A morning at the Brixton Finishing School, where underprivileged digital talent spurns cynicism

Brixton students with Owen (top, in green)

Three years ago, a young girl arrived at Ally Owen’s desk for work experience. Priscilla had been studying marketing through an NVQ scheme and was placed with Owen through a pre-apprenticeship provider. She was uneasy in an office environment and felt so uncomfortable that she attempted to eat a bowl of crunchy cereal without making a noise, but she would only be there for a month before moving on.

Owen, who witnessed Priscilla’s slow, silent cereal chew, was astounded by not only the complete lack of confidence, but by the way her student had been treated so far up the career ladder.

“I spoke to [her provider] afterwards to ask about her roadmap, and they just shrugged and said, ‘well, we’ll send someone else’,” recalls Owen. “I realised then that to them she was just a product to be processed. For me, she was a young person I wanted to invest in. She had potential, and she was going to end up in a really shit job because they weren’t going to help her. So, I stayed as her mentor.”

Three years later, Owen launched the Brixton Finishing School for Digital Talent.

The summer school is housed inside Marc Lewis’ School of Communications Arts, which itself is housed on the fourth floor of an Anglican church in Brixton, south London. When you walk through the doors of the basement entrance and gravitate towards a lift without an ‘up’ button you’re faced with a sign: ‘Most people take the stairs’. So, you do, too.

On the school’s third day since opening there’s a lulling chatter as the class sit down for their 10am start. Some chat, some play with their phones, some run around taking photographs. This year’s intake comprises 21 students from underprivileged and BAME backgrounds, who will be taught the skills necessary to bag a job in digital by graduation on 5 October.

Owen, a former exec at the likes of Unruly, MailOnline and Yahoo, will take them through a bespoke crash course alongside Lynette Murphy, the former course leader at Bucks Ad School, while industry supporters such as Oath, Google and The Telegraph will open up their offices to the students once a week for work experience.

Sponsors McCann London, Brand Advance Agency, Clear Channel, PrettyGreen and Kinetic have each committed to creating an entry-level job especially for graduates of Brixton.

The school was very nearly called the Hoxton Finishing School, given that Owen runs an agency named Hoxton United in the east of the capital. It was here, in the valley between the council estates of Hackney and the new money of Silicon Roundabout, that she noticed how the wealth from digital and tech “hadn’t washed up on everyone’s doorstep”.

“In east London there’s so much talent and it all seemed to fall off a cliff at [the age of] 18 because there was no way of networking that talent into what are really closed shop industries,” she explains. “That genesis developed into a course and in the end I decided to create an end-to-end accelerator.”

Lewis granted her the Brixton space and the team contacted every school and college in London to advertise course places. The supporting agencies also committed their HR specialists to helping with the selection process. The result is a group of 21 undergraduate marketers who are at once entirely diverse and bound by their diverse status.

“For some think there’s a bandwidth on their understanding [of the industry], and some of them have been planning to do this for ages and this is the dream ticket,” says Owen. “And some are curious and are beginning to understand the potential.”

Some still bear the scars of crippling teenage insecurity, recoiling at the sight of a pen and a Dictaphone. Others internally debate the prospect of an interview, then pull the strings of their hoods a little tighter.

“You don’t have to speak to me if you don’t want to,” I reassure.

“Yeah, is it alright if someone else does it?”

Helen is softly-spoken but confident in her abilities. She wants to “go into the creative industries” but has been taught that you need a lot of connections to be successful. “It’s still going to be difficult but [Brixton] going to make it... like it’s a bigger stepping stone for me,” she says. She wants to go to university next year and carry on learning. Her knowledge of this world was gained from her life: TV (cartoons and animation in particular), games, advertising.

Matine is also 18 and is about to enter her second year of sixth form. She’s a self-proclaimed “outspoken” student but her knowledge of the industry was also gained from cultural experiences, which she groups into bracket of “media”.

“I definitely figured there was a career path myself,” she says. “I thought that I should just do something like science. I didn’t think about media studies, but then I thought about myself and what I love to do – make my own videos, take me own pictures – and media studies just spoke to me.”

‘Media studies’ is a term that crops up a lot at Brixton. It’s not surprising given that it’s the closest many of the students will have come to understanding the creative industries as more than something they consume – it transforms them into something they can be a part of.

This is a key insight for industry heads looking to diversify their agencies. Maybe they shouldn't be asking for talent interested in something as nebulous as “creativity” or as cordoned-off as advertising. Maybe they should be asking for the students that love and excel at media studies, before they “fall off a cliff at 18”.

Brixton is also largely free of cynicism. When asked what their friends think of their ambition to break into marketing, the students tell me they’re supportive. “They’ve known I was a creative from day one,” says Matine, “so they’re fine with it.”

It’s a different story for the students featured in D&AD’s New Blood exhibition earlier this year. Graduates of university courses, most of those exhibiting had more opportunities than the students of Brixton. Yet their decision to enter the industry has been met with more friction than Helen’s, whose network is just “really, really supportive”.

“Most of [my friends] are in advertising but for those that aren't I don't think they really understand that it's not just about selling toilet cleaner,” says Naomi Taylor, who won a Black Pencil for her work and now has a job as a junior creative at Mr President. She’s acutely aware of the power of communications and the “very thin line between what is right and wrong” and thus tries to make sure that something good can come from everything she works on.

Jude Amponsah, a graphic designer named as a rising star at New Blood, is also cognisant of his future role in a consumerist society. “I wouldn’t feel too comfortable knowing I’m contributing to consumerist propaganda,” he says. “But with every avenue there is a chance for change.”

Partners Jonathon Hunt and Megan Egan are, however, more defensive – and positive too.

“When I say, ‘I work in advertising’ to those outside of the loop, they do judge,” says Hunt. “Then I say: ‘And what are you doing about it?’

“Companies will no longer get away with posters. Posters shout and they don't generally provide anything of value to people. It's like me just standing in front of you saying ‘We've got the best call coverage in the UK’ over and over. Prove it. Put a phone box on a mountain.”

One of the most cynical people in the industry is Mr Bingo, the ‘artist, speaker and twat’ who has very publicly called out the incompetence and hypocrisy of certain commercial clients.

He is also the first guest speaker at the Brixton Finishing School of Digital Talent.

After wrapping up his expletive-laden careers presentation on the last Friday of July, Bingo opens the floor to questions. It’s only once their tutors have spoken that students start to tentatively raise their hands. After 20 minutes the questions change from “where can I buy your naked advent calendar?” to queries regarding payment, style and career trajectory. No-one plays with their phone.

I slipped out the back after 15 minutes. The questions continued for another 45.

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