Why the narrow path for junior creatives into the ad industry is impacting diversity

The advertising industry has found itself on a pedestal as roles for entry-level creatives appear few and far between, creating a backlog of talent trying to find their way in. Agencies have fallen back on hiring through knowing someone, that knows someone; and the influence of having AWARD School on a resume is narrowing the field of potential talent to be recruited. What this equates to then is a question of diversity in the industry.

Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson shares the experiences of junior creatives trying to break in, and examines the leaders' view on diversity and recruitment to uncover the challenges the industry is facing, raising the question - where to from here?

There is a unique community within the creative industry of talent trying to find their way in. Unique, because it’s the only level that there is an oversupply of candidates, knocking down the door for work. Yet, there are a very limited number of roles available and the industry is very selective on who they let in.

Almost too selective.

Despite some programs in place which create opportunities for candidates from all walks of life, there is preference placed on pathways such as The Australasian Writers and Art Directors (AWARD) School or the classic,  someone to refer you, when it comes to joining an agency. As a result, this community of talent is being narrowed down even further to an ‘exclusive club’ of people who got in. And this is impacting diversity.

“I don’t know if agencies are actively trying to look for diverse voices,” says junior art director Daniel Li, who along with his creative partner Mitch (Mitt) Taylor are on the brink of breaking in.

“Just personally speaking, I’m a non-white person trying to get into the industry and it is something that I am very conscious of. And it pertains to both of us. We’re both Western Sydney kids… and the amount of talent that we see that comes from the Eastern Suburbs and comes from the city, compared to the west, there’s a big disparity.”

The pair have been friends for years but arrived at the creative world via different paths. A family friend, who is a creative director at an agency, recommended AWARD School to Taylor, who had tried a number of different subjects at university and was still finding his way. He completed AWARD School in 2019. Then, at a friend’s barbecue, Taylor was telling Li about the work. Having just finished two years in the military and starting a law degree, Li was intrigued, and from there their partnership was formed.

Li is only just doing AWARD School now, having found it a roadblock to his and Taylor’s entry into an agency.

“When we first started interviewing for places, they always asked. The first question was ‘have you done AWARD school?’ And Mitt would say yes, and I’d be left there going, no, but I’m willing to do it,” Li recounts.

“Does that matter? Is it not more about the ideas and how we present ourselves? Why does it matter that I’ve done a print ad for a fake brief?”

Daniel Li and Mitch Taylor

Across the junior creatives I spoke to in investigating this aspect of the industry, most were directed to AWARD School by a senior creative during work experience or by a family friend. Most were given similar pieces of advice; that AWARD School was the quickest path into an agency.

Sam Rowlands, an art director at M&C Saatchi, recalls being told “you can either work your arse off from a designer up and prove yourself through a couple of years, or you can do AWARD School, give it your all, smash it and then get quick ticket in from there” while working as a UX designer.

AWARD School is undoubtedly one of the industry’s most successful ventures, with the Advertising Council of Australia’s CEO Tony Hale describing it as “one of the greatest inventions ever made in the industry”. It was created by Ray Black in the 1980s as a free, 16-week course that anyone could undertake outside their university or employment. Now running over 12 weeks, the program works to redesign the thinking of creatively-minded people in a way that readies them to respond to an agency brief.

If one succeeds in the challenging three question application, AWARD School will cost them $2,200 to undertake in Sydney and Melbourne, and $1,540 in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

AWARD School is incredibly successful at providing a pathway into the industry for from all backgrounds and former careers. In 2018, the ACA also introduced the AWARD School Indigenous scholarships program which has seen six creatives graduate and five more coming in the 2021 cohort.

Speaking on DDB’s Advent podcast in November last year, Karen Ferry, an advocate for diversity in advertising and former AWARD School head, spoke about the measures that have been taken to bolster diversity amongst its students. After Mark Harricks introduced blind judging in 2013, which changed the demographics of the the top ten students, Ferry took it one step further under her tenure.

“We then tried to have much more level groups of tutors in terms of gender diversity but also diversity of agencies and of the people that students had access to. So that was kind of just trying to make sure there was a bit more of a holistic view of society in that way, but also with our judges. And we tried to pick judges that we knew would be much more forthcoming to ideas that weren’t fully developed by had interesting kernels of thoughts in them,” she explains.

“And we also made sure that judging on the entry books was also blind judged but also had much more gender diversity of judges, so it was 50/50 again. We practiced that in Sydney and it completely changed the top three students.”

But AWARD School shouldn’t be the only way into creative roles, and agency leaders advising talent they have to do AWARD School is problematic.

Publicis Groupe’s Pauly Grant

Pauly Grant, Publicis Groupe’s chief talent officer says that AWARD School gives junior creative amazing exposure, but agrees the emphasis placed on graduates means the industry will miss out on some ‘gems’ that bring diverse perspectives to the industry.

“Most creative talent that goes through there are of a high caliber. And I think it’s that probably extra level of exposure and ability to actually have that platform and guidance around creativity and how to channel it,” she explains.

“But on the other side of that, there’s brilliant creatives out there who are wonderful storytellers or designers that have never been to any of those schools. So, I’d actually say that you’ll find gems elsewhere as well. And I think, especially if we’re talking about diversity of thought and creativity, it doesn’t mean you won’t get that diversity in AWARD school, but also there’s people who can’t even afford to go to AWARD school. So I think we need to open the net much wider if we’re really true to our word about attracting diverse talent and thinking into our agencies.”

However, Tony Hale denies the industry places too much emphasis on AWARD School. He says the program has “stood the test of time” and believes “the thought that you come into the industry, you need to do it to either get into the industry or survive in the industry, is a bit of an overreach”.

And he might have a point, because even doing AWARD School doesn’t guarantee you a job. Agencies snap up those who make it into the top ranks of the cohort, meanwhile as several of the junior creatives interviewed say, if you don’t make it into the top ten, you are pushed out of the nest and have to begin the hustle to make your way in (more on that later).

Rowlands points out that AWARD School is a competition, with the goal being to either win or get your work displayed in the final exhibition, and manage to get hired from that. Rightly, doing a course doesn’t merit automatically getting a job. You have to play the game and play it to the best of your ability.

Ferry also believes the diversity in AWARD School is one thing. Diversity in talent that agencies actually hire is another.

“AWARD School is the breeding ground for where most creatives come from. But when they go out to get hired we aren’t seeing the same statistics of the students that come top ten,” Ferry told Advent.

“And the thing is that the top ten, in New South Wales at least, come from quite diverse backgrounds and are quite diverse people in terms of ethnicity but also sexual identity, sexual preference, geography. When we look at who gets hired that doesn’t translate and it’s still very typical, expected hires that get hired.”

Entry level creative roles are very rarely formally advertised. Knowing someone, who knows someone, who knows someone that ‘might’ be looking for a junior creative appears to be the best, and almost only, way in. And if you don’t, it’s time to start spamming the emails of senior creatives and recruiters, and stalking them all on LinkedIn.

“We’ve been hitting up every recruiter in Sydney, we know the guys at [FBI Recruitment] very well, and that was only off the back of – we went full Wolf of Wall Street. We sat down for two weeks straight and we got everyone’s numbers that we could from ECDs on their portfolios, from recruiters, from anyone who would be willing to have a chat with us and we’d call them up and we’d go, can we have a coffee meeting with you?” recounts Li.

Taylor adds: “If you’re a junior and you don’t know anyone, or you don’t have a recruiter that you’re friends with or made friends with, or networked with… there’s no in. It’s like you can approach an agency, you can ring them or email them, but you’re very unlikely to get something back unless someone’s given you a referral.”

James, who requested his name be changed, is one of those people that did AWARD School in an effort to make a career change. After graduating as a copywriter last year and completing a mentorship program with an agency, he has also begun the hustle.

“I have seen one or two [positions] advertised on LinkedIn and that’s it. I’ve just been cold messaging people off LinkedIn or emailing their email addresses on their websites, or even filling out the work with us forms, all to no response, really,” he says.

“I wish it was just easy enough to pick up the phone and give him a buzz, but from what I’ve been told, that’s not really how the industry works. It’s all very ‘send an email, ask to go for a beer, hopefully they like you’ sort of thing. But [it was] hard in 2020. We couldn’t really do that. People weren’t having you into their office to have meet and greets because everyone’s working from home.

“It’s making me go harder. You know what I mean? It’s not an easy job everyone can default into, it’s on a pedestal. So I’m definitely not going to slow down.”

James believes of the 30 cold calls he has made, only two have resulted in meetings. And as time goes on, pressure to find a position is only mounting as another cohort of 2021 AWARD School students are set to graduate in July.

“People get busy and I understand that and I completely respect that. And dealing with someone who you’re just being polite to is the last thing on your list for the day. It’s low priority. And I completely understand that, so I don’t feel bad [towards] them at all,” James says.

“But… I’m so far outside of it. It’s impenetrable. I mean, if I was a suit and I went to AWARD School and I want to become a creative you’re already in the know and there’s this way in, but other than sitting on Campaign Brief and a few other websites, what do you do? You know, you just hover on LinkedIn and like people’s six year work anniversary posts.”

Similar to Li and Taylor, James is also hearing that agencies’ plates are loaded with work but doesn’t see why the solve hasn’t been to bring on juniors.

“Everyone’s saying they’re so busy and I know everyone’s getting slammed, but no one seems to be taking on juniors, which I thought would be the logical thing to do. I mean, as a tradie, if you get busy, you just pull on some more apprentices to do the shit work. But again, different industry. Lots to learn,” he says.

To be fair to agencies, the industry has changed from the years when there were graduate programs which were as hotly contested as clients have for their marketing teams now.

Hales explains entry-level roles are limited because with marketing budgets tightening, “when agencies are taking on grads they’ve really got to be attached to a revenue stream right away”.

He adds that graduate programs also had their flaws when it comes to diversity.

“The graduate programs were appealing to a fairly set number of people coming through academic institutions. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But to have a university degree is in my mind, not necessarily a prerequisite to being successful in this industry,” Hale says.

“We’ve lost some of the pathways in non-grad programs. And I know quite a few agencies have tried them, but it’s hard to; it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. The other thing that I often say is that people, not necessarily on their own journey, find advertising. A lot of the gems somehow find advertising, not necessarily looking for it.”

ACA CEO Tony Hale

One of the last remaining and most prominent graduate programs in the industry is Clemenger BBDO’s ‘Unique Characters’ which actively tries to recruit people from backgrounds outside of conventional pathways such as university degrees and AWARD School to find a more diverse cohort of thinking.

Then there is Ogilvy’s Goliath program. However, running for 12 weeks as opposed to Clemenger’s 12 months, and with no guarantee of employment at the end – despite having recently hired three of its participants – it is a less traditional approach to the graduate program.

Casting the net wider to capture talent from other aspects of life is something Grant is focused on at Publicis.

“A lot of the focus of our industry has always been around AWARD School, tertiary education and so forth, but it does limit you. It limits you to a small pool of people and we need to be really opening ourselves up,” she explains.

“It’s definitely a focus for us at the moment. I mean, we’re even talking to TAFE in the next couple of weeks because we need to create alliances and opportunities through other parts of education that isn’t tertiary because instantly we’re blocking out a whole lot of society.”

Across the all roles in the whole of the Publicis Groupe, Grant says 35% to 40% are filled through referrals, and while referrals do work well, “referrals also are employing people like the people we already have in our business”.

“You’ve definitely got to mix it up. You’ve got to have that mix of roles where you’re actually outreaching advertising to try to get people in. But, we have to go a number of steps back before we even start to advertise for a role because it’s around educating around the opportunities in our industry because people just don’t even know it’s there,” she explains.

“So we’ve got to educate first in many different areas to create the diversity. And then when we advertise, we’re going to be able to attract different people. Referrals are great but I do believe referrals probably are a barrier to greater diversity.”

Sam Rowlands

Grant’s suggestion to increase awareness of the advertising industry and the opportunity it holds is an interesting one as many of the junior creatives interviewed said they did not know advertising agencies and creative professions existed until being directed to AWARD School.

Rowlands, who grew up in regional NSW, recounts that there was no presence of advertising at careers nights in highschool, and creatively-minded people were directed towards courses in graphic design, art and fashion – which is where she ended up.

“I went out and did fashion at UTS, got into the industry, wasn’t really enjoying how uncreative it was in comparison to what I thought it would be and then went back to uni and did UX/UI web design, and then got in to a couple of places as sort of like design support or UX design, but a few people had told me that I’m an art director not a designer, and I didn’t really know what they were talking about,” she recalls.

“And then I got a job as a UX designer at a creative agency. And then I found out, actually saw firsthand when art directors did, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I want to do’.”

Looking even further up the funnel to students still in high school and communicating the opportunities available in advertising and the possible pathways in has been suggested as a solution for the communications problem the industry appears to have in marketing itself. But that’s easier said than done. It requires someone to take ownership of the project.

The ACA previously worked with iManifest, an NGO focused on developing career pathways into creative industries, on a similar program. Putting the suggestion to Hale as a project for Youngbloods, the ACA’s youth organisation, he took to the idea. Noting the ACA itself looks to the career paths of advertising talent on the whole.

“It might be something that is good for the Youngbloods. The Youngbloods do a lot of really good work. We’ve got priorities that are less about pathways into the industry now, other than Indigenous, and so whether something opens up over the next year or so, I’m not quite sure. Our emphasis is more upon bringing people through the industry rather than getting them in the industry in the first place,” he says.

Li and Taylor, meanwhile, are planning on taking measures into their own hands. After finding networking events and opportunities lacking in the industry they want to share all of the help and advice recruiters and creatives gave them with the new rounds of creatives looking for a way to break in.

“We have this plan at the moment where we want to do something called ‘Creatives in Parks Getting Coffee’, kind of like Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’. But any time a junior creative wants to hit us up for any reason, we want to be there to help them out, even if it’s just a coffee chat, even if it’s just a small sort of discussion about the book, or just advice,” Li says.

They are also hoping to form a group which brings juniors of all disciplines together to work on pro bono projects for small businesses. Uniting creatives, strategists, designers and producers will mean that more people will be able to share in work that has actually been created, and each person can add it to their portfolios.

And that might just work. Grant says that candidates that have worked to expose themselves to the industry, found a platform to express their creativity, stand out and have had “diverse experiences to develop their creativity”.

That stands out, as Rowlands believes “half the reason I think I was hireable was because I have fashion, and I have UX, and I’m from the country, and then just a little bit ‘on paper weird’.”

You will probably hear of Li and Taylor’s next move soon. James, meanwhile, hasn’t given up hope.

For Rowlands, who found her way in, her advice to junior creatives is “lean on your difference”.

“Everybody’s got their little thing that’s good about them. We’re in a creative agency. Everyone can make an ad, decide what poster’s better than the other poster, but if you are slightly different or unique then that would be the thing that would get you further.”

You can see what roles are currently advertised at the moment, on the Mumbrella jobs board.


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