While diversity has become an increasingly urgent and widely discussed topic in the creative industries over the last few years, in the UK only 13.8% of people working in ad agencies identify as multicultural, and 5.6% of those in executive positions are from ethnic minority backgrounds, while at board level female representation sits at just 32.7%.
These are the stats that inspired Ally Owen to set up Brixton Finishing School in 2017. Owen, who has 25 years’ worth of experience in the media and ad industries, founded the south London-based school in order to give under-represented 18-25 year olds a chance to break into the industry via real world advertising experiences.
Some of last year’s intake of students have since gone on to secure roles at creative agencies and media companies including adam&eveDDB, R/GA, Mediacom and Mail Metro Media. An online version of the course had already been planned for 2021 to allow for a bigger intake of students from under-served communities across the UK but, in a rare piece of positive coronavirus related news, it has been brought forward to this year.
Here, we speak to Owen about what hopeful applicants can expect to get out of the fast-track course, and how virtual schools could help provide a creative solution to the post-coronavirus uncertainty in the creative industries.
Creative Review: Tell us about why you set up Brixton Finishing School.
Ally Owen: Oddly enough, the school was inspired by the existence of Katie Hopkins (for ‘inspired’ also read that as ‘fucked me off so much I had to take action’). I began to ask myself, why should she get a platform when so many voices in our community are ignored by the media industry? By relying on a narrow type of talent to transmit messages, ideas and create work (83% of creative directors are white males), we are missing out on so much, and also producing some clangers along the way – Pepsi anyone?
Together with our wonderful founding sponsors and supporters we created a free, ten-week course that transformed raw talent into entry-level candidates for a spectrum of ring-fenced roles at big-name companies across the digital, media and creative industries. Our focus is multicultural, female, neurodiverse and income-challenged individuals who want to accelerate their digital, creative and professional skills.
It’s taught by the best in the industry through a series of lectures, masterclasses, real world experiences and online learning. A number of bursaries are available to fund living costs while our students study. Our 2018 cohort had 95% employment 12 weeks after graduation. As well as entry level roles, students have the opportunity to win scholarships to the SCA 2.0, the world’s most awarded ad school.
CR: Why did you decide to launch the virtual course, and how does it differ from the existing one?
AO: Our ambition was always to take a version of the Brixton learning experience online; we’ve just accelerated it as a response to the economic impact of Covid-19 on our target groups. We need to create positive pathways for those affected by the crisis, a chance to upskill and open new doors. By creating a virtual school, we overcome the challenge of location, and hopefully get some more northern and regional voices into the business. It means we can introduce our ‘secret’ world to a much wider audience, who may never have considered a career in creativity and advertising.
We are working on the exact course content, and want to ensure it hits the quality I look for. It will include weekly webinars with industry experts, professional skills workshops, live Q&As, and virtual group project work on real briefs. We can also introduce remote mentoring. We want to make this as inclusive and accessible as possible, so we aren’t going to overload the weekly curriculum (the physical school is pretty intensive), as we presume participants may already be in some form of paid work or education. We envisage it being ongoing and growing in terms of its breath of coverage.
CR: Talk us through the application process, and what you look for in potential applicants?
AO: The physical course has a maximum of 36 students. For the virtual school we are finalising the total number of students we can mentor and support on working on briefs (the more supporters who offer time, the more we can do, so please volunteer). I’m hoping for at least 100. I’m also hoping we can make aspects including masterclasses and Q&As open to all.
Brixton Finishing School looks for qualities in people when selecting who will take part, we value qualifications but we also value potential. Applicants are asked to register on our website and attend a virtual taster evening where they are assessed in a group task on listening, creativity, communication, teamwork and positive input by a team of industry supporters. If you are neuro-diverse this isn’t necessarily the best way to judge your potential, so we have a second stage 45-minute, one-to-one interview about your personal brand values with another experienced volunteer.
I believe it takes a village to raise a talent, so throughout the selection process and the course we involve as many potential employers and industry representatives as possible. Luckily it’s not up to me to choose, otherwise we would be packed to the rafters.
CR: What kind of teaching methods and experiences does the course include?
AO: Our approach blends unique, real world industry experiences, expert masterclasses and advice on how to win at work. Our teaching staff include industry leaders, university lecturers and workshop leads on professional skills. Our aim is to make the student as employable as possible so they can achieve their creative career goals by understanding how to deliver their A game in interviews and demonstrate potential.
In ten weeks they will cover digital marketing theory and practice, creative thinking, and the soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace. As the end of the course approaches, the focus shifts to include interview practice and CV writing. Real world experiences are packed in with immersion days at our sponsors and networking events. It’s a packed schedule and one that produces results.
CR: Do you think the long-term impact of coronavirus will make the creative industries more open to the potential of virtual courses like this one?
AO: At the heart of creativity is innovation and the ability to pivot based on consumer needs. We are just moving our messaging to the platform that works best for our users currently, and which opens up new markets. An online course can be enriching, virtual group work reflects the global nature of the creative business and prepares its students for the real world. We are in a massive digital experiment over the next three weeks of lockdown, by the end of it I’m pretty sure we will have nailed working virtually as an industry.
Brixton Finishing School is currently taking applications until 1 May. The 10-week virtual course will begin on 29 June 2020, find out more and apply at brixtonfinishingschool.org