The 'lost generation': what will happen to creative talent after the crisis?

As many businesses fight for survival, fostering new talent may have slipped further down the agenda. But emerging creatives will be crucial players in rebuilding and reimagining a battered industry.

The 'lost generation': what will happen to creative talent after the crisis?

They were called the "lost generation": young people who came of age during and immediately after the First World War. Affected by wartime trauma and widespread social upheaval, they were characterised as disillusioned, aimless and even reckless. 

A century later, as the coronavirus pandemic sends shockwaves throughout the world, there are worries that this crisis will spawn another lost generation. University students are preparing to graduate into a global recession. Just ahead of them, the millennials – many of whom entered the job market in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis – are now "facing the second once-in-a-lifetime downturn of their short careers", journalist Annie Lowrey wrote in The Atlantic this month

Many major businesses, from HSBC to PwC, have cut back their recruitment of entry-level staff and more than a quarter of companies are reducing the number of graduates they hire this year, according to a recent survey by the Institute of Student Employers. Young workers will be one of the groups most affected economically by the pandemic, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found. 

Prospects in the advertising industry are also bleak. Campaign reported that the UK ad market is facing an estimated 50% overall decline. Numerous businesses in adland have taken advantage of the UK government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme by furloughing staff, while others such as Publicis Groupe are taking additional cost-cutting measures including redundancies. 

All of this means that talent trying to break into an already competitive industry face a steeper uphill climb as many agencies flounder and more unemployed people vie for a shrinking number of jobs. For young employees who have been made redundant or furloughed, they are missing out on experience and exposure during a crucial point in their budding careers. 

Campaign has also heard of multiple agencies that have let go of creative placement teams instead of putting them on furlough, which would have allowed them to claim up to 80% of their already minimal pay and return to their work experience roles when this period is over. Those teams, who may have finally been on the cusp of full-time employment after the typically long cycle of placements, have been set back in a market where opportunities are dwindling. And the next wave of advertising graduates are close behind them, confronting equally daunting odds. 

While many businesses are fighting for survival, it is perhaps understandable that issues such as recruitment, mentorship and training are not currently top of mind. But for an industry that depends on creative talent, these concerns must be considered as it looks to rebuild. 

"There will potentially be a pocket of time when young people can’t be exposed to this industry and we’re at risk of turning them away completely," Ben Heap, head of creative resource at Mother, says. "We all need to think hard about how to not leave them disenfranchised from getting into the industry." 

Rejigging education 

For aspiring creatives, a year at an advertising programme such as the Watford course at West Herts College or the School of Communication Arts is a hard-won and rigorous education. Yet no student could have anticipated a challenge like this. 

In March, Watford and SCA were among the many schools across the country that switched to virtual learning. Students on those courses are still answering briefs from agencies, creating work and refining their portfolios, but in more strenuous conditions. 

For one, creatives who have just paired up and are learning to work together must now do so apart, relying on video or phone calls to develop ideas instead of the spontaneous connections that can occur between collaborators in person. "The most difficult thing is not having face time with your partner," Sam Collins, a student at SCA, says. "When you’re coming up with ideas, so much happens in that unspoken space between you." He and his creative partner Ivan Stanojevic now spend most of their time on the phone with each other, instead of at SCA’s bustling studio in Brixton. 

But Marc Lewis, dean at SCA, has tried his best to recreate that dynamic atmosphere online. Using the coding skills he acquired in his previous stint as a dotcom entrepreneur, he built a virtual studio with multiple levels and customisable rooms, where students can gather to learn and interact with their peers and mentors. 

"Environment affects your behaviour. One thing that’s easy to do in isolation is to lock yourself off and not have that serendipitous contact that comes from being in an office or school environment," Lewis says. "We still needed to create those serendipitous moments."

Lewis has also opened the studio on certain days to pupils from other ad courses and has invited SCA alumni who have been furloughed or made redundant to come back to school for free, so they can continue to learn, network and polish their books until they return to work. 

Ad created by Collins and Stanojevic

A bigger challenge, however, is keeping students motivated against the backdrop of a global pandemic. "Everyone’s got different battle stories and baggage they’re carrying. Their moods have been up and down," Lewis observes. He has responded by tweaking his briefs and lessons or offering more experiences, such as comedy workshops, "that will connect them to people". 

Tony Cullingham, who runs the Watford course, also says that many of his students are "getting fed up, stressed and anxious", adding: "They’re not working from a platform of joy and creativity has to start from a positive platform. It’s hard to pick them up."

As a result, Cullingham is asking the agencies that give briefs to his students to focus on entertainment and humour, rather than worthy, do-good tasks. He is encouraging his pupils to use this period to "discover new cultures and widen their creative hinterlands", while also staying realistic. 

"I’ve said to my students: just be prepared to wait. The wash cycle hasn’t even begun yet," Cullingham says. "But I see that as a good opportunity for them – recessions sort out where the strong candidates, energy and talent are." 

Lewis is also urging his cohort at SCA to see this crisis as a creative opportunity. He states: "My students will come out of this on the other side realising that they’re in a really good place, because the world needs creatives now more than it did three months ago. Every single smart business on the planet now needs to transform quickly."

Ad created by Watford student Alex Binding

Diversity on the backburner

In many ways, those who are on an advertising course are at an advantage in this crisis. Those students have access to formal training, as well as an entire network of professionals who set them briefs, act as mentors or offer book crits. 

It was already harder to break into the creative industries if you lived outside London, couldn’t afford further education or didn’t know the right people, and now those challenges could be exacerbated. "On a societal level, the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities," Leila Siddiqi, the IPA’s associate director of diversity, said in the organisation’s latest Agency Census

Advertising has long had a diversity problem, both socioeconomic and ethnic; the number of agency employees from an ethnic-minority background fell slightly last year from 13.8% to 13.7%, according to the Census. While addressing this imbalance has risen up the agenda in recent years, it is now in danger of falling off the radar again as businesses cut back. 

"Diversity will take more of a backburner," Leonie Annor-Owiredu, a cultural strategist and writer, predicts. 

Annor-Owiredu was recently let go from the agency where she was interning. She had long found it challenging to establish herself in advertising, saying she often got through the door as a "diversity hire" but then saw a lack of support and career progression at agencies. Now that her latest placement has been cut short, she is struggling with "the emotional defeat when you’re back at square one."

Many recent graduates of D&AD’s New Blood Shift programme, a night school for new creatives without a degree qualification, have also had their upcoming agency placements postponed or cancelled. "It’s gutting," Hilary Chittenden, senior foundation manager at D&AD, says. "While the immediate crisis looks like it might be starting to ease up, the ramifications on new talent and hiring cycles is going to be longer lasting." 

When it comes to opening doors to diverse talent, "it was difficult already for BAME people to break into the industry – they’re often the lowest part of the hierarchy, so obviously will be the first to go," Annor-Owiredu points out. "Agencies still have to make diversity a priority and take a more holistic view of creativity. There are a lot of learnings from different communities that will help us solve problems in the future."

George Bryant, chief creative officer at The Brooklyn Brothers, agrees, saying now is the time to "overinvest" in a diverse workforce: "This moment feels like agencies are out of step with the realities of modern culture. We need to really lean forwards to be more reflective of the vibrant, modern cultures where we live."

Last year, The Brooklyn Brothers and arts publication Yellowzine launched Night School, a free eight-week course to help BAME talent enter the creative industries. The young people who came through Night School embodied an "independent, collaborative and empowered creative" – qualities that will be in demand as the ad industry grapples with one of its biggest disruptions in history, Bryant points out. 

"If this chapter shows us anything, it is that the agency model really isn’t resilient in the face of change. This is a moment where we have to rethink the shape of our agencies and essential to that is the illuminating power of young talent," he says. "We have to overinvest in youth if we're going to come out of this with agencies that are a credible and potent creative force in tomorrow’s world."

The Brooklyn Brothers and Yellowzine's Night School

Finding new solutions

In a few pockets of the industry, there are those who are starting to weigh how to continue fostering young talent in these unstable times. "Maybe we need to come up with some different, more innovative solutions to give them exposure and training," Heap says. 

Cream, an annual competition held by The Talent Business to discover the best emerging creative talent, will not be able to run in a physical format this year, so it has set up The Cream Collective. The initiative aims to ensure young creatives still get support despite the coronavirus crisis and it is calling on professional creatives from across the industry, including those who are temporarily out of work, to step up as mentors to students who enter the competition. 

"It takes a creative with a real short-term memory to forget that they got into this industry as a result of the support, guidance and mentorship of other creatives and creative directors," Stu Outhwaite-Noel, chief creative officer at Creature, which co-founded The Cream Collective, says. "We need to keep giving back even in these challenging times, when the temptation is to just look after number one. I think we’ve realised we all need the support of one another."

D&AD had to cancel its annual May festival, which serves as a meeting place for many emerging creatives and senior talent. Instead, it is taking that experience online, planning virtual portfolio reviews, educational content and networking opportunities. The New York outpost’s Shift programme, which was due to select applicants just three days after lockdown began, has pressed pause on usual proceedings and started hosting a weekly "inspiration club" on Zoom, where Shifters and agency partners come together to discuss an "inspiration stimulus" such as a film, podcast or novel. 

Moving more educational and networking opportunities online could benefit aspiring creatives from outside London who may have previously struggled to gain access to the industry’s top talent and businesses, Chittenden says. It could also make it easier for professionals to give their time to young people. 

"Now seems to be a really good time for agencies and individuals in the industry to be able to offer that mentoring. It’s a good opportunity to build some long-lasting relationships," she says. "What we’re trying to facilitate and encourage is to make sure those relationships are longer-lasting. There are real concerns [around new talent], but also some silver linings."

Ad created by Collins and Stanojevic

Rays of hope

There is no doubt that those trying to get into the industry now could have a longer road ahead of them, yet among that talent there are glimmers of optimism. 

Alex Binding, a student at Watford, has switched tack in recent weeks to make more "upbeat and sunny" work that cheers people up. "There are situations you can’t control, so you can just try to be positive," she says. "If placements freeze, I’m still going to work at Tesco and carry on working on my book and send over briefs and keep my brain active. As long as you're resilient, good things will happen in the end, even if it takes a slightly different path."

Echoing the advice of his teacher Lewis, Collins says he is trying to "see this as an opportunity", adding: "When you have a problem like this, we try to view it like any other problem and see how the brands you’re working for can help solve this. Brands have the power to do good."

One of the key lessons so far – and one he and other students probably did not expect to learn this term – has been that "creativity has to come from within just as much from outside. We’re taught to go to uncomfortable and difficult places", Collins says. "This has taught us to be more resourceful."

As businesses emerge from lockdown and turn towards an uncertain future, they might find that they could use such resourcefulness. "We will bounce back, and God knows we’ll need [young people’s] voices, talents, abilities and enthusiasm. This industry needs enthusiasm as much as it needs perseverance," Outhwaite-Noel says. "They can bring energy and excitement into an industry that will be bruised."