CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - CREATIVE PLACEMENTS. The bright young talent at the heart of Diageo's quest for creative excellence

How a drinks giant has got into cultivating artistry for key products.

Victoria Daltrey and William Bingham began a four-month creative placement at J. Walter Thompson last week. Nothing unusual about that, albeit the pair are regarded as the pick of their college's crop with blossoming talent.

What's different about Daltrey and Bingham is that their placement is being funded not by the agency but one of its major clients.

Even more unusual is the fact that the client regards its protegees both as a symbol of its commitment to creative advertising and of its determination to put its money where its mouth is to achieve it.

The client is the drinks giant Diageo Great Britain, which spends £40 million a year supporting a range of brands from Guinness and Smirnoff to Gordon's Gin and Johnnie Walker whisky.

In what's believed to be the first initiative of its kind, the company has awarded a one-year scholarship to a team judged the best from books by the cream of final-year students at West Herts College, Bucks Chiltern University and London's St Martin's College.

Nick Bell and Peter Souter, the executive creative directors of JWT and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO respectively, chose the winning team along with John Hegarty, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's worldwide creative chief.

"The work of Victoria and William stood head and shoulders above almost everything else we saw," Hegarty says. "There's always a balance to be struck between fresh creativity and commercial awareness. There are lots of people with truly original minds who can't do it. These two can."

Souter is equally unstinting. "I think they're the best young team in London," he declares. "There wasn't a single ad in their book we couldn't have sold to a client."

Now, instead of hawking their portfolios around Soho and Covent Garden in the hope of finding an agency willing to give them a fortnight to prove their worth while paying them a pittance, the St Martin's graduates, both 22, have an opportunity for which their peers would crawl across broken glass - four months working at JWT, AMV and BBH, all of them Diageo roster agencies.

They'll be paid what Diageo says is a bit more than the going rate for their age and experience. The company isn't demanding a payback, insisting they work on its brands, but hopes some of its briefs will be pushed their way.

And although Diageo is giving no guarantees, it seems that nothing short of a catastrophe will stop Daltrey and Bingham securing a permanent future in the industry.

The scholarship has its roots in a "ways of working" programme drawn up by Diageo and Agency Insight. The drinks company and the relationship auditor looked at how Diageo and its roster shops could work better together in the cause of more potent creativity.

Andrew Melsom, who runs Agency Insight, says the scholarship scheme is in line with Diageo's determination to have its advertising messages stand out in a highly competitive and cluttered market.

Some are also connecting Diageo's emphasis on outstanding creativity with attacks on the alcohol industry, intensifying with the Government's imminent strategy on alcohol harm reduction.

For his part, Philip Gladman, Diageo's marketing director, insists the scholarship is symbolic of the company's intention to nail its creative colours firmly to the mast and to sustain and extend an advertising heritage stretching back to its former incarnation as Guinness.

"We want to gain such a reputation that the best creatives in the country will want to work on our business," he says. "The scholarship has also enabled us to see so much mind-broadening work. A lot of the books we looked at were absolutely outstanding."

Yet while there's applause for what Diageo is doing, some question why advertisers, rather than agencies, are leading the way.

"This competition really galvanised our students but is a damning indictment of agencies. Why are clients having to take these initiatives?" Tony Cullingham, who runs the respected West Herts College diploma in art and copywriting course, asks. "I can see no reason why the largest agencies aren't doing the 'milk round' of colleges for the best young creatives just as they do for graduates."

Hegarty agrees. "Diageo is doing our job for us," he laments. "Our industry has always been appalling at nurturing creative talent."

However, Souter argues that the relentlessly competitive nature of the business means such initiatives have to be client- rather than agency-led."There's no incentive for us to work collectively and if I can steal the best team in town from under BBH's nose, I will," he says. All the more reason to hope that Diageo sticks to its declared intent of expanding the scholarship next year, perhaps through sharing the cost with its agencies.

None of this will concern the copywriter Bingham and his art director Daltrey, who spent the end of last week getting to grips with a Smirnoff brief between enjoying their place in the sun on JWT's Knightsbridge rooftop terrace.

Although they've worked together for just 18 months, they've been friends for four years. The result, they say, is an open and honest professional relationship which allows them to speak their minds while appreciating each other's work.

"We bounce off each other very well," Daltrey comments.

Their hope is that the experience of working in three significantly different agencies will be the catalyst for award-winning work. Nobody wants to see that more than Diageo. As Gladman says: "It will be the best possible endorsement of what we've done."

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