Supporting Future Talent with Brixton Finishing School

Posted 25.02.21

This month Brixton Finishing School [BFS] launched their new AD-cademy initiative. It is a free, virtual gateway to the creative, advertising, marketing and tech industries and is going to revolutionise the type of talent that enters the workforce in the coming years.

The aim is to develop the employability of under-represented talent through an 8-week online course and is open to all multicultural, socially mobile/and or neurodiverse 18-25-year-olds nationwide. At a time when the UK creative industries are dominantly male environments (78%) and with the representation of people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds shockingly low (13%) the AD-cademy is one of many initiatives that is helping to open the doors to diverse voices and we are thrilled to be able to throw our support behind them.

We started working with Ally and the team at BFS at the start of 2020 just as lockdown was looking likely. Initially, we simply offered some of our time to assess their social channels and make a range of strategic and creative recommendations in order to optimise their platforms and make them more discoverable and follow-worthy to their core audience. This led to numerous conversations with the team where we found ourselves swept up in their passion, enthusiasm and drive to help shake up the stale, pale and male industry that we work in. From there, various members of our team have delivered workshops with their latest cohort of students, managed ads across their social and search campaigns, mentored students 1-2-1 and acted as Team Leads for one of the working groups in the class of 2020.

Something that sets BFS apart – and the reason we are such passionate supporters – is that they go beyond just raising awareness for the need for diversity in the creative industries. They don’t just stand in solidarity or help to develop a well-meaning manifesto – they are taking real action and having an impact. The blueprint that Ally and the team have developed is producing eminently employable young thinkers from backgrounds that are sorely underrepresented in our industry and they are creating awareness and opportunities for employers and prospective employees alike.

The level of talent that goes through the school each year is staggering – the group of students that I worked with firsthand were so open and ready to learn while also being ready to challenge me and the other team leaders on anything that we discussed. The format of the program has the entire cohort split into small groups of 5-8, after which they are all given a (real) brief from a brand/company that is looking for a solution to a business challenge. The brief this year centred on a blood cancer charity and their need to get more donations from young men from BAME backgrounds. We spent weeks working with the group on their research, strategy, creative and proposal and the questions they asked, the positions they put forward and the way they interrogated the brief were astounding.

The students that go through Brixton Finishing School are getting valuable real-world experiences that will arm them for their working life – whether they step into the agency-world or not. They walk away having learned how to work as a team to develop ideas, manage workloads and allocate the right people to the right tasks, have hit deadlines, dealt with stressful pitching conditions and had to take direct feedback on the chin. The group we worked with (who named themselves The Young Agency) even went through that agency rite of passage – scrapping an idea after a last-minute rethink. In the end, the Young Agency won the overall pitch and their campaign idea is being put into practice by the charity. To see your work come to life after such a rigorous process is a huge confidence boost – and even for the teams whose work has not selected the benefit of the course – and not having anything dumbed down or sugar-coated – cannot be underestimated.

Not only that but the students worked together to thoroughly pick apart the very nature of the brief. The campaign they proposed essentially ignored the central request (to reach young BAME men) because the request itself was too reductive. Their thinking and the way they presented it to the client has helped the charity to reevaluate their entire organisation, hiring methods, and internal processes. Something that would never have happened had they not opened themselves up to the opportunity of working with these young professionals from diverse backgrounds.

One thing that projects like BFS and the AD-cademy give to their students is a way to channel and focus their thinking in constructive and valuable ways. They are being taught invaluable skills like confidence and self-awareness which can take years and years to develop by going cold into the world of work. Being able to see that their voices matter and their ideas are viable at an early stage in their careers is a huge boost and they are learning these things in a safe environment.

Creative Director Pete Gomori talks about the creative process as a game. In order for teams and individuals to succeed they need to learn the rules. One of the most important of these rules is that rejection is a valuable part of developing your skills. The problem is that if you experience rejection under the wrong conditions at an early age it can knock your confidence so hard you never get back up again. By setting up a place of positivity and support where young people can develop their skills BFS is giving people a crash-course in the rules of the game.

All of the students are developing these skills at the very same time as one another and as they work through the course they develop in areas of communication, networking and expressing & developing creative ideas. The end result is a range of expertise – and the evidence to back it up – with which to approach employers and present themselves as valuable, viable and attractive prospects for any organisation.

There’s also huge benefits for employers. These students graduate as ready-made proactive and productive members of a team. Any HR departments who are looking to hire entry-level team members should be looking out for mentions of these courses on CVs. They will be getting an enormous level of talent ready to walk in and get to work.

One of the (few) benefits of life in lockdown is that when all work is remote the talent pool is opened up. Our new – and compulsory – ways of working through video conferencing and shared drives has meant that student groups are composed of young people from all across the UK giving opportunities to those that have until now been shut out of the creative industries. When roles are only open to people who have an existing connection to a company or only to those who can afford to commit to unpaid work in a major metropolitan city you will only ever be fishing in a relatively shallow and un-diverse pond.

We’ve experienced this first hand at Wilderness. Back in March when lockdown hit we had no idea what it would mean for our growth plans. The thought of pitching for new business via video call felt bizarre and we couldn’t imagine how we’d interview anyone remotely, let alone onboard them to the team without ever meeting face-to-face. These concerns seem so quaint now as we’ve been able to welcome a whole host of new team members into the fold all via computer screens. For team members like Charlie, it’s given him the opportunity to get a job at a London-based agency without the added hassle of moving out and finding a place to live in the city. He’s been able to settle in, pass his probation, make friends and create connections with his clients remotely. It gives us the chance to spread our hiring net wider and bring in more diverse voices from different backgrounds.

In recent years there has been a welcome increase in focus on diversity in the workplace. On a regular basis, there’s a new article about how diverse voices offer different perspectives which in turn lead to better innovation and ultimately create a happier and more interesting world. There’s no denying that this is true and good and right but there’s also a pragmatic way of looking at this that says having a diverse workforce gives businesses the edge and that the competitive companies will be the ones that are most forward-thinking.

In the spirit of both of these outlooks we recently conducted a Diversity and Inclusion audit at Wilderness. In many respects the results are heartening – we are well over the average when it comes to BAME and LGBT team members and at the time of taking the survey, we were almost dead even in our gender split.

While this certainly makes us proud as a company the thing that has made me proudest of all is the refusal to see the results and congratulate ourselves on a completed job well done. This is another step along the path we started back when we were just four of us. We will be using the data to identify all of the areas where we are still falling short but beyond that, we need to do more than oversee an exercise in box-ticking. For example – I don’t want our team members who come from LGBT backgrounds to feel like they have to speak for or have the answers to every question regarding LGBT issues. The goal for us is to keep expanding the team and including more and more diverse voices and – most importantly – to allow all of the voices within the agency to feel supported and that they will be heard.

This year we’ve started working with The Industry Club [TIC] to deliver the Digital Community Management modules for their Marketing Debuts scheme. Part of the opportunity for us was to take on an apprentice who will be completing the curriculum over the next 13 months while getting on-the-job experience working in the Wilderness team. The team at TIC and their partner The Opportunity Group have made the process of taking an apprentice into the team via the apprenticeship levy seamless. Not only that but the level of talent in the mix was mind-blowing. Ayesha started with us in mid-January and we’re already speaking to TIC about the next round of apprentices and other ways that we can work with them to partner with and support them.

I’m proud of the level of radical self-awareness that we’ve applied to our practices and I want to continue to push further and expand our team’s outlook to be even more expansive but at the end of the day, the work we’ve done with BFS and have started to do with other partners in this space is not altruistic. There is a huge benefit to us as a company staying in close proximity to young, diverse, and incredibly talented individuals.

Jamie Maple – Managing Director

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