Forget Cannes. We're off to Canvey, mate

If creatives are judged by their talent, not their background, why are fewer working-class people working in our industry? It's time to go back to school to redress the balance.

Forget Cannes. We're off to Canvey, mate

Back in the 1980s at my comprehensive school in Sunderland, there were really only two career options – building things in the local shipyards or blowing things up in the army. I will never forget my career teacher’s blank look when I mentioned copywriting. Or my bricklayer dad’s baffled expression when I told him I was off to London to "do advertising". 

It turned out to be a fortunate choice for me. By the early 1990s, Margaret Thatcher had laid waste to the north-east’s shipbuilding industry. And advertising and the wider creative industries had gained increasing recognition as an economic driver of the post-industrial UK economy. 

The creative and cultural industries, to give them their full title, are now classed as an economically important and vital part of this government’s vision for a future economy. And it’s been portrayed by policy-makers in the past five years as a socially diverse sector that, unlike many industries, recruits people based on their talent, not just their backgrounds.

According to a very large and detailed study, carried out recently by some clever academics from Goldsmiths and the London School of Economics, when compared with the average for other industries, you would expect people from a working-class background to account for 35% of our workforce. However, what they discovered was very different. Only 18% of the total workforce of the creative industries comes from a working-class background.

I have definitely seen this in advertising. Chatting with other creative directors I know, I’m not the only one to have noticed fewer working-class creatives bringing their portfolios into our agencies. 

So what’s going on? Unlike with gender or ethnicity, it’s difficult to blame old prejudices for this. Advertising creatives, since the rise of the likes of John Hegarty, Dave Trott and John Webster, have been judged on their talent, not their accent or school. 

"I’m not the only one to have noticed fewer working-class creatives bringing their portfolios into our agencies"

Well, it seems our jobs are now going to the sons and daughters of the middle-class management, who know about the sector and have contacts in the industry. This, in turn, creates an ever-diminishing pool of talent from which our industry can draw.

So what can we do? Well, the study I mentioned earlier highlights where the problem seems to lie. And it’s not in the advertising agencies or even at the colleges. The problem seems to be happening at an earlier stage. In a lot of schools, particularly schools in working-class areas of the UK, the creative sector just isn’t on the agenda. The kids just aren’t being exposed to this stuff. Which is pretty sad, given our industry’s stated importance to the British economy.

So while it’s important that we look to encourage, promote and support more social diversity in higher education and at the "factory gate" of our creative companies, the truth is we need to do more at an earlier age. We need to get into schools while kids are choosing their options in years nine and ten. At that time, they are already hearing about other potential career paths – so why not ours? 

That’s why our agency is heading not to Cannes but to Canvey. Thanks to the progressive leadership of Carol Skewes, head teacher at the Cornelius Vermuyden School, we’re giving a talk there about what we do in advertising and how to get into it. And even more excitingly for the kids, we’re being joined by the good folk at Google and MPC, who will also inspire them about careers in creative tech and visual effects.

And we’re going to commit to this by supporting the school and inspiring the kids every year. Opening their eyes to other possibilities. 

There have already been some laudable initiatives, such as the Sky Academy, but we have to do more. Wouldn’t it be great if the top 100 creative companies all did their own thing, choosing a school in a working-class neighbourhood to visit to encourage and inspire the kids? Someone has to do it and I don’t think we should be waiting for the government or education chiefs.

At Atomic, we think it’s crucially important that the creative industries tackle the lack of social diversity. The legendary names I mentioned earlier are testament to the benefits of a deeper talent pool. And we have to do this now if we are to remain at the forefront of the world’s creative industries in places like Cannes.

Dave Henderson is the creative partner at Atomic London

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