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The Influencers

Breaking the Creativity Pipeline to Fix It

INFLUENCER: Grey New York's Brett Simone on adland's diversity problem and how Grey's FAME School is working to fix it

Breaking the Creativity Pipeline to Fix It

Our entire industry is built on new ideas. Unfortunately, we’re stuck looking in the same old places for them.  

In short, this industry still has a serious diversity problem. 

Today’s marketing behemoths are supposed to speak to 100% of Americans. The truth is, most are increasingly stuffing their ranks with society’s upper 20%. As more tone-deaf advertising is met with blistering online criticism, it’s become clear – that lack of diversity is costing us. And while this isn’t a new problem, it’s far from unsolvable.

When Bill Bernbach realised agencies were full of out-of-touch Ivy Leaguers in the 1950s, he started DDB and filled it with a diverse cast of talent for that time – eventually appointing the first female copy chief ever. It transformed the industry and made Bernbach a rich man.

Some agencies are waking up to this fact. Unfortunately, many aren’t.

So when Grey launched FAME School – a free creative academy for diverse talent with no way to pay for traditional schools – I signed up. The program was taught by award-winning creative leaders and other agency staff on a weekly basis. Creative teams, usually too busy to finish their timesheets from 2014, threw down their kombuchas and leapt at the chance to donate time to teaching overlooked creative talent from all over New York City.

By going outside our normal pipeline, we got solutions we never would have seen before. Which was a sign of a bigger truth: it’s time to smash the damn pipeline.


Break the Cost Barrier

Don’t get me wrong, portfolio schools are a great way to train young creatives, but a degree from VCU’s Brandcenter costs just over $50,000 in tuition alone. It’s a heavy load to bear if your parents’ names don’t begin with doctor or end with esquire.

These days, going in without portfolio school means endless late nights making campaigns, brutal cold calls with creative directors and an exhausting day job that usually pays about $6 an hour after taxes.

For FAME students, we wanted to offer a chance to break into a lucrative industry and build a career (sorry, portfolio schools, this might just catch on). If we’re serious about diversity, we should start pushing our agency leaders to experiment with affordable alternatives.

No creative should have to pay for the privilege to show us their good ideas.


Break the Communication Barrier

I’m usually first in line on Fishbowl to complain about the way some agency recruiters operate today, but the exclusion of non-ad school applicants, the poor communication and the struggle to find diverse talent isn’t all their fault – not even close.

Some of New York’s largest agencies only staff 2-3 recruiters to serve 1,000+ employees. Under pressure to fill dozens of positions as fast as possible, they naturally go to where they can find reliable talent in a flash. That means ad schools and candidates connected to current staff members – leaving many unanswered emails from passionate people who want to work with us. To make matters worse, some hiring managers request portfolio school applicants only to avoid the added task of training talent. This path of least resistance is natural, but breeds mediocrity, and it means the kids we met in FAME never had a chance.

I know our industry is under financial pressure, but if talent isn’t worth spending time and money on, what is?

If we want to get outside-the-box thinking, we need to make outside-our-comfort-zone connections. Invest in recruiting, and leave no stone unturned.


Break the Awareness Barrier

What surprised me most about the creatives we tutored in FAME was that most of them had no clue what an ad agency was, much less that it was a career path they could explore. And to be honest, I didn’t either until I sat in on a guest lecture in my junior year of college.

For a communications industry, we sure do a bang-up job telling people what we do (insert sarcasm here). Collectively, our industry invests little in communicating about itself and the career potential it provides. FindSpark (a partner critical in identifying the pilot students for FAME), for example, informs a huge range of diverse young people about promising jobs in fields they never knew they could work in. Do these agents of creative connection know what advertising careers are like? 

We need to promote our industry the way we promote our clients. Talent can’t find us when we’re hiding.

Whether it’s as little as prodding your leadership about how they plan to bring diverse talent in the front door, or as much as donating your nights to helping someone build a great portfolio, we can all move the needle.

One little act at a time, we can drag this industry in a more diverse direction – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s also the only way this industry will continue to thrive.

Break what’s wrong. Rebuild.



Brett Simone is senior copywriter at Grey New York

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