The Ideas Generation

The Ideas Foundation exists to unlock the creative potential in kids from disadvantaged areas and ultimately encourage diversity in the creative industries. We sit in on one of its flagship projects

It’s not easy to hold the attention of ten 12-14-year-olds. But on a dreary late winter afternoon, students of the Woolwich Polytechnic School for Boys are taking note. They are being briefed by AMV BBDO, one of the UK’s largest advertising agencies, to come up with a campaign for BT, one of the agency’s major clients.

The briefing includes a taster of what work at an advertising agency involves, an overview of how agencies might approach a given brief, an enthusiastic brain storming session, which encourages the students to think laterally, and most importantly direct contact with two members of the AMV team – both living proof that making a career in the creative industries is attainable, and fun.

It is part of I Am Creative, a rapidly expanding project by the Ideas Foundation charity. The initiative sets live briefs for students from disadvantaged areas to provide insight into the creative industries and the opportunities they offer. The teams get a set time to respond to the brief and present their projects to agency and client, after which a winner is chosen. Members of the winning and highly commended teams will receive high street vouchers as well as a place on The Ladder, an exclusive progression group that offers various opportunities to develop creative skills and get into the creative industries.

“The students loved having people who currently work in the industry meeting with them, and found it very exciting,” says Lisa Coombs, art teacher at the Woolwich Polytechnic. “They especially enjoyed that these people had taken time out of their lives to come to our school to meet with them and then to listen to their ideas. It not only opened conversations about advertising but also about what other possibilities there are after education for creative people.”

And that is exactly what I Am Creative aspires to. The project has been growing steadily, and the BT brief was the best subscribed yet, with five schools taking part, and more than 60 final projects submitted. The basic formula of getting high profile agencies and brands involved is proving successful, backed up by an extensive online resource of information and inspiration for any student looking to participate, whether as part of a school team or as an individual.

But its current incarnation has been a long time evolving. The Ideas Foundation was founded in 2003 by advertising supremo Robin Wight, president of Engine and WCRS. It began with the “core mission of helping kids from disadvantaged ethnic minority backgrounds whose creativity hasn’t been recognised,” he explains, “that’s still our core purpose – we all know that creativity is a major engine of Britain but how much of this oil are we wasting?”

I Am Creative was originally conceived as a purely online mentoring facility, connecting students with a creative mentor to work on ideas for a brand’s live brief. It was a great idea, but impossible in reality, the foundation realised, with time constraints affecting the smooth flow of online conversation. It was nonetheless evident that working with brands and agencies was a good idea in principle, and its current set-up emerged accordingly. It now works with schools – 37 since it launched in Spring 2012 – building briefs in or around the school curriculum, and runs alongside other Ideas Foundation projects, such as Incubate (which runs intensive projects with three schools in the northwest), as well as workshops, work placements and educational pilot projects.

As much as the Ideas Foundation is about nurturing untapped creative talent in those who might be languishing unappreciated and unencouraged by their parents or the education system, it is about continued efforts to change the creative industry, which is still decidedly skewed
in its diversity profile.

According to an IPA report from 2011, more than 90% of advertising industry staff are from a white background. And while a majority of all advertising and marketing messages are aimed at women, 90% of all communications campaigns are created by men.

These are the kinds of diversity gaps that the Ideas Foundation is looking to bridge. “What we’re trying to do is keep innovating and keep looking at ways in which we can encourage a more diverse workforce, in its broadest term,” says Jonathan Akwue, partner at Engine and acting chair of the board at the Ideas Foundation. He points out that many young students who the foundation is looking to reach were “as creative as anyone in the industry, and yet so far removed from the world of marketing and the creative industries”. As an industry, if you don’t tap that potential, “you end up with a net loss”, he says, “we’re not as creative as we could be and our output is not as creative.”

AMV BBDO creative director Mike Hannett himself comes from “a fairly grim part of Manchester originally”, and even though he went to art college and he’d see some great ads on TV – during the heydey of the likes of Collett Dickenson Pearce more than 30 years ago – “I didn’t have a clue how they ended up on my TV screen,” he says, “and I’m sure that’s the case today. Particularly at the moment where creative education is under real pressure and lots of kids will be thinking twice about going to university, anything we can do to encourage them is worth it.”
Further change requires a multi-pronged approach, adds Akwue. The work from the ground up (working with young people and connecting with schools to demonstrate the route into the industry) needs to go hand-in-hand with change from within the industry, for example making it “more welcoming to people who don’t fit the traditional mould”.

He does point out that “this is something that’s widely acknowledged and we’ve got fantastic support from the agencies over the years – from people who are doing more than just lip service”. But the other part of the puzzle, he adds, is making sure that the value of the creative industry is recognised at policy level, and the foundation is currently working on how to raise awareness around diversity in advertising on this wider level.

A key part of the the Ideas Foundation’s success is the support of high profile agencies and brands – from agencies such as M&C Saatchi, DLKWLowe, BBH, Engine and Ogilvy, to brands including Nokia, Aviva, Vodafone and Barclaycard. Brands contribute a significant sponsorship sum of £15,000 to take part in I Am Creative, but for them the equation stacks up. BT marketing director David James says the project offered the opportunity to do something with kids who wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to break into the creative industries, but also “would be helpful for the business” – “this is a different take on getting young people’s ideas about our business”, he adds. “Young people have an influence in terms of the buying decisions in the home, so to have their no-holds-barred view of our business seemed like a good idea.”

In addition to offering unadulterated opinions from young consumers, the projects can spark ideas that are commercially viable. For example, one of the initial pilot projects set a brief with Nokia for students to design a socially responsible app. Deborah Boateng and Talia Jordan-Lewis, from London’s Haggerston school, came up with an environmental mobile game, Green Spree, in which players have to kill the ‘pollbots’ before they pollute the earth. The concept impressed the mobile giant so much that it developed the app, investing £40,000 and launching it in its Ovi store. Talia has gone on to do work placements and is also on the foundation’s youth advisory board, the Scholars Council.

The winner of another recent project for Eon, which set students the task of motivating the community to save energy, was deemed “truly inspired” by the judges. The campaign, “Spin till it hertz”, created by pupils at George Spencer Academy in Stapleford, included a giant hamster 2 3 wheel that people could run on to charge their phones – illustrating how much energy it takes to perform this everyday action.

Back at Woolwich Polytechnic, a few weeks on from the original briefing session, the students are presenting their ideas to AMV BBDO and BT. They have clearly put a lot of thought and effort into their work, and their presentations show a range of creativity and approaches – from the quirky Live Fast, Browse Faster animated campaign by Team Infinity to the hand-drawn illustration from Team Falcon, and the surreal adventure from Team Phoenix, in which an internet user gets sucked into the online world when his computer crashes.

Many of the students were already passionate about their art – 14-year-old Simi Adeshina, for example, has his own YouTube channel and animation production company – but taking part in this live brief has considerably widened their outlook. Simi says he knew close to nothing about the advertising industry, apart from that it had a “huge influence”. “I learnt that there is so much more that goes into advertising than most people would see in the 30 seconds of airtime,” he adds. Thirteen-year-old Denzel also took a lot from the project, realising the graft that goes into the business: “Advertising takes time to be perfected, and it allows me to be creative.”

The eventual winner came from the RSA Academy in the West Midlands. According to the judges, which included AMV BBDO executive creative directors Hannett and Dave Buchanan as well as BT’s David James, the team’s stop motion advert responded most imaginatively to the brief, which had asked students to think beyond BT’s broadband product to a more general appreciation of the value of the internet. Sixteen-year-old Liam Salt, of the winning RSA team, says that they wanted to be “as different as possible” in their creative idea. And what fascinated him most about advertising is that it goes beyond selling products: “The whole creative industry doesn’t just revolve around products, there is a whole other side where you can send a message. If I did end up going into the industry, [it would be in that area].”

Hannett says he was impressed with some of the technical skills many of the students showed. “There were some really interesting ideas in there,” he says. “The ad that won was the one that stuck most closely to the brief and celebrated the internet best. We were judging on the idea rather than the virtuosity of the technique…. I was genuinely surprised by the quality of some of the writing and some of the acting – it looked like people had fun and that’s the main thing.”

Woolwich teacher Coombs agrees that her students enjoyed the project, but the experience went beyond that. “Pupils who participated had none or little prior knowledge of what the future holds for someone who enjoys creating,” she says. “The project allowed for them to have a taste of what a creative job would be like. Students seemed empowered by this knowledge.” The project also coincided with the students choosing what GCSEs to take, and all except one chose to take GCSE art and design, adds Coombs, “I do think this project allowed them to make an informed decision.”

The Ideas Foundation now raises around £400,000 a year, with a quarter of that coming from trusts and the rest raised from the marketing and advertising industry – “After ten years we’ve found a model that works,” says Wight. But the ambition doesn’t stop there. I Am Creative has worked with 16 brands and their agencies, and more than 22 agencies are on the foundation’s Mentors Council. The foundation is now aiming for 100 brands and 100 agencies, says Wight. “My ambition is large,” adds Akwue. “I’d rather make some wholesale change on a system level, and I think, ‘why not?’.”


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