Advertising has an image problem: Apprenticeships will help us boost diversity

 
Chris Hirst
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We’re attracting a wider group of young people, but not enough (Source: Getty)

With 98 days to go until the general election, David Cameron has pledged to reduce the annual benefits cap to fund 3m new apprenticeships. Is this what business wants?

It is clearly a good thing, economically and socially, to spend less on welfare and to encourage more people into work. To date, however, the creative industries have turned their noses up at apprenticeships. Designed around manual labour skills, they weren’t fit for purpose and we expected too much of them. But now that the scheme has been modernised, for advertising – an industry struggling to recruit a diverse workforce – apprenticeships might just solve a key business issue.

Diversity in the workplace matters to us all, but has proved, over many years, hard to improve. Indeed, the profusion of university graduates has recently tended to make it even harder to find the many, many talented individuals who have taken a different route (through choice or circumstance). And the long-term solution must be the improvement of the talent pool across industry, not simply CSR programmes. But as the chief executive of a large creative business, I’ve been sceptical as to what apprentices can really offer me.

I’m not interested in box ticking. I believe that having a diverse workforce will make my business better, more creative and deliver more growth. This is true for all firms. A lack of diversity means missing huge numbers of the best, most talented people, our most precious and powerful competitive advantage.

But we have a problem. Advertising is full of young, white, upper middle class British graduates. We’re nowhere near diverse enough. Not only are we not recruiting enough people from different backgrounds, social as well as ethnic, we’re not attracting them either. That means advertising has an image problem. How ironic.

I’ve recently discovered that just saying you want a more diverse workforce is the easy bit. Making it happen is very difficult indeed. So we’re experimenting with a number of initiatives.

We’ve removed CVs and qualifications from our annual entry level talent scheme application form. We’ve seen application numbers rise and we’re attracting a wider group of young people, but not enough. In addition, we will commit two working days per year per employee to mentoring and inspiring students from primary to university level, raising the profile of our industry outside the usual networks. But this still isn’t enough to diversify; I need people with skills, not necessarily qualifications; people that are energetic, creative, entrepreneurial and ready for this fast-paced environment.

The apprenticeship scheme, updated to accommodate the needs of the creative industries, might provide the missing link I’ve been looking for to bridge the gap between a large pool of raw talent and the initially alien world of advertising. It helps us reach and select people we’re not getting to currently, and does the heavy lifting in terms of the training required to get them to the level we need.

I genuinely hope that at least one of the four apprentices we’ve committed to take on this year turns out to be a superstar. My business and our industry will be richer for it. And society will too. Everybody wins.

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