Gen Covid: Ad school leaders on coping in a crisis

Campaign asked the leaders of the most sought-after ad schools how Covid-19 was affecting the job prospects of current students and recent graduates, what lessons the industry should learn from previous recessions and what advice they had for people trying to break into the industry in this tumultuous period.

“I had more passion than a cabbage” - Watford’s Tony Cullingham on building a career in tough times

Marc Lewis, dean, School of Communication Arts

Most years, most of our grads get hired at a top agency. I think it’s going to take a bit longer this year.

I also think some students might need to alter (not lower) their sights slightly on where they’re going to get their first job. Sure, go to agencies, but also try media owners and brands. Build awareness inside games companies. Or start a business. Some of our students won’t end up in advertising, they will use creativity to solve a problem.

We held our Portfolio Day online this year, using the platform that our school built during lockdown and is now sharing with sponsor agencies. It meant we were visited by agencies from around the world.

These graduates started the year miserable because of Brexit, and the limits that the decision to leave Europe put on their career options. It is easy to see Covid-19 as another bummer, but I see opportunity
in abundance. My students could get hired by TBWA New Zealand, while working in London.

We tend to see the worst of our behaviour in a recession. Expensive hires in their thirties, forties and fifties will get swept out, meaning fewer people for young talent to learn from. Young talent needs nurturing, and older talent needs to be better valued.

So my advice to those trying to break in is:

• Set yourself short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. Allow them to change.

• Keep working on your book, even when you’re not working. Especially when you’re not working.

• Keep going on crits. Set yourself targets for how many crits you are going to get each week.

• Do spec work for local businesses etc.

• Make stuff for real.

• Be kind. To yourself and to others.

Tony Cullingham, leader, Watford Creative Course, West Herts College

The students finished in July and two-thirds of the Watford teams are working, either in a freelance capacity or on placement.

Usually, by the autumn, all the teams would have
at least four placements lined up. With placements lasting typically two to three months, the graduates would be set up for a year. These placements would be at top creative agencies that host and support our course throughout the year.

Full employment of my graduates within the year was guaranteed. Some of the teams would line up six placements. This hasn’t happened this year.

Much of the industry has hiring freezes. Many have implemented redundancy programmes. This has compounded the problems for newly graduated creatives as some agencies have reluctantly let go of junior and placement teams. Some intend to bring back those teams, but there is no guarantee on this.

The ones who are not on placement are doing pro bono jobs.

One team, Ali and Paloma, created their own agency GUAPPP – Give Us A Placement Pretty Please. That stunt got them into Isobel where they’ll remain until Christmas. Strangely, they have been approached by local businesses.

A little perspective. When I left college in 1979, there were three million unemployed – 10% of the workforce. More than double what it is today.

I walked straight into a job at Saatchis. It was where the money was flowing and although I wasn’t terribly talented I had more passion than a cabbage.

Today’s market is much more varied with digital, client creative departments, content agencies, studios… there are many more opportunities for creative people to ply their wares.

There is hope if students take a forensic look at where the money is heading right now. Creative graduates need to be smarter, cuter and not let the work ethic drop. It’s a time to develop new skills and behave like starving dogs chasing dry bones.

Now is not the time to relax. The jobs will come back. The queue for jobs and placements will be long. Very long. But someone has to be at the front of it.

Historically, recessions have been good for creative graduates. Agencies have used the opportunity of a recession to re-gear, get leaner, and this has meant openings for hungry, talented young people. This Covid-19 recession is a two-headed beast when you factor in Brexit and the unnegotiated trade deals.

My advice to my own graduates is simple. You will get there. You will get a job. You’ve invested too much hard work to do anything else. Use this time to hone your skills and develop new ones.

Look to the smaller, leaner UK independent-based agencies for placements. Who Wot Why, Isobel, Motel and Channel 4 have all taken on Watford graduates in recent months.

When these smaller shops win business, they often need extra hands on board. More so than the big, corporate, international companies that can service new business with existing staff.

Ally Owen, founder, Brixton Finishing School

Around 45% of our graduates are in employment through the Brixton Finishing School (having graduated on 4 September) and 20% have returned to education or chosen to enter further learning. We’ve currently got around 35% in the market actively seeking roles. I would normally expect 50-60% in roles by now as the majority of graduates join our partners, and Covid-19 has disrupted this. On the positive side, we are seeing partner roles open up again over the next three months, so this will also increase our percentage.

To “compensate” for Covid-19, we’ve spent six months working extremely hard to drive interest in the talent we produce and built a whole new network of supporters/destinations, so we are still tracking well. This is due partly to a surge of interest due to BLM (though this surge is coupled with a concern we have around tokenism). This year’s cohort was excellent, so I’m quietly confident we will be an outlier to the pattern we are seeing by creating meaningful employment, despite the circumstances our stakeholder groups face.

The industry needs to invest in planning the future pipeline now, so it’s optimised to supply the best diverse minds/talent for when the markets open up again. Otherwise it will be left scrambling to fill roles as the markets accelerate, and we’ll end up with a homogeneity problem again, which won’t future-proof the business and resolve its D&I challenge.

Take this time to do the work that’s needed in your company to ensure an inclusive culture so you are fit for purpose and ready to receive new talent. Look at why certain “types” of excellent talent bounce quickly out of our ecosystem and work to resolve this. These are business imperatives for your future.

To those trying to break into the industry now, I’d like to say I hear you on how hard it is. I am listening when you say how tough things are. Place your mental wellness first and make this a central pillar of your day. It’s an absolute shitstorm at the moment and no doubt what little reserves of resilience you have left are being tested. You have every right to be tired, angry or fearful (or a combo of all three).

 There are positive pathways to follow while you seek to break in – places that are free where you can upskill, increase your employability and move you nearer to the roles you want, whatever stage you are at in the journey. This will, we hope, give you hope.

Sign up for The AD-Cademy (our new, free, nationwide gateway to the industry for communities traditionally underserved by employers – launched as a reaction to Covid-19), register for The Brooklyn Brothers’ Night School, XYZ, The Agent in Liverpool. Check out Google and Facebook’s free accreditations. Look at the IPA website list of members’ schemes.

Hilary Chittenden, senior foundation manager, D&AD

(D&AD’s new talent programme, New Blood Shift, is still going ahead this year, but is slightly delayed and will be primarily digitally due to the pandemic.)

We’ve definitely seen fewer full-time opportunities available this year, and lots of placement programmes and internships were put on hold while agencies and studios adapted to Covid-19.

It feels like there are starting to be more glimmers of opportunity opening up, with agencies developing remote placement opportunities, business starting to pick up again and roles slowly becoming available.

What is also promising is that we’re seeing a real commitment to ensuring diversity within those who are recruited into placements and roles. One of the benefits of extended remote working is the opportunities this opens up for those outside of London – which was always a barrier for those not in the South East or without networks.

My advice to those trying to break into the industry is to be proactive. Use this time to build new skills and develop new pieces for your portfolio. D&AD is launching New Blood Shots – a series of quick-fire briefs with accompanying learning content aimed at those who are looking for opportunities, giving emerging creatives a faster way to build their portfolios during the pandemic. Why not give it a go?

Be entrepreneurial. While there might not be as many roles available in agencies, think about how else you can apply your creative skills. Have you got a side hustle that you can make work for you? Is now the time to look at finding some freelance clients?

Seek advice. Covid-19 has been strangely unifying. The whole world is struggling to come to terms with the long-term impact of the pandemic – which means that everyone understands what you’re going through. We’ve seen a real increase in the number of industry professionals reaching out to mentor, support or offer portfolio reviews to emerging creatives who are struggling right now. Capitalise on this goodwill. Use LinkedIn, social media or a good, old-fashioned email to reach out to your industry heroes and ask for a virtual cuppa.