Close-Up: Why adland went back to school for inspiration

After Saint invited children to take part in its creative workshops, Simon Labbett explains why both sides found it rewarding.

When I was young, every Christmas my dad would take me to his office in Soho. It wasn't a warren of carpeted grey corridors, but a place of colour and fun. It was an advertising agency. It was one day out every year that I looked forward to. I'd been exposed to the creative industry at a very young age, and I liked what I saw. I too wanted to work in a company like that, so it motivated me to do well at school.

Last week, we invited some primary schoolchildren from East London to Saint@RKCR for an Internet Week workshop (www.canyoudrawtheinternet.com). It's been something I've wanted to do for years, and it was hugely rewarding.

The E13 Learning Community represents a group of schools from one of the most impoverished parts of London. Life there can be tough and aspirations are often low, with many young kids quickly descending into a life of crime and drugs. However, in my experience, small doses of inspiration can go a long way, and we should never forget just how inspirational our industry can be. By exciting and motivating these kids, even at the age of ten, we can give them career aspirations that are interesting, appealing and achievable.

In this industry, we love things to be different, and the same goes for our people. We also love experimentation and freedom of expression, attributes that can be found in abundance in council estates, not just in art colleges. So why aren't we doing more to nurture these young mavericks? I was lucky enough - or unlucky enough, depending on which way you look at it - to be at university in a pretty deprived part of London. The upside of this meant there was an amazing eclectic mix of talents from numerous cultures and backgrounds, the result of which made for some brilliant creative work. I've always welcomed non-conformists, those who challenge the way we do things. It's good for the evolution of our industry, it's good for agency culture and it's good for the work.

As an industry, we have great graduate schemes in place to target students when they're at university, which is all well and good. But that's focusing on the tail-end of their education when they're more than likely pre-programmed with archaic knowledge. Why don't we work with these kids at the start of their journey and seek to inspire them throughout? That way, they could inspire us, maybe even help us to innovate. They are, after all, the true internet generation.

Since working with the E13 kids, we've run two workshops. In the first, we asked them to design a theme-park ride and, in the second, we asked them to draw the internet. We knew that, in both instances, the best ideas wouldn't come from experience, but from simply thinking outside of the box. With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to pit them against our creatives (in the first instance) and then the whole industry (in the second instance). Both yielded some fascinating results. In the workshop for a theme-park ride, we had a rollercoaster that went through food heaven (chocolate) and food hell (a forest of broccoli). In the workshop for "Can you draw the internet?", we had thoughts like "The internet is a robot with a human brain", "The internet is two kings circling the earth: one good, one bad" and "The internet is shocking, like a hot chilli". All in all, the kids demonstrated some pretty amazing leftfield thinking.

Since working with the primary schools over the course of a year, I genuinely do believe they have given us (Saint) something in return too. Developing a workshop or programme of your own can be beneficial to your staff, your culture, even your client relationships. The key is to use the kids' creativity to better your own processes and insights. For instance, imagine having a "What did the kids think of this product?" section on every brief, or "How the ten-year-olds approached this" as thought starters. Utilise them in interesting ways, and it can be hugely rewarding for both parties.

The workshops we've held have only been with a handful of kids, so nothing in the grand scheme of things. But multiply that by the number of creative agencies in London and that's a lot of inspiration to a lot of children. In that one day alone, I could see the level of enthusiasm and intrigue it generated. In fact, the last eight-year-old to walk out of the office turned and said to me: "You're so lucky to work here." If they take that level of excitement away with them at the age of eight, imagine what they'll be like by the time they leave university. It doesn't take much to leave a lasting impression, trust me on that.

Simon Labbett is a creative director and co-founder of Saint@RKCR ROBIN WIGHT ON HOW ADLAND CAN NURTURE TOMORROW'S CREATIVES

Cast your own mind back to the moment when you first became aware of your own creative gifts. Mine was when, aged 17, I was asked to write an essay on "Colour" at school. My essay was then read out to the entire class - for the first time in my school career. Everyone said: "How did you think to write about all those things?"

I replied: "Why didn't you? It was obvious."

Can you remember a similar life-shaping episode in your own life?

iamcreative.org.uk, invented by the Ideas Foundation, is an attempt to do this, eventually for 250,000 young people a year in the UK - before we get going on the rest of the world.

How does it work? First, the young people - in a school environment - will download a brief, like the one sponsored by Nokia to create an app (and Nokia's happy to pay £15,000 a year for getting young people's creativity engaged in its brand).

The 14- to 18-year-olds will then be assigned one of our volunteer creative mentors.

What really transforms the "creativity" of the young people is the input from the creative mentor.

And that input typically takes no more than three hours a month.

The problem, until now, is that there has been no platform that could harvest your volunteer enthusiasms and use them effectively.

If you look on our website, you will see that there's a concept in the Gallery created by 14-year-olds in Kidbrooke School in London - a school where there are more than 50 different mother tongues.

They developed an app concept that allows - in any of 50 different languages, from Swahili to Serbian - for the schools of London to be "inspected" by a new arrival.

Brilliant? Nokia certainly thinks so. And very soon, that app will be made available.

Earlier this month, under the brilliant eyes of Sir Ken Robinson - the creativity guru, who flew in from Los Angeles for our conference on Creativity Accelerators in Schools - we unveiled our concept before 150 leaders of the education industry. They want us to set up a version for primary school kids - maybe a brand like Lego could take up Nokia's lead role.

As Rupert Englander from Nokia said about the programme: "What's really exciting is that there is a business model where companies and brands can support this, not for reasons of charity but for reasons of self-interest."

Robin Wight is the president of Engine.

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