Ad agencies have a social mobility problem
A view from Helen Edwards

Ad agencies have a social mobility problem

Functions such as the post room offer the industry a diverse talent.

In 1960, a young Frank Lowe hustled a job in the post room at London advertising agency J Walter Thompson and proceeded to work his way up from there to a career that would take him to the very pinnacle of the industry.

They don’t make ’em like that any more – ad agencies, that is. Today’s young Frank couldn’t make it up because he wouldn’t make it in. There is no post room in a modern agency – and none of those other "starter" departments or functions, either, that might offer a foothold to a resourceful but rudimentarily educated working-class kid: no "information department", no "vouchers-checking", no "proof-routers", no "paste-up studio". 

The ad agency of then and now are like two very tall trees, equally high, with the lush branches starting halfway up. Once you’re on the lowest branch, you have a way to climb onwards and upwards – to the very top, if you’re sufficiently clever, cunning and agile. 

But how do you get yourself on to that bottom branch? It’s too high to reach from the ground. On the trunk of the 1960s tree, though, there were gnarled bits, stumps, little indents in the bark that, if you were canny and brave enough, you’d grapple on to. The post room was one of those gnarled lumps, and a promising one too. 

Today’s trunk is polish-smooth: clamber-proof, like the paint on the walls in the council estates wannabes still hail from. The only way to reach that bottom branch is on the officially sanctioned zip line of the graduate intake, or possibly some kind of special "scheme". 

There are two tragedies here. The first is that, from a societal point of view, yet another path to social mobility is closed. Ad agencies used to be great levellers – true meritocracies where talent from the gutter could take on Oxbridge grads and beat them at the day-to-day business of mass persuasion. 

But that innate ingenuity would only show once inside – it’s not the kind of thing that would always be self-evident in an interview. So the 16-year-old school-leaver got in through a mundane door – no easy feat in itself – and sought to make an impression from there. 

No longer. In this month’s State of the Nation 2016 report published by the Social Mobility Commission, chair Alan Milburn declared that "Britain has a deep social mobility problem that is getting worse for a whole generation of young people". It’s not the responsibility of any one industry to solve that issue, of course – but it would be nice if advertising could do something for society that happened also to be in its own interest. 

And it is. The real tragedy for adland is that restricting its intake to those who come from the same educated pool robs it of the ones who take a more syncopated approach to their early lives – who do things a bit differently and shun the routine paths. Yet this is one of the very characteristics any creative industry needs. 

Who else came up from the post room? Charles Saatchi, Peter Mead, Tim Bell, Paul Weiland. How much poorer would the advertising industry have been without them?

Maybe we should blame Tony Blair for this obsession with diplomas, with his "education, education, education" mantra, as though the same quality in triplicate is all that makes for a superior workforce. What about "ingenuity, nous, determination"? Or "charm, intelligence, grit"? Or even "iconoclasm, stamina, bloody-mindedness"? 

We hear a lot about diversity these days, but there’s no point levelling everything up by gender, ethnicity and physical-ability status if we’re still denying a route in to those from the bottom, least-educated class. 

Some argue that this is what the schemes are for – especially the more open ones (see below). But they’re still selective and narrow, and force decisions on specific roles too soon for many. The great thing about the post room was that it got the young person around the agency on foot, talking to people at all stations, getting a feel for how the whole thing worked together – and where their own talents might best be deployed.

Today’s agencies have become leaner and more efficient. And, to be fair, they’ve had to. But in losing their gofers, girl Fridays, post boys, messengers and dogsbodies, they’ve lost something else too. Paperless, officeless and frictionless, they’ve unwittingly sealed out the maverick self-starters who never do anything by rote.

No-one’s going to bring the post room back in a hurry, but maybe that agency of yours could rough up the trunk of its tree a bit and carve in some functions that offer a little traction to those who merit a chance but may not get one any other way. Who knows, you might soon see the next Frank Lowe clambering up.

Starter schemes

The post-room route is closed but some agencies offer imaginative schemes to help identify and give a start to promising young non-graduates.

Wieden & Kennedy: The Kennedys
A "creative incubator" programme held in the London and Amsterdam offices, described by executive creative director Tony Davidson as a "crash course in creative chaos". The programme is open to "movers, doers, thinkers, schemers and plotters of all persuasions" and those who make it to completion are routinely offered full-time roles. But only 12 get to start each year.

J Walter Thompson: Pioneers
Due to kick off in January 2017, the scheme claims to offer an "industry-leading programme" to train "talented, enthusiastic people from scratch". It’s open to school-leavers and graduates alike – as long as they fit the description of "curious, courageous, capable and collaborative".

Ogilvy & Mather: The Pipe
A six-month creative internship designed to weed out the weak and reward the boldest, most exciting creative talent. It overtly encourages bravery, even at application stage, with would-be participants expected to sell themselves and stand out. There are no education requirements or age limits, and no previous experience is necessary.

Helen Edwards is the former PPA busi­ness columnist of the year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passion­brand. 
@helenedw

Topics