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March 28, 2012 / davebirss

Who is the future of the ad industry?

I’ve always been frustrated with the way the British ad industry recruits new people.

Grad schemes, jobs for the client’s son and lengthy internship programmes have resulted in the industry becoming a white, middle-class bubble with little understanding of the real world they’re communicating with. Walk into many agencies and the majority of accents wouldn’t sound out of place at a home counties polo match. These people are in the top 10% of earners. And the only time they come into contact with the other 90% is if they need someone to fix their boiler or mow their lawn.

I think I have the right to say that because I used to be one of those white, middle class, university educated, well paid, ad men myself. Not now. (Although I’m still white, university educated and rather middle class.)

Most of the people I’ve worked with over the years have only ever worked in advertising. Many of them had even been to university or college to learn about advertising before that. And we expect them to be able to talk to the masses?

Where have all the the Cockneys gone?

Talking to some of the legendary ad men recently has made me realise that this is a modern phenomenon. I’ve heard the old boys talk about how there used to be lots of Cockney characters and people from working class backgrounds in the agencies. The only time I’ve come across anyone fitting that description recently is when a security person has checked my pass or someone’s arrived to fix the photocopier.

Here’s an idea you can have for free

I’ve wanted to address this issue for years. I believe it’s one of the reasons the ad industry has lost touch. Ten years ago I nearly convinced an agency to force its creatives to spend one day a month working out of the agency – on a building site, in a charity shop, in a nursing home – just so they had an understanding of how the other half (or other nine tenths) live. I still think it’s a great idea. I believe that the one day out of the office would pay for itself many times over in insight and inspiration and ideas. Maybe you should suggest it to your own agency.

Attracting a different kind of talent

Robin Wight also noticed this issue and started the Ideas Foundation to attract young talent from more diverse backgrounds. Hat’s off to him. I think it’s a brilliant idea.

But there’s something else I’ve been involved in recently that I believe is another route to attract the young talent from wider backgrounds. And that’s Skillset’s Apprenticeship scheme for the ad industry.

I was at a meeting this morning where we put our finishing touches to the ad industry’s National Occupational Standards. And I’ve got say I think they’re really well thought through and insightful. They’re so good, I think the apprentices will end up understanding the industry better than most of the experienced people they’ll be working with. My congratulations to all the dedicated ad people who gave their time to create the standards. And to the Skillset staff who’ve worked so hard on this.

But we’re not finished yet. Now we need to go through and add the details to every area of the the standards. That’s a pretty big job that requires a lot more work.

So the plan is for everything to be finished over the next few months. And in early autumn agencies will be able to start taking on apprentices straight out of school – and put them through a programme that will teach them everything they need to know to work in the industry.

So will it work?

The success of the apprenticeship scheme rests with the agencies. I’m sure it won’t replace the graduate schemes. But I believe that it can play an even more powerful role in the industry. Taking on the same kind of people is only going to keep us doing the same kind of work. But by attracting a different kind of individual, there’s more chance of us developing fresh approaches, understanding audiences better and transforming the industry. I’m pretty excited by that possibility.

So, agencies, it’s over to you.

6 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. TransitionMarketing / Mar 28 2012 10:39 pm

    Well done. I admit coming from Canada I do not relate to all of what you say. However your I enjoyed your comment:

    “I’ve wanted to address this issue for years. I believe it’s one of the reasons the ad industry has lost touch. Ten years ago I nearly convinced an agency to force its creatives to spend one day a month working out of the agency – on a building site, in a charity shop, in a nursing home – just so they had an understanding of how the other half (or other nine tenths) live. I still think it’s a great idea. I believe that the one day out of the office would pay for itself many times over in insight and inspiration and ideas. Maybe you should suggest it to your own agency”.

    I believe you hit the nail on the head here. I believe that connecting at a grass roots level with clients, both real and potential as well as your target audience is invaluable. Getting to know the people, the process and the products that you are promoting can generate incredible inspiration and creativity.

    I personally got my start on the production floor of a factory, working my way into the service department and then through a series of self developed promotional projects, into the marketing business until I was hired on with my current company.

    My present company has a somewhat unique advantage that way, in that our target demographics and overall strategy allows us to walk alongside many of our clients to see what they are passionate about in their industries. Small to mid size business are often the ones that contain the most enthusiastic people, and by rubbing elbows with them you begin to catch their enthusiasm.

    Enthusiasm about what you are promoting is the easiest way to inspire and eventually sell, because if you are enthusiastic, that will translate through into your promotional strategy and materials.

    My experience has been that the more you know the product and the people behind it, the more easily ideas and content are generated. It is our belief that long term not only will you save scads of time but you will generate far higher quality ideas specific to the brands you are working with.

    Wow, I just read all of my reply, so to summarize I like your post.

  2. davebirss / Mar 29 2012 7:45 am

    Thanks,

    What a great comment!

    I’m really hoping that some agency somewhere adopts the idea of sending their creatives out to work elsewhere one day a month. A maybe people from the other departments too. It’s definitely worth a try.

  3. Andy T / Mar 29 2012 12:25 pm

    Hi Dave,

    Excellent point well made (as ever), albeit you worked with me – and my Dad was a postman, my Mum a nurse and I was brought up in ‘County’ Kilburn!

    Come to think of it there are one or two former colleagues who’d have actually been more suited to working at a charity shop or nursing home on a permanent basis…

    • davebirss / Mar 29 2012 12:27 pm

      Hahaha.

      No comment.

  4. jameshogwood / Mar 29 2012 12:28 pm

    hey dave!

    related to this, i’m interested as to whether you think there’s almost a danger in over-professionalisation?…or maybe i mean over-indoctrination? the neatest, smoothest possible route into the industry is to study some of the craft at college, uni or one of the aforementioned internships.

    lots of people are different, but personally, the idea of having a clear path mapped out for your life while you’re at school/uni/just graduating feels…terrifying. i worry that agencies might just look for new graduates as the only recruits rather than, to your point, looking for different people with different ideas and experience.

    in a time when communications continues to atomise, it’s possibly more important than ever to reconsider the rails that bring new people in.

    • davebirss / Mar 29 2012 2:36 pm

      Absolutely!

      As Ken Robinson points out, education actually teaches people not to think. And I think that sticks with people throughout their careers. That’s why industries are rife with bullshit buzzwords and bandwagoneering and crappy misdirections known as ‘best practice’. These are all shortcuts to insightful thinking.

      Most people agree that the industry needs to make some big changes, yet we continue to do the same things, follow the same processes and hire the same kinds of people.

      No wonder the industry’s in the mess it’s in.

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