous agency and the talent attracted was unbelievable.”

Marketing Debuts is also an excellent option for agencies looking to break the cycle. Tanya from Elvis said: “Whilst we actively try and recruit more diverse talent into open roles, we also recognise the need to invest in the future stars of our industry.” According to Tanya, the best way to break the barriers of entry is to first acknowledge the issue, then find a way to change the way things should be. Marketing Debuts offered Elvis and the other agencies involved precisely that opportunity.

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Image credit: The Industry Club

Marketing Debuts and how it works

To bring Marketing Debuts to life, the Industry Club has partnered with the Opportunity Group, an organisation regulated by the government as an apprenticeship provider. The learners will be chosen and recruited by the Industry Club, working with minority and low social mobility groups to ensure equal opportunities for all the apprentices involved.

All apprenticeships that are part of the programme should be paid the minimum living wage, and the apprenticeship training costs will be covered by the Apprenticeship Levy, which some agencies will already be paying to the government. For those who do not pay the Apprenticeship Levy every year, The Industry Club has partnered with The Opportunity Group to organise levy donations from corporate donors, including Amazon Islington and Camden Council. You can find more information on the Club’s website.

To guarantee variety and diversity of talent, the learners will be recruited by The Industry Club, working with minority and low social mobility groups to shortlist diverse talent for legitimate and key capability roles.

The learners will be recruited by The Industry Club, working with minority and low social mobility groups

A number of agencies have already signed up for Marketing Debuts’ two kick-off schemes, Project Management and Social Media and Community Management. All of the agencies mentioned in this article will be involved, as well as adam&eveDDB, Havas Lynx, Lucky Generals, The Marketing Store, TRO, Red Brick Road, Mando Connect and BRANDstand Communications. Agencies have the choice to enrol their existing employees into the scheme as well, and that is exactly what some have chosen to do.

Melissa Smith said: "I applaud our host employers who’ve prioritised and executed their diversity hiring goals despite the difficult times we find ourselves in. January 2021 is a tough time to launch an apprenticeship scheme, considering many agencies are planning to be working from home well into the spring. These agencies are giving legitimate career and training opportunities to young people who desperately need it and believe me, these opportunities will be life changing for many of the young people joining Marketing Debuts and their families."

Are apprenticeships the answer to the issue of underrepresented talent?

On one aspect all of the interviewees agreed: Marketing Debuts matters and there should be more initiatives like the one by Melissa and the Industry Club.

“The initiative is designed to provide access and training to those who might otherwise find this industry impossible to break into,” Tilly from Wilderness added. “It recognises that diversity and valuing the contributions of all individuals in society will make the creative industry stronger.”

Now, this piece has been heavily candidate-focused so far, but the truth is that apprenticeships bring enormous benefits to businesses too. Dominic from 33Seconds said: “In 2021 we will be taking on our first apprentice. It matters to us at an agency because we can help diversify our team, bringing in a younger perspective and helping to develop them. From a bigger picture perspective, it matters to us as founders that we are doing our bit to help social mobility, and we know our employees care about this too.”

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Image credit: Marianna Orsho

Not only that. According to Dave from BigBrandIdeas, “The business will get access to a fresh talent pool, normally reserved for University leavers. I went through the IPA Creative Pioneers project a few years back and hired an apprentice – following a LOT of interviews with perspective talent – the guy I hired had a ‘spark’ in his eyes. He grew from strength to strength, left at 4 years to a very good Ad Agency rival. I’ve just hired him again at BBI… There’s a success story for you!”

Young and inspired talent will always have the hunger to create amazing work. And in a year like 2020, Tilly from Wilderness believes that this surge of energy is the motivation people need to be optimistic about the future. Like many initiatives, it is a time and money investment – with a return shown directly through the quality of work produced by your new candidates, or following the enrolment of an existing employee into the scheme.

Charlotte from SevenSix said: “Especially for small businesses, apprentices are an affordable way to bring on full time staff, as you are able to pay as little as minimum wage or as much as you like. There are also perks such as grants from the government to help support your new hire and their National Insurance is covered. It’s a win win all round.”

There is an underlying structural issue in the creative industry.

Surely apprenticeship schemes and programmes like Marketing Debuts are a breath of fresh air in an industry that is still struggling to welcome diverse talent and to open itself to new possibilities. Marketing Debuts is a tangible initiative to drive social and cultural change through legitimate and key capability entry roles, from organisations who have struggled to hire from low social mobility or ethnic minority communities. Such schemes are certainly a solution – though they are not the ultimate cure for an underlying issue that is structural and quite established in the industry.

The problem of underrepresented talent can be partially solved by apprenticeships, but not all agencies will be participating and though a few doors will open, it is the general mindset that needs to change. Marketing Debuts is an excellent start, hopefully prompting more agencies to follow the same path – but the recruitment of diverse talent cannot be limited to apprenticeships only. Clearly, as part of a historically closed industry, agencies are afraid to take risks. The pandemic has only worsened a condition that was there long before a viral outbreak disrupted our lives.

It is easy to see the underlying hypocrisy in that. “Our industry constantly pushes our clients to be brave, to take a chance, to risk it. What’s different? Put your money where your mouth is and do the same,” concluded the CEO of Elvis.

The Marketing Debuts schemes kick off in January 2021 and will run again in Spring 2021.

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