Capital punishment: how the UK's London-centric industry limits new talent
Three years on from VCCP's project to nurture new local talent in the UK's midland region, Jim Thornton, ECD of VCCP London & VCCP Stoke-on-Trent Academy, reveals the project's success and how more needs to be done to battle social immobility and elitist pathways in the creative industries.
One rainy night, right in the middle of lockdown, Michael Lee and I started on a stealth project called VCCP Stoke.
Encouraged by the sudden normalising of remote learning and working, the idea was to see if we could begin to tackle a variety of ills besetting our industry: lack of awareness of our industry and all it has to offer amongst youngsters, the lack of socio-economic and regional diversity amongst the workforce, the unavailability of talent due to the cost of moving to and living in London,
and a desire to be part of the regeneration of the spiritual home of the British Creative Industries, Stoke-on-Trent.
We’ve seen first-hand the instinctive, intuitive talent that's out there.
So, three years later, how has the idea evolved from what was then merely a passing conversation between an ECD and a CSO, and an email to a teacher at Stoke 6th Form College?
Well, thanks to the passion and determination of more than a hundred VCCPers who’ve helped run, mentor, nurture and cajole nearly 200 young people ¬– pretty damn well.
Since that night in 2020, we have run three virtual work experience courses for 6th Formers [equivalent to 11th and 12th grade in the US]. We started with just one group but with the help of the inspirational Naomi Baxter, Course Leader at Stoke 6th Form College, we have expanded it every year to include two other colleges.
We didn’t know nearly enough about the awareness or perceptions of our industry amongst people outside of our own bubble.
Not only have we introduced students to the different types of jobs available in our industry, but via the briefs we set them, we’ve seen first-hand the instinctive, intuitive talent that's out there.
And in October we’ll start our fourth 6th Form Challenge which will run across four different colleges simultaneously.
Above: Students from Stoke, NSCG Stafford & NSCG Newcastle 6th Form Colleges after The Grand Final of the 6th Form Challenge.
We’ve also just finished our second ‘Best Summer Job Ever’, an intensive four-week paid programme for eight students from a variety of courses at Staffs University. Last year’s students all went on to get jobs locally in the creative industries, saying the programme gave them the confidence and the skills required to navigate interviews, presentations and corporate life.
The UK’s leading agencies will continue to be the preserve of the South-Eastern middle classes
We’ve now got an office in the emerging Stoke ‘createch cluster’ that houses our eight students for the four weeks, plus our four apprentices in Data Analysis, Account Management and Creative Production and Strategy.
Most of the above was established on a hunch, a wing and a prayer. But we realised we didn’t know nearly enough about the awareness or perceptions of our industry amongst people outside of our own bubble, which meant we were devising programmes without any real understanding of the barriers we were trying to break down.
So, in conjunction with the APG (Advertising Production Guild), we commissioned Steven Lacey at The Outsiders to conduct research with young people across the country about their perceptions of our industry and whether it might be for them. The results were eye-opening. And very, very chastening.
Above: some of the perceptions young people have of the ad industry, and the people who work in it.
We used the insights gained to figure out better ways to talk to, target and connect with this group - to give those who shudder at the thought of an interview, who don’t have the confidence to tell us what they’re good at, or who might struggle with wordsmithing; a genuine chance. Innovations included:
● Creating recruitment comms that spoke to them in their language and calling our internship a ‘summer job’ instead.
● Abandoning CVs and instead encouraging applications in whatever form applicants felt would best represent them, because the written word isn’t for everyone. We received videos, songs, stories and presentations.
● Making it easier to understand job roles and departments, by creating more accessible language (eg. thinkers, makers and doers).
But the industry has so much more to do.
The majority of schemes aimed at broadening the socio-economic and ethnic diversity of our industry are still almost entirely London based.
Yes, there are some great initiatives emerging from different agencies aimed at entry level talent, like Upriser from Saatchi, Homegrown from BBH, The Kennedy’s from Wiedens, as well as apprenticeship schemes being started by Publicis Groupe and Dentsu.
However, apart from The & Partnership and Group M’s establishment of a brand new campus in Birmingham called The & Academy that offers up to 25 apprenticeships, and McCann Manchester’s apprenticeships, the majority of schemes aimed at broadening the socio-economic and ethnic diversity of our industry are still almost entirely London based.
Which, because of the cost of moving to and living in London, excludes about 90 per cent of the country.
Above: Jim Thornton
For too long our industry has been complacent, arrogant even, in thinking it was so attractive and so cool, the best talent would literally give up everything to come to London and turn up at our doors begging for a job. But that ceased to be the case about 10 or even 20 years ago, as other creative industries and opportunities opened up both in and beyond London.
Advertising, out of all industries, should be a meritocracy.
Understandably the loss of culture and collaboration is often cited as a reason not to branch out into other areas of the British Isles, and yet there’s no reason why these offices shouldn't develop a healthy culture of their own and maintain a close relationship with the Mothership.
Other mature industries look at the schools and colleges that are giving youngsters the skills their industry requires, and site offices nearby.
Sure it takes time and work to embrace scary old change, but the lure of the incredible talent out there, who otherwise will never hear of us, let alone find us, should be incentive enough to embrace that change.
Advertising, out of all industries, should be a meritocracy. But you can’t have a meritocracy unless everyone starts from the same position of opportunity.
Until more agencies like ourselves, McCann & The & Partnership are prepared to invest beyond London, the UK’s leading agencies will continue to be the preserve of the South-Eastern middle classes.
And that can’t be healthy for our wonderful industry, or our nation.