Is the industry ready to look beyond ad schools?

A new initiative from Cream pairs young non-ad school talent with mentors at London agencies, in an attempt to kickstart them into a creative career. We ask the mentees if the industry is finally embracing diversity as more than a buzzword

Every year, The Talent Business’s Cream exhibition showcases up-and-coming creatives from around the world, as selected by a panel of judges. Now in its 18th year there’s a new strand to the programme, which has begun welcoming talent from “less typical routes” – that is, not ad school or university – for the first time.

As part of this it’s launched new mentoring scheme Express Talent, which pairs aspiring creatives with senior agency staff, who can give them feedback, set them briefs, and help them develop their books over the course of eight weeks.

It joins several other initiatives aiming to get people from a more diverse set of backgrounds into the industry, including D&AD New Blood Shift – night school for young talent that hasn’t been to university – and the Creative Mentor Network – which encourages agencies to support a more diverse and inclusive culture long term. There’s also the School of Communication Arts’ scholarships for less privileged students, and Commercial Break, which gets 18-24 year-olds into the industry with a pop-up agency that works on live briefs for brands.

“There are lots of excellent initiatives out there,” says The Talent Business Global Head of Creative Tanya Livesey. “Many are aimed at identifying raw young talent from disadvantaged groups and helping them develop the ad industry skills they need, that they haven’t had the opportunity to learn at college. A lot of these kids wouldn’t necessarily have access to the industry, so these initiatives give them a fighting chance. However, getting their foot in the door still isn’t straightforward, and that’s where we saw the opportunity for Cream to help.”

“Our aim is to augment and amplify the work done by these other initiatives, by helping their young talent with that last step,” she adds. “Cream gives emerging talent a leg-up by exposing their work to the industry figures that can give them their first break. By collaborating with other initiatives we hope to help a broader pool of talent break into the industry.”

CR spoke with this year’s three Express Talent mentees, to find out how they found the experience, and if the industry is finally doing more than paying lip service to diversity.


Creative Review: How did you find your time with Mother?
Emily Nelson: It was really challenging for me, because I come from a visually creative discipline. I’m a photographer and filmmaker, so my creative process is slightly different to that of advertising. It’s been challenging to adapt that. I’m focused very much on execution and composition, and what I’m trying to communicate, while their process is more on the insight, and how that goes with the idea. I was mentored by a duo, and I work as a single, so it was great to see their process. I was fascinated to see how they work together to come up with creative solutions. Mother has a really solid foundation and I’m really grateful for the chance to have been able to get some insight into how they create.

CR: Do you think not going to ad school or university made a difference to that experience?
EN: I think even if I’d gone, I wouldn’t have known what I was doing. A lot of people in the industry are looking for fresh or different perspectives, and they don’t necessarily want people that have gone to ad school and been churned round in a conveyor belt of traditional advertising learning, and coming out and making what they’ve been taught. They want people with fresh ideas, or different ways of creating. Everyone says it’s an advantage to come from a non-ad school background, but I don’t know if I necessarily felt that way. I think maybe going to ad school would’ve given me a bit more confidence going into the industry, but this experience has made me value my own journey. I think it was a big ask for me to adapt to that in eight weeks, in hourly sessions, but I’m pretty ambitious so I enjoyed the challenge. The Cream mentorship confirmed to me that I’m interested in creative commercial work, but it became clear to me I couldn’t have gone into the industry without having this experience – I would’ve been lost!

Photograph by Emily Nelson

CR: Do you think the industry is welcoming enough of people like you, that have a different educational background?
EN: I don’t really like the differentiation of ‘people like you’. The language can be quite alienating in itself, but that’s a separate thing. I didn’t necessarily feel an exclusion, but I’m still relatively new in the ad world. It’s a funny thing because many talent managers want people that are different and have fresh ideas and different perspectives, but then everyone makes the same kind of work. Whereas for me, in other industries like photography, the only similarity is that we all use the same tool. Obviously you have to have a strategic way to come up with a creative solution, but I feel like that doesn’t always allow for diversity of ideas.

CR: What more could the industry be doing to embrace a different kind of thinking?
EN: The first thing that comes to mind is getting all ad creatives to just create work, whether film, or audio … just do a project that’s not focused on selling something, so they can think about the process of that. I think when you come to a different discipline, you think differently.

Reebok ad by Caetana Cruz


Creative Review: How did you feel entering the industry without going to ad school?
Caetana Cruz: I didn’t feel that being a non-grad was an impediment to entering the industry. If you have a portfolio, a positive attitude and a solid amount of grit, you’re off to a good start. And being able to pick up things fast as well as being a good culture-fit in the agency is definitely more important than a diploma. That being said, it does help to have varied and related work experience and/or interests. In my case, working in digital marketing and start-ups definitely gave me a leg-up into the industry.

CR: What did you find challenging about the eight-week mentorship?
CC: Producing a portfolio in such a short period of time was very challenging, but having an amazing mentor made things much easier. I learned immensely from him and I was very lucky to have such a giving and knowledgeable tutor. Also, everyone at Creature was very supportive – the atmosphere was inspiring and I will always treasure the time I spent there.

Ambrosia ad by Caetana Cruz

CR: Do you think the creative industry is truly accepting of people that haven’t gone to ad school?
CC: I do, and I think it’s probably the only industry that actively encourages and welcomes misfits, non-conformists and creatives from non-traditional paths. I also believe that the industry is very aware of the importance of diversity of thought and is making strides in that direction. Although formal education can be helpful, I believe it is definitely not necessary.

CR: Could it be doing more?
CC: I think the challenge that most young people face entering the industry is not so much a lack of academic credentials, but a structural one. And it seems to be even truer within strategy. This department tends to be full of people who already work within the agency, meaning there are almost no opportunities for new talent. I believe it would be interesting if agencies created strategy-focused work placements and internships alongside their creative ones. This would not only give strategically-minded creatives a chance to prove their worth but also benefit the agencies by creating a more harmonious interplay between their creative and planning departments.

Big Yellow Storage ad by Alex Bertulis-Fernandes


Creative Review: What made you apply for Cream?
Alexis Bertulis-Fernandes: I was originally meant to go to university. I went to St Andrews to study English Literature for three months before dropping out. I became quite depressed and I didn’t like it, but the plan was always to go back. I applied again at other universities, but I’d get in, September would come round and I’d find an excuse not to go. I realised I missed being creative, and I had a look at doing a more creative degree but didn’t feel ready to commit to one. I started a foundation diploma in art and design, which was a 12-month course where you explore different mediums and styles, because I thought that would get me into being creative again. I was on lots of different creative people’s newsletters and I got one advertising D&AD New Blood Shift as something for people without degrees. Apart from a few stints doing editing for Penguin Books or an internship at charities, most of the work I’d done had been in retail or catering which I didn’t enjoy very much. I applied and got on, and found the scheme amazing. I knew I wanted to work in advertising and although I was about to start my second placement at BBC Creative I felt like my book could be improved. The thought of being mentored by senior creatives to get it into the best state really appealed to me.

CR: How was your experience being mentored?
ABF: My mentors helped me take it back to the idea, and how strong that is. I’m someone who comes to execution straightaway, and as a copywriter I’d often craft something that I thought was really beautifully written, present it to them, and they’d be like, “Where’s the idea?” They helped me think about things in a different way. That encouraged me to look at coming to a brand from a different perspective, and I ended up looking at Jungle Formula and how you can advertise mosquito repellent. I came to the idea of advertising it as a way of opting out of mosquito blood donation, and I don’t think I would have been able to come to that if it weren’t for them encouraging me to look at things in a different way.

DFS ad by Alex Bertulis-Fernandes

CR: Is the industry doing enough to bring in people that haven’t got a degree or been to ad school?
ABF: I think people are trying to recruit more people from non-traditional backgrounds, but I can’t believe I’d have ended up here were it not for an opportunity being offered to a non-graduate. I saw D&AD New Blood Shift and Cream advertised through creative newsletters that I was signed up to, and anyone can sign up to that, but I hadn’t heard of them before. More needs to be done to attract people who wouldn’t necessarily be on a newsletter for young creatives. I think the industry is really missing out. Once you get into that network it’s easy to find these opportunities, but you have to be brought into that network to begin with. I never would have considered advertising as a career at school, and in that sense maybe it only attracts people that think of it as a career. You can say that about any profession, but the industry would benefit from people who wouldn’t consider it as a natural career.; Emily Nelson; Alex Bertulis-Fernandes; Caetana Cruz