Dave Birss, the School of Communication Arts' mentor of the year, calls on the creative industry to support the next generation of talent
I have a confession to make. I’m not actually qualified to be in this industry. I didn’t spend three years of my life experimenting with drugs at art school. I didn’t get a masters degree in English Literature.
Instead, I got a degree in Advanced Mathematics, a diploma in welding and a certificate in lawnmower maintenance. I fell into advertising by mistake.
If only I’d been as lucky as the students at the School of Communication Arts.
They’re at one of the best advertising schools in the world, learning the most up-to-the-minute skills from talented people who do it for a living.
Unlike other educational institutions, the school doesn’t believe in professors, lecture timetables and examinations. That traditional method’s OK if you’re only concerned with theory. The school, on the other hand, is all about preparing its students for a practical career. So, it’s run like an agency, where the students learn from talented mentors.
Which brings me to the point of this article. The school wants more mentors. Lots more mentors. And you can help.
We’re looking for creatives, planners, UX gurus, photographers, designers and anyone else who’s earning their living in the creative industries. And not just senior people. Whatever your level of experience, you’ll get something out of mentoring.
As the school’s mentor of the year, (if there was an emoticon for ‘smugness’, this would be a good place to insert it) I want to tell you why it’s worth your while to donate the occasional day of your time.
You get to meet other amazing mentors
And I really do mean amazing! We’ve already got over 500 extraordinary mentors. In the last year, I’ve spent time with Sir John Hegarty, Nick Darken, Rory Sutherland and Steve Henry. I’ve met entrepreneurs, actors, musicians and even a buddhist. I’ve met heroes, I’ve made friends and I’ve done business with some of the other mentors. And - most bizarrely of all - I ended up hosting an improv TV show with the stars of Who’s Line Is It Anyway. Amazing things can happen when you meet amazing people.
You discover that you know more than you thought
Therapists will tell you that talking’s good because it causes you to crystalize your thinking. Don’t ask me how I know that. But that’s one of the things you’ll experience at the school. The students will ask you questions about things you probably do instinctively. Putting your thoughts into words makes you realise that you’ve actually got some pretty valuable skills and knowledge.
Remember how great this industry can be
You got into this industry for a reason. You thought it was exciting once. But working in the industry day in, day out may have taken some of the magic out of it for you. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have some of that excitement back? Well, the students at the school are at the crux of that exciting phase. They haven’t yet had the hope knocked out of them by bad account handlers and mundane briefs. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Their bright-eyed ambition is inspiring. And it’s got the power to transform a jaded old hack into a thrusting young buck. Or at least a slightly less jaded old hack.
Learn something new
The school invites top people in to do masterclasses. And if you’re lucky enough to catch one, you’re bound to learn something new. Just drop the school a line and find out what masterclasses are coming up that you’d like to attend. They’re better than most training courses that your agency pays top dollar for.
Feel that you're giving back
If you’re into do-gooding and like the rosy glow of self-righteousness, giving time to the school should be right up your street. Even if you’re working in a shit agency, it’s still better than working in a shit accountancy office or a shit local council road maintenance administration department. You should be thankful. And a good way to express that thanks is by mentoring for the school.
Feel seriously appreciated
If I had a penny for every time a student has thanked me, I’d need to buy trousers with much bigger pockets. And I’d have at least enough to buy us both a pint at The Black Dog pub around the corner from the school. The students really appreciate every mentor who walks through the doors. They’ll listen to every piece of advice you give them. And you’ll leave the school with a bit more self-esteem than you had when you walked in.
See who's going to be kicking your arse
This year, the school received over 1600 applications for the course from all over the world. It accepted 36 of the most talented individuals. So you’ll be mentoring the best of the best young creative talent. The students at the school today are going to be the stars of the industry in the next few years. They’re going to be after your job. You may want to come in and sound out your future competition.
Want to be better again
The students are wanting to constantly improve themselves. And that attitude rubs off. They make me want to be better. They’ve made me want to read more books, ask more difficult questions and come up with better ideas. I reckon I’m a better creative since I started mentoring. All without having to pay any tuition fees.
Be more promotable
Being a mentor at the school is a great LinkedIn-nugget. Senior positions in agencies require the kind of skills you’ll learn by visiting the school and talking to the students. When I was still working as a creative director, it’s certainly something I would have seen as an asset.
Find new talent for your agency
If you’re the one who wears the hiring trousers in the agency, you really need to be involved in the school. Part of the course involves 6 months of placements. And the lucky agencies are selected according to how involved they’ve been. Which means the ones that give the most mentoring time or sponsor the school come highest up the list and get first dibs on the talent. Getting involved in the school is worth it for the money you can save on recruitment fees alone.
It all makes sense. Even the most humourless head of a finance department can’t disagree with the logic. All the SCA needs is your time (some money would be nice too, but let’s talk about that another time).
And if you can’t spare even half a day yourself (which means you must be way more important than Sir John Hegarty), there must be other people in your agency you could send our way.
This is so important, I’d like to sign you up personally. I’ve set up an email address at my own company to handle the overwhelming demand. Don’t delay! While it’s fresh in your mind, send a quick message to SCAmentor@getadditive.com with the subject line “I’m in”. Or even better “37 of us are in!”. That’s all you need to do to get started. We’ll then be in touch to get a few more details from you and find a time for you to visit the school.
I look forward to seeing you. And so do the students.
What other mentors say
"The best thing about working in this industry is working with great creative talent. And the great creative talent of the future is in the best colleges now. Mentoring at SCA is always inspiring and fun."
Trevor Chambers, group creative director, Cubo
"The rewards are not just personal; there's a true business and creative benefit too. You get your agency name in the minds of the next wave of creatives joining the industry, and they go out into the world hopefully saying good things about you. And then there's the opportunity to take the students on placements and possibly hiring some great young talent that you've had some part in developing.
"A quick sum for your FD - 3 days mentoring @ a CD day rate of £1200 a day = £3600 – recruitment fee's for a junior team on 25K each at 18% = £9000
"Makes a saving of £5400."
Phil Jones, founder, Podge Lunches
“I was a mentor and friend of the original School of Communication Arts when John Gillard was running the school and Marc Lewis was one of his students. I loved the school and what it stood for and was sad to see it disappear and John pass away. What Marc has done, bringing the new School to life, has been a remarkable feat and his energy and creativity is infectious. His students have worked on briefs for several of my podge lunches and are regular and welcome guests at the www.bladderedagain.co.uk drinks sessions.
"The latest brief for this month’s digital podge lunch is a case in point, I sent the brief to 12 agencies and the School and had five finished, creative posters arrive within 24 hours and not one has yet arrived from an agency. Why? Passion! Enthusiasm! Hunger! Excitement! And that cool bloke who supports Arsenal, is a great dad and loves his brightly coloured trousers, Marc Lewis. Legend!!!”
Jacob Kirk, associate creative director, RAPP
“Experience can be a handicap. That constant state of knowing what will work, what the client will like and what will never get made brings with it a generous portion of cynicism. I've found mentoring at the SCA provides a real antidote to this. Every visit brings with it a freshness. A willingness to look at the brief without the baggage of the second guess. It seems obvious, but being surrounded by people talking about what it could be rather than what it can’t be, even for a day, can change the way you look at your own work.
"Of course, the reasons for mentoring at SCA aren’t purely selfish. It’s a course with the ambition. A course that wants to learn, and this is evident in the attitude of the students as soon as you walk through the door. They want your knowledge and they’re not afraid to ask for it. Every visit is filled with questions. How? What? Where? But mainly Why? Why? Why? Which is great because it makes you really think about your answers. If you leave the building without having questioned yourself a couple of times then maybe you’re not doing it right.”
Dave Birss is the founder of Additive, the inspiration and training company. He’s a former creative director of Poke, OgilvyOne and McCann Worldgroup. But, most importantly, he’s the School of Communication Arts’ mentor of the year. And he wants you (to try) to rob him of that title.
Photograph concept: Max Maclean
Photo: Tom Baker