Gen Covid: How everything just got tougher for adland’s next generation

Breaking into adland has always been challenging, and now it has become yet more so. Campaign investigates how Covid-19 is affecting the career prospects of the industry’s future stars and what can be done to ensure they don’t go missing

Gen Covid: Faces to Watch 2020 on how to break into adland

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that those who wish to have an interesting, exciting and desirable career in adland must also have the temerity, persistence and, sometimes, a small fortune to get in the door.

For too long, breaking into the industry has required people to work for months, if not years, in low-paid placements or entry-level jobs, while absorbing London’s extortionate living costs, given the geographical bias of UK creative industries – at least prior to Covid-19.

This difficulty, and the industry’s need to entice more diverse talent through the doors, has led to a growing number of laudable initiatives to help end these problems. Many have borne fruit, as shown in this year’s Campaign’s Faces to Watch, which we reveal in this issue.

But, as we celebrate the industry’s rising stars of today, we are also concerned about the faces of tomorrow. Because the bad news is that things just got harder. While we were all focusing in the rear-view mirror and the ever-advancing spectre of Brexit, a global pandemic has crashed into the windscreen.

The UK is facing the deepest economic slump since World War Two, with GDP plunging 19.8% between April and June this year. Youth unemployment is set to triple, reaching its highest level since the 1980s, according to a report from the Resolution Foundation, which has predicted the proportion of those who are jobless in this group could jump from a record low of 5.5% before the pandemic to 17% by the end of 2020.

Our industry, in particular, is also grappling with the fastest advertising downturn on record. It is a crisis affecting people at all levels of adland – with widespread redundancies, pay cuts, recruitment freezes and general cost-cutting wreaking havoc on career stability and progression, plus the UK went into a new lockdown in November.

That’s the picture for those already in the industry. It’s even worse for those who are looking to join. Almost all the businesses Campaign has asked have either reduced or eliminated their placement schemes and pulled up the drawbridge on new recruits, choosing to focus on existing staff instead.

That makes financial sense. But the lessons from previous recessions have shown that if the industry does not continue to invest in a healthy talent pipeline, it sets itself up for problems down the line as whole generations of future leaders disappear.

So what to do?

The picture is not all bleak. We asked those at the coalface (including the heads of advertising schools and adland's leaders) how Covid-19 is affecting the new generation of adlanders. The bottom line? Things are really tough. But the industry is resilient and creative – and with tricky problems, creativity is often the most powerful answer.

What Campaign’s Faces to Watch 2020 say…

Career anxiety and optimism

Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of our rising stars (70%) were worried about the impact Covid-19 will have on their careers. But their fears are tempered – none of the respondents said they are “very worried” and 30% said they were “not worried”. Overall, 20 of Campaign’s Faces to Watch, who have a maximum of 10 years’ experience, responded to our survey.

Their main concern was how the broader health of the industry might create barriers to progression and effective work. “We service clients, so the impact on our industry is largely determined by the success of the businesses we work with. Everything is up in the air at the moment,” Luke Alexander-Grose, a junior planner at VCCP, who joined the agency in 2017, says.

Charlie Celino, sales lead at News UK’s The Social Studio, agrees: “As with all modern recessions, one of the first cuts made by any business is their marketing spend. This obviously has a huge effect on not only our overall industry but, more specifically, on newer product innovations as advertisers move back towards more traditional routes.”

Lidl’s head of campaigns and media, Joanna Gomer, believes this cost-cutting will mean “reduced marketing budgets, personnel or both”. This will bring disadvantages for those trying to climb the ladder. “Role consolidation will mean opportunities to progress are likely to be scarcer. In order to navigate through a more competitive industry, building and developing your network will be even more important, which is also challenging in a Covid-19 world,” she says.

"In times of strife or difficulty, you roll up your sleeves and dig in, getting involved in whatever the business and industry needs"

Indeed, Saffron Renzullo, a junior creative at The Brooklyn Brothers, who joined the industry only last year, worries that she may be more vulnerable to redundancies, “being the last in and first out with less experience than those in higher positions”.

While Waste Creative’s senior art director Tasmin Lobley sums up the common feeling of uncertainty: “It’s hard to predict the impact Covid-19 will have. There are factors out of my control. Are my clients hit hard? Is my agency hit hard? Will I get sick?”

But even those that have concerns about Covid-19’s impact on their personal careers see opportunities.

As a creative producer for brand experience agency XYZ, Bixanne Tam works in a part of the industry that has already been hugely affected by the crisis: “We’ve seen such a sharp decrease in live event work that we’ve been forced to adapt and shift our way of thinking into a more digital world. It’s been tough having to transition so rapidly but I am enjoying being able to develop new skills and experimenting with how far we can push digital experiences.

“Rather than thinking about my career path with a linear trajectory, I now see it as more fluid and can have multiple career paths I would be interested in.”

Celino agrees: “I am confident in our ability to continue to produce and deliver during these difficult times… from creating lower entry investment points, as well as expanding the distribution methods across multiple platforms and handles, we have been working hard to future-proof our product. I believe that in times of strife or difficulty, you roll up your sleeves and dig in, getting involved in whatever the business and industry needs. From a career point of view, you will be exposed to new people, different parts of the business and learn more across a wide spectrum of disciplines.”

As well as the chance to develop new skills, the change in the structure of work is also bringing new opportunities for those who find office work or nine to-five careers are incompatible. “Covid-19 has made it easier to work remotely, and so teams have become decentralised. This means you can have people around the world working on a brief because they’re right for it and not simply because they live in the same city or time zone,” Ogilvy UK junior creative Naomi Nicholl says.

M&C Saatchi senior creative Camila Gurgel is also bullish on the industry’s ability to thrive, agreeing with Nicholl that “remote working will allow talent to be found anywhere, which will be very enriching for the industry. Challenging times push us to find new ways of getting things done.”

Fears for the next generation

The Faces to Watch are much gloomier, however, about the prospects of those coming up behind them, especially those trying to enter the industry now.

When asked, 75% said they were either “very worried” (30%) or “worried” (45%) about Covid-19’s impact on the careers of future generations.

“I feel sorry for those trying to break into the industry as this is a difficult enough world to get into, even in ‘normal’ times. The impact on education has been devastating, and the next generation will bear the brunt of this crisis,” Alexander-Grose says.

Catrin Tyler, Dark Horses’ business director, who has been in the industry for 10 years, agrees: “We’re in a competitive industry and it’s not always easy to get a foot in the door at the best of times. I’m not ashamed to say that it took me two years of applying to every entry-level scheme I could find to land my first role. Now, at a time when many agencies won’t be hiring in the usual way, it’s much, much harder and we may lose the best talent to other sectors before they have even been given a chance.”

They are right to be concerned. In Campaign’s survey of businesses, the majority had reduced or cancelled placements and entry-level jobs, with many implementing recruitment freezes in a bid to protect existing staff (see overleaf). So the first hurdle has just got far higher.

Once people have got through the door, others worry that remote working will not provide the best conditions for junior staff to learn and grow.

Ogilvy UK junior creatives Lily James and Naomi Nicholl are in only their second year at the agency, after graduating from its creative internship programme, The Pipe. James says: “Working from home has meant you are not top of mind for everyone – they don’t see you in the lift or at your desk. A lot of what got us noticed was just putting our hand up for absolutely every brief, every focus group, every ‘got five minutes?’ That’s much harder to do when you’re not there in person.”

“Rather than thinking about my career path with a linear trajectory, I now see it as more fluid and can have multiple career paths I would be interested in”

The impact of working from home on new starters’ learning and development is also a big concern for Abbie Howard, planning manager at Dentsu X, who has three years’ experience. “When I was a grad, being able to get stuck in to agency culture and integrate quickly was hugely valuable to me. Now, as a manager, I know it is more challenging to train someone virtually rather than being able to support them from the desk ‘next door’, so I am also concerned that new grads may struggle with adapting to the fast pace of the industry.”

Another big concern, raised by Luke Kelly, a senior planner at McCann Manchester, is the impact this crisis will have on the industry’s efforts to become more diverse and inclusive: “It’s no great revelation that advertising is a middle-class profession. However, at a time when we are making great strides and have recognised the importance of diversity in creativity and thinking, I worry we could be entering a period of disruption, which may spur away talent.

“Recession breeds pragmatic spending and without proper funding, I worry we’re in danger of having had the chance to change our industry for the better, only to go back to the way we were.”

Celino urges the industry not to underestimate what a younger generation of employees can bring to the table, including the knowledge of how to effectively communicate with their peers: “Gen Z, the people entering the industry now, has never lived without the world of connectivity through the internet, smartphones and social media. This will have a huge impact on our industry, as this is the generation that will assist in publishers and brands being able to target, relate to and connect with the upcoming customers and users of tomorrow. We need to ensure that, as an industry, we do not ignore this fact and include them in the roles and responsibilities they deserve and are equipped for.”

Opportunities in the chaos

Despite deep-seated concerns about how Covid-19 is hitting careers within the industry, the Faces to Watch remain optimistic about the industry’s future and their prospects within it. It may be a different journey from what they expected, but they all see opportunities in the chaos. And they have important advice for those climbing the ladder behind them, including to focus on developing their skills, thinking entrepreneurially and remaining resilient.

Kraft Heinz Beanz brand manager Lucy Cooke says Covid-19 has already taught the industry to be more agile as it races to keep up with the rapidly changing consumer attitudes and values. “This has been a huge lesson for the future and has accelerated many of our longer-term plans, such as integrating our brand purpose with our comms at Heinz,” she says. 

“As we enter a recession, brands need to work harder than ever to justify why we are worth consumers paying more for. But while the role of marketing is tough, it becomes more crucial and offers up more exciting opportunities.”

Procter & Gamble Northern Europe’s brand and sales personal care director, Yasmin O’Neal, has also experienced this dramatic shift in consumer thinking, and believes it requires a new agility from marketers: “We may have felt like experts before, but the reality is that everything has changed. It’s more important than ever to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset and keep your skillset relevant against an ever-changing external backdrop.”

An entrepreneurial mindset is something that Jidé Maduako, chief executive and co-founder of Yoke Network, would also recommend. He predicts it will become more difficult to get a job in the industry, but urges people to look at other options and “start your own thing” like he and his co-founder did in 2018, after just six months within it.

“This time presents lots of opportunities if you’re a person who wants to solve problems and help people. During a crisis there’s so much ambiguity and uncertainty, but by facilitating certainty, in some areas at least, you can make it work,” he says. “If you stay dedicated and find ways to invest in yourself, you can achieve anything. You don’t have to follow the status quo, you can change the world.”

Celino encourages people not to be disheartened if the path ahead looks different from what they expected: “No road to success is straightforward. Do not look at any direction you take as a wrong one, it is all a learning opportunity.”

Bene Tanser, senior motion designer at Elvis, agrees: “Although times seem tough at the moment, the industry is resilient and rewards talented people. Just keep doing what you love with passion, and give every project your all.”

Meanwhile, Renzullo issues a call to arms to her peers: “Don’t be discouraged, be excited. Now, more than ever, we need to take a seat at the table. We will always push against what has come before us and bring something unexpected because what has come before is no longer enough. No-one thinks like you, so take it, run with it and make it yours. This is our chance to change the game.”

Read on to find out what the leaders of adland's top schools are teaching their students about coping in this crisis, and also what adland's chiefs say about how to build a career during the pandemic