Peter Mead started his career in the post room.
Gordon Smith began as a runner.
Mike Cozens set type.
Alan Parker was another post room alumni.
Mark Denton was a paster upper at Knitting Digest.
Barbara Nokes was a secretary.
Charles Saatchi started as a voucher clerk, verifying press ad appearances for the clients of a tiny agency in Covent Garden.
I guess you’ll have spotted the theme running through that list.
Yep, none of those jobs exist any more.
These were the entry-level jobs, roles that required no qualifications and no training. Exactly the kind of jobs that you could get even if you were a bit of an oddball. In fact, especially if you were a bit of an oddball.
All were low paid but live-able. And for the some, like the names I began with, they were an unconscious foot in the door. The first step of a glittering, richly rewarded and richly rewarding career
These jobs gave the mavericks a chance. The chance to exist within an agency environment and allow the addictive grip of advertising to seep into their blood. The chance to be the one who was there, late at night when no one else was about, to write a last minute ad for a desperate client. The chance to observe the jobs in progress and to think: “I could do better than that.”
The opportunities that flowed from those humble beginnings have disappeared along with the jobs: the relaxed didactic conversations; the unofficial mentoring; the trade ad apprenticeship; the essential getting-it-wrongs on the way to getting-it-right.
Today’s agencies are very different.
Today, there are no ‘entry level’ jobs. Joining a creative department comes with the immediate expectation of a facility with photoshop, illustrator, indesign. Of being able to put together a deck. Of knowing how to get it right, right away.
And because those are expected from day one, the vast majority of new creatives are hired from broadly similar backgrounds - the Watfords, the Bucks, the Falmouths, the SCAs, etc.
The problem with this, efficient though it is for agencies, is that agency personnel are becoming more and more homogenised. That’s despite the courses, good as they are, making serious efforts to diversify their intake.
No, if the attitude is sink or swim from day one, new recruits make sure they have the ability to fit in. And not necessarily to stand out.
We kid ourselves to think that the talented could walk in off the street - raw and visceral - and succeed. But it’s not true.
Against our own better natures, we’d batter them with guidelines, processes and deadlines, until they too learned to produce the ‘right kind of things’ and ‘buyable ideas’ to order.
I’m not arguing that youth should have it all, that we can’t question their creativity. Not at all. I’ve seen drivel and rubbish dreamt up by creatives of all ages. What I’m arguing for is a little more time, a little more space and a little more understanding that to grow, talent has to be nurtured not neutered.
But that same proto-talent needs to eat, drink and live.
So if ad agencies, particularly creative departments, are to avoid being wholly staffed by the white middle classes who can rely on family to support them through placements, we’ll need to find a way to pay for them.
Otherwise, there’ll be no future equivalents of AMV, GGT, BBH, CDP, SPDCJ or any of the other agencies from my original list. And if none of those existed, we’d all be poorer for it.