Look around any creative agency and chances are, it will be filled with graduates. Most of them will have gone to university for three or four years and done a few weeks (or months) of unpaid internships before eventually landing an offer of paid employment.
This process is considered a rite of passage – the hard graft necessary to earn your place in a competitive industry. But with student grants being abolished and tuition now costing £9,000 a year, it’s an option only available to a select few.
A new initiative from D&AD, however, is hoping to offer an alternative route into the creative industries for young people who haven’t been to university. Backed by Leo Burnett, New Blood Shift is a free 12-week night school and mentorship programme that will teach aspiring creatives how to develop ideas, put them into production and pitch their work to clients and potential employers.
The scheme is open to anyone aged 18 to 26 who is practising creativity in some way, be it writing, filmmaking, vlogging or illustration. The only other requirement is that they don’t have a degree.
“It was really important to us that [participants] didn’t have a degree because portfolio schools already exist and we didn’t want to just replicate something that was already there,” says Shift project manager Hilary Chittenden. “I think it also allows us to reach people from a wider socioeconomic group … and people who might have had the opportunity to go to uni, but just didn’t get on with it for whatever reason – people who felt that formal education wasn’t right for them and would prefer a more practical, hands-on way of learning.”
The idea for Shift came out of a pilot project with Hackney Council: D&AD visited secondary schools in the area and found that many of the students were unaware of opportunities available in the creative industries, despite living in an area filled with creative studios, artists and designers.
“Even in one of the most creative parts of the UK, they didn’t have any clue that the design and ad industries existed,” says Chittenden. “We talked about creative careers and they had a vague idea of fashion or product design or music but there wasn’t any awareness that these jobs were available. So that rang a few alarm bells for us…. The lack of diversity in the industry is a really well documented problem, we’ve been talking about it for years, but I think we just felt we needed to do something about it.”
In order to reach people from outside existing networks, D&AD teamed up with local arts organisations, social influencers, youth groups and schools to promote the scheme. It was also advertised on Facebook and Twitter and on flyers posted around London.
Applicants were asked to submit a short application introducing themselves with a few samples of their work. “We knew people might not know much about us, and we didn’t want to put them off applying … so we didn’t ask them to create anything new at this point,” says Chittenden. More than 150 people applied and D&AD and Leo Burnett chose 30 to have their work featured in a London exhibition. Shortlisted candidates were then interviewed and asked to create a new piece of work persuading people to support a cause they felt passionately about, before a final 18 were selected to take part in the programme.
“It was really important to get to know [the applicants],” explains Chittenden. “We wanted people who are making amazing work, who are fantastically creative … but they have to be the right personality fit to be able to thrive in this fast-paced, quite self-initiated environment, so that helped us get b to know them,” she says.
This year’s students include an aspiring writer who was temping in reception at an ad agency, a self-taught graphic designer and a 19-year-old filmmaker who heard about the course through Twitter. “It’s a really broad mix of people, which I think has meant there’s no competition between them,” says Chittenden. “Everyone has come from such different backgrounds and different cultural reference points that they’re all really supportive of each other.”
When selecting applicants, Chittenden says D&AD and Leo Burnett were looking for people who would approach projects in unusual and inspiring ways: “We had a lot of applications from people whose portfolio was full of traditional campaign ideas but actually, we were looking for people who might never have put a campaign together in their life, but just think about things in a really interesting way. Because that’s what we’re hearing from agencies: they want different thinkers who aren’t confined by what they know of the industry already.”
The course kicked off with a three-day incubator at Leo Burnett’s offices in London, where students were briefed on how campaigns and agencies work. “Because everyone is coming to it with such different experience and from different backgrounds, the purpose of that was really to give everyone the same baseline level of knowledge of the industry itself,” says Chittenden. “We talked about really practical things like how a piece of work gets made from the pitching process right through the final media buying, how an agency makes money, different networks and business models, so that when we start the course in September everyone can hit the ground running.”
Between September and December, students will receive 90 hours of hands-on, practical workshops taught by industry experts, working on large group projects and smaller portfolio pieces. The group’s first task is to introduce a British brand to a new country. “The idea is to keep briefs quite broad, because we want to make sure they can still apply their different skills and specialisms,” Chittenden explains.
Chittenden is realistic about what can be achieved in 12 weeks – the course is focused not on teaching new crafts or technical b skills but on helping students refine their existing talents and create viable ideas for campaigns, while gaining a basic understanding of how agencies operate.
“I’ve been trying not to plan it too rigidly so there is room to adapt depending on how the group develops and where their interests and skills lie,” she says. “I guess it’s mainly about focusing them. At the moment, everyone’s been kind of working by themselves, so it’s about helping them learn how to work as part of a team, to take feedback and refine their work – something that unless you’ve been to art school you might not have experience of. It’s also helping make sure they understand that they can make work beyond their own capability now. Previously, if they had an idea, they had to do everything themselves,” she says.
At the end of the course, Chittenden is hoping to secure placements for students who want further experience but acknowledges this won’t be an option for everyone, particularly those who are working full time.
“It’s also really important for us that agencies offering placements are involved in the programme at an early stage so they get to know the young people, and understand what we’re expecting of them and of the placement agency. This is going to take a little more work than taking on someone who’s already done two or three internships, but that’s where I think the industry needs to step up. We’re doing as much as we can, but they need to step up and do their part as well,” she adds.
With places for just 18 students, New Blood Shift is just a small step forward in an area where huge leaps need to be made. But with a little help from the industry, it could grow into something bigger, either by taking on more students or inspiring similar schemes elsewhere.
Planning the programme and recruiting students has taken a great deal of time and effort – “It’s not something that would be easy to do in a meaningful way when you’re already working on a full-time job, so I can see why agencies haven’t done it,” says Chittenden –but D&AD hopes it will make it easier for the industry to recruit more diverse talent. “We’re doing the hard work in finding and training these people, they just need to take them on,” she adds.