Should it really be this hard to become an ad creative?

Advertising agencies spend time and money on graduate recruitment for account managers and planners, so why don’t creatives get the same opportunities?

In a few months time, thousands of graduates will be released into what can only be described as a tough jobs market. Many of these will be keen to enter advertising, an industry that even in the most buoyant economic times is highly competitive, especially within the creative departments. Tales of the eccentric methods employed by former graduates to attract the attention of creative directors are legion – Graham Fink, for example, dressed as an old man in one interview after hearing that the agency was looking for someone with experience. He got the job. But should such japes really be necessary? Other advertising departments, such as planning or account handling, trawl universities hunting for the top talent for places on well-paid graduate training schemes. Why is this not the case for creatives?

Hit the ground running
In part, the Fink story is a good illustration of one of the reasons. The ad industry loves characters, especially those in possession of charisma and tenacity, and the creative department especially can sometimes appear to be in thrall to the idea of being tough to enter. Coming up with such an audacious way to get the attention of the ECD appeals to the industry’s sense of being full of unique, bombastic figures. And surely such a performance is a demonstration of an innate sense of creativity, isn’t it? Well, possibly. But it’s unlikely that Fink would have received his first job if he didn’t also have a stunning portfolio to back him up. And nowadays, the skills that are required by an ad agency are broad, often beyond those that will be taught at art colleges, meaning that a typical portfolio may no longer be enough to break in.

“There is a problem in that creative people, in order to be hired, pretty much have to hit the ground running,” says Ogilvy Group vice chairman Rory Sutherland. “This means that unless you’ve been to a course that teaches you how to be a creative person, it’s impossible to work in a creative department. This is a bit unfair because agencies are happy to invest in creating account people and creating planners, why is the same effort not being made in terms of creative recruitment? It’s a failure.

“The problem with the creative department is it’s become a flatter structure,” he continues. “Whereas account handling is fairly hierarchical, and also account people love having people report to them. The creative department used to be more pyramid shaped, but now the group head system is increasingly disappearing, so the structures for mentoring exist less and less. Because of that, arguably agencies have become much more conservative in their hiring because you need some­one who can do ads and hit the ground running the second they walk in.”

The ad industry is closely connected to the art colleges and universities who regularly supply them with talent, however, and is always on the look out for the potential future stars. “We’ve always found creative people quite self-starting,” says Kate Stanners, ECD at Saatchi & Saatchi London. “People find their way to us, but equally we spend quite a bit of time during the year doing talks and having placements and so forth. So while there isn’t an ongoing scheme [for creatives], there are ongoing relationships [with the colleges]. There’s basically scouting going on all year round.”

Saatchi & Saatchi, like many other agencies across London, uses a placement system as a way to offer students and graduates an opportunity to get a taste of the industry and also as a way to weed out talent that it might go on to employ. At Saatchis, this is only the case within the creative department, with the placements usually being short-term, often a period of weeks. “It’s very hard for them to show off in that time frame [in planning],” argues Stanners. “In a way, creative people are quite well rounded already – they can have ideas and they might not be brilliantly thought through or crafted or applied, but you can get a sense of what they can do, and what you want is that raw mind. Whereas often with planning and so forth there is more of a system of working your way up through the ranks.”

The problem with the placement system, however, is that creative graduates can find that they are on a merry-go-round of internships, working at a lot of agencies short term for little or no pay, but never being offered a longer term position. One potential way out of this rut is through more education. While this may not solve the financial problems internships cause, it can give those certain that they want to work in advertising the requisite skills to get a break. Students on the specialist courses run by the recently relaunched School of Communication Arts and by Hyper Island school in Manchester in particular are being closely watched by those in the industry.

Empathy with clients
These courses recognise the complex skills that the industry requires now, with the boundaries increasingly blurring within the various agency departments. To be a good creative director, business skills are necessary alongside artistic and technological knowhow. “We’ve got client service people who are brilliant strategic thinkers,” says James Hilton, co-founder and chief creative officer at AKQA. “We’ve got new business people who could be creative directors because of how their minds work and how excited they get. Equally we’ve got creatives who are really good project managers. I think people need to be like that. If you’re a creative coming into a commercial environment, you need to be fiscally aware. Because if you’re not, how do you have any empathy with your clients’ problems?”

Agencies and other industry bodies are also beginning to launch their own schemes to attract new creative talent to the advertising world. AKQA works alongside Cannes Lions on Future Lions, now in its sixth year, a scheme that challenges students of all disciplines to “advertise a product from a global brand in a way that couldn’t have been done five years ago, to an audience of your choosing”. Five winning teams are flown to the Cannes ad festival, and are usually quickly snapped up by agencies.

D&AD runs its yearly New Blood exhibition, to showcase the best new graduate talent each year, and has now launched the Graduate Academy, a five-day ‘creative bootcamp’ for 100 people, 50 of which will be selected for an agency placement. Elsewhere, Wieden + Kennedy in London is now in the second year of Platform, a “research and development lab experiment” that aims to bring new ideas, specifically about technology, into the agency. According to Sam Brookes, managing director of the Platform programme, members of the group are “researching and developing cultural engagement through experimenting with technology to create new sorts of experiences. That might be a new running experience, it might be a new cinematic experience or art experience, there are lots of different avenues they are exploring. They are coming together in a group and teaching W+K what the future might be.”

Over at Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, another new talent scheme, The Kennedys, has just been launched. Open to anyone in Europe, it offers an attractive package: six months’ paid work at the agency, as well as travel expenses and accommodation. The scheme recently closed for entries, having received 937 applications for the six places on offer. This is testament to the attraction that the ad industry still holds for people, and also how hard you may have to work to break into it. Avenues into the creative ad industry are out there, but, as ever, it will take talent, skills, and maybe even a bit of showmanship for graduates to find their way down them.


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