People from diverse backgrounds are being stopped from pursuing careers in the ad industry, according to research from VCCP Group, due to six barriers to entry, including geographical inaccessibility and a bad reputation.
The qualitative research was conducted on VCCP’s behalf by Steve Lacey, managing director and owner of The Outsiders. Respondents came from Tewkesbury, Doncaster, the Forest of Dean, Norfolk, Feltham, Portsmouth, and Stoke, and included college students between the ages of 14 and 18, their parents and students from Staffordshire University.
The six barriers to entry
Anonymity Absence from job fairs meant that working-class students did not know agency work was an option for them, with one saying: “I wouldn't know where to start. I couldn't name an advertising agency.”
The bad reputation of “salesmen” Advertising was interpreted by respondents as “sales”, and seen as unnecessary, untrustworthy and pushy. One respondent said: “They know they’re pushing an idea, they know they’re trying to capture people: calculating, I suppose, to an extent, manipulative.”
Too different Many said there was a gulf between how they perceived themselves and how they viewed ad people, whom they envisaged as Apple-obsessed, edgily dressed, slightly obnoxious and middle class. A description that VCCP called “strikingly, and embarrassingly, accurate”.
Too far Many thought the industry was geographically inaccessible, with one respondent from South Devon saying: “Where would I go to find a big advertising agency near me?” Lacey noted that for three generations, on average, working-class audiences don’t move more than five miles from where they were born.
Bad communication The mention of internships in the ad industry left most respondents drawing a blank, while apprenticeships were associated with poorly paid manual labour. Not only this, assessment days and interviews were seen as incredibly intimidating.
Ruthlessness The industry was assumed to be cutthroat and put massive pressure on people to deliver. Subsequently, respondents thought they would be out of their depth and struggle to fit in.
Separately, VCCP commissioned APG to conduct quantitative research, the findings of which painted a bleak picture of the socio-economic issues stopping people from applying to work in the ad industry.
Two thousand 16-to 24-year-olds were asked about creative careers. In response, 18% of young people said that being unable to afford to move to London stopped them from considering creative careers.
Only 35% of young people from working-class backgrounds outside London knew someone working in the creative sector, compared with 54% of people from advantaged backgrounds in London and the southeast.
Justine Greening, chair of The Purpose Coalition and a former secretary of state for education, said: “This research underlines that it’s hard to be what you can’t see, when it comes to careers in creative industries.
"If young people don’t ever meet role models working in the sector, then it’s no surprise they don’t think it’s a career open to them. And as I know from growing up in Rotherham, it’s hard to get a role in London when it’s so expensive to live there."
The research marks 15 months since the VCCP Stoke Academy was established, with Stoke-on-Trent having one of the highest economic deprivation rates in the UK.
Its office there is now home to six staff and four apprentices. It is also open for employees who can no longer afford to live in London due to the cost-of-living crisis.
Sarah Newman, director of APG, said: “There are huge regional and socio-economic disparities which make brands and agencies impenetrable to excellent people disadvantaged by geography and a lack of industry knowhow.”
While 23% of ABC1 young people in London and the southeast can name a company in the creative sector, only 13% from working-class backgrounds can.
Newman added: “We need to work harder in attracting the next generation of brilliant strategists, creatives and business leaders into our industry. This means big changes to the way we recruit, and how we welcome and support new talent as they join the industry.”
But the research also needs to be put to good use.
Michael Lee, chief strategy officer at VCCP, spoke to Campaign about the short and long-term fixes the research highlighted.
Lee said the first step was reaching out to schools outside London: “We're very good at speaking to our local schools. But if most of us are in London, then we only speak to people in London schools. So it’s going to places like Stoke, where no ad industry visibility exists, which is number one.”
Second, he said the industry’s language and way of talking about itself is antiquated. When they hear about account handling and planning, people will think of accountants or town planners, he explained. When agency representatives go to schools, colleges, and universities, they need to talk about their collaboration with Epic Games to create The O2 in Fortnite, rather than the TV ads they make for Cadbury.
Third, he said: “When it comes to actual interviews, treat them more like chats. Give [applicants] a phone call before you do the interview and say: ‘Look, these are the sorts of things I'm going to ask you.'
“Don't try and set traps, create a situation where you encourage them to succeed.”
Lee added that the research's insights needs to permeate adland beyond VCCP. As a starting point, he is set to discuss the research with Richard Huntington, chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi.
Lee added: “Our solution as VCCP is a drop in the ocean. This is an industry problem, right? And competing with each other is in our DNA but we don't have to compete for talent because this is a talent problem that we all have.
“If we don't improve the diversity of that talent pool, then we will all suffer, so I do think that the solution has to be a co-ordinated industry one.”