Shift was set up to promote diversity in the creative industries – a sector still made up largely of white university graduates from privileged backgrounds. (Creative Skillset’s 2014 Media Workforce Survey found that 78 percent of respondents were educated to degree level – more than double the UK average – while research by Goldsmiths uncovered race, class and gender inequalities across the arts. Less than seven percent of employees from several creative and cultural industries are from BAME groups).
The scheme was open to all young creatives without an art school degree and promised 12 weeks of hands on training via talks, workshops and mentoring sessions with industry experts. Over the course of the programme, students would learn how to develop creative ideas, put them into production and pitch their work to prospective clients and employers.
Eighteen applicants were selected to take part in the course. Students included a 19-year-old filmmaker, a self-taught designer and a writer who was temping at an ad agency. The group met one evening each week and on occasional Saturdays.
After four months of brainstorming, pitching and visiting agencies, their creative education has come to an end, but seven are now embarking on paid placements with Leo Burnett, Turner Duckworth, Havas, MRM Meteorite and Design Bridge. Three students have decided to go back to school and others are collaborating on a short film.
No-one has yet managed to land their dream creative job – but they have all made contacts in the industry and learned a range of new skills.
“Success for each member of the group was different,” says Hilary Chittenden, Foundation Manager at D&AD. “For some of them, it was about landing a placement in an industry that was previously closed to them, and for others it was really about understanding how they could make the most of their skills. Not only have they now got a developed portfolio of work, but we’ve seen them all grow in so many other ways – from increased confidence to understanding the pay-off of creative risk taking.”
Jake Maguire applied for Shift with the hope of one day landing a job in a design agency. He has now secured placements at Design Bridge and Turner Duckworth in February and March.
“I went to art school but left early, for several reasons. [I] didn’t really get on with it,” he says. “I’ve since been working on and off as a designer/illustrator … with limited success. [I] failed loads along the way and picked up part time work when I needed it.”
Maguire describes Shift as “the opposite” of his experience at art school. “It was incredibly enjoyable…. Getting to interact with so many different types of creatives from diverse backgrounds, both within the group and from speakers, was really interesting and inspiring. The support of D&AD really helped build my confidence up – they encouraged me when I needed it and pushed me to get out of my comfort zone.”
Hollie Moore, aka Luna, was working at a second-hand technology shop when she applied for Shift. During the course, she devised a quirky, Gothic-inspired campaign to promote Hartley’s jams in Japan and a cultural festival in Southampton to promote Mexican creativity and food. She is soon starting a placement at Leo Burnett and says the course has improved her confidence and given her a route into an industry that might otherwise have been out of reach.
“I couldn’t afford to go to university, so I just went and worked in retail,” she says. “I would have studied film, that’s one of my main passions … but it was just way too expensive and not financially possible,” she explains.
Moore says she was feeling depressed before joining Shift and was desperate to do something more creative. “I wasn’t using any of my skills, [it] felt like the creative side of my brain was withering,” she says. “I lost a lost of my confidence coming out of school and watching all my friends go to uni, creating new friends and studying what they love.”
I couldn’t afford to go to university …. it was just way too expensive
At the beginning of the programme, she struggled to speak in front of the group. “Even a few weeks after meeting I would do my pitches hidden under a hoodie,” she says. By the end of it, however, she delivered a presentation to over 100 people at a Shift event in Shoreditch.
As well as giving students confidence, and a supportive network of peers with different backgrounds and specialisms, Shift has inspired them to learn new skills and apply their creativity in new ways.
“I began teaching myself things like software [skills] and editing, things I had told myself I would do years before,” says Moore.
“My team mates Johnny learned 3D modelling on his computer, and digitally crafted these amazing models in just three days, Mike, our very own Van Gogh made a short animated film and Jemima, who was a writer, made a film…. We are all so grateful we got this amazing opportunity, not only for discovering us and encouraging us to go forth with our creative passions but actually connecting us with people and agencies who can help us use our creative skills.”
Chittenden says the project was built around “fostering an environment where collaboration was encouraged and celebrated.”
“We wanted to bring together a group of people with different mindsets and skills that would complement and support each other…. Peer support was a huge part of why the programme succeeded. Lots of the group had low confidence when they started the programme, and a tight-knit support system, peer to peer feedback and industry mentoring led to a big growth in a short period of time. Their relationships have continued, with many of the group still working together … and many of the group still meeting regularly with their mentors.”
Leanne Blossom, an aspiring writer with a background in musical theatre, who did the course in between temping, working as a teaching assistant and teaching yoga, says: “I think that was one of the nicest things about the group. Everyone was very supportive, we all had different backgrounds so it wasn’t competitive, and we learned from each other.”
Blossom says Shift helped her improve her presentation and pitching skills. Practical sessions such as workshops where the group had to come up with ideas in a minute helped her “think outside the box,” while a session with a standup comedian helped the class improve their public speaking skills. Blossom has learned several important lessons on the course, including the value of not being too precious about ideas, being willing to share them with a group even if they aren’t perfect, and the importance of having confidence in an idea – all things that will stand her in good stead whatever job she lands next and which are hugely valued in agencies.
She is now working at Havas, where she has spent two weeks shadowing the team, and will soon be working on briefs of her own. Blossom feels the course has prepared her well for her placement – though adjusting to client deadlines and the pace of agency life was still a learning curve. “There’s a lot of different time pressures [in agencies] – sometimes you’re working at the speed of light to get things done,” she adds.
The work produced by Shift’s students might not be as polished as those created by art school graduates with years of formal training, but it does demonstrate passion, enthusiasm and creativity. Moore used fun and bonkers GIFs and film to promote Hartley’s, Shift student Charlie Richardson developed a tongue-in-cheek print campaign promoting Radio 1 to a US audience and Maguire came up with an idea to offer Southampton locals free Wahaca tacos in exchange for unwanted packets of Tex-Mex food. Others devised copy-based campaigns and short films.
“It’s inevitable that the work you’ll see produced will differ from a group of graduates of a similar age … who have all studied the same subject,” says Chittenden. “I think a lot of the work felt more natural and less restricted by pre-taught outcomes. This did result in really interesting work, which often felt quite raw in contrast to what you might expect to see in a graduates’ portfolio.”
“The biggest challenge we found … was how to celebrate these pre-existing skills, and not ‘over train’ the group to the point where they were producing the same work we see coming out of unis. The industry needs misfits and finding the balance between understanding the industry’s commercial demands vs creative freedom was a tricky one to balance. We also found a tension between the industry’s demand for this raw potential and the reality of them having to fit in and value from day one in a fast paced environment.”
Graham Shearsby, Chief Creative Officer at Design Bridge and a mentor on the course, says he was impressed by both the “quality and freshness” of work from this year’s students.
Shearsby, like the class of Shift, didn’t go to university. He grew up in the East End of London and landed a job in a studio in Soho in 1979 with the help of his teachers, where he worked with designer John Blackburn. He describes the opportunity as a “pure lucky break” – but it’s not something he thinks would be available to young people in a similar situation today. “The chances of this happening to my equivalent generation in my old hometown have now all but vanished,” he adds. “They don’t stand a chance or understand the opportunities out there.”
Shearsby says Design Bridge now has a mission to offer more opportunities to people who haven’t been to art school, and champion “raw talent that may not have had the chances that a more privileged background can bring.” Maguire will be joining the agency for a three-month placement after his time at Turner Duckworth and Shearsby says he will be paired with a design director and a creative team who will take time to nurture and advise him. The agency is also talking to Blossom once she is finished her placement at Havas.
Chittenden admits that Shift participants might need some help finding their feet in agencies but says that the course has helped prepare them for agency life by building their confidence, bravery and resilience.
“However, there is a bigger question: is the industry ready to accept more diverse talent?” she adds. “Offering work experience is one thing – but it’s another to provide full time paid roles, and make taking on diverse talent the norm rather than a one-off or an exception. It will require more hands-on training and a different approach to nurturing talent than asking them to get on with the job from day one.”
We’re strongly encouraging agencies to take a look at how they find and nurture talent
“This is something we will be exploring over the next 12 months at D&AD. It’s inevitable that people who haven’t been to art college or grown up with an understanding of the industry will take a little bit longer to find their feet and feel part of a community that may seem alien to them. We’re strongly encouraging agencies to take a look at how they find and nurture talent – and not in a gimmicky way. This industry is good at making headlines, but behind those headlines are real people who are putting their careers on the line, and need genuine commitment and support to make it work.”
Thirty agencies took part in Shift last year – a promising start. More than a third of the class of 2016 have landed paid work and an impressive name on their CV. What remains to be seen, however, is whether this will lead to a long-term career – and whether the programme will inspire agencies to look beyond art schools when recruiting for full-time positions. There is momentum gathering, and a growing awareness of the need to recruit more diverse talent but as Shearsby points out, if creatives and agencies want to improve diversity in their teams, they will have to speak up and “force change, rather than hope it will happen”.
“The creative industries and also our clients are craving real creative diversity and raw talent. We need to inspire and inform kids at grassroots level … and [the industry needs to] back, help, support and encourage,” he says.
Shift can only help a small group of people but the course will be returning to London later this year and is also launching in New York. “This programme isn’t about charity. It’s about finding the best talent, but from unexpected places. So we want to cast our net wider and work harder on our outreach,” says Chittenden.
Some tweaks will be made to the programme – “We want the group to be making more and listening less. We also want to be a bit tougher on the group, with stricter, faster deadlines that better mirror the realities of the job,” says Chittenden – but the overall format will remain unchanged.
“The fact that the programme is a night school opens so many doors for those who need to keep a roof over their head, and can’t take part in full time programmes, so it’s essential this always stays the same.”