'Agencies are shitting themselves': SCA dean Marc Lewis on tutoring for today's ad world
Ad land is learning the hard way that change is needed to ensure its survival as management consultancies, brands and media owners take command of their creative processes. On the fringe of these skirmishes, ad schools must cultivate talent for an industry burdened with self-doubt.
The Drum talked to schools spanning the globe to discover if the change feels as tumultuous at the grassroots levels of creativity.
In the first of our Ad Schooling series running this week, The Drum spoke to Marc Lewis, dean of London’s School of Communication Arts (SCA) in London.
There is poetry in the notion that Lewis resurrected the establishment that gave him his start in the industry back in 1995. Lewis had few qualifications to speak of when he was handpicked by SCA dean John Gillard, once branded the ‘Pied Piper of creative talent’ by Sir John Hegarty. Unfortunately, Lewis was within the last crop of students before Gillard’s ailing health saw its closure.
A decade after Gillard’s death in 2000, Lewis relaunched the school in the attic of an old Brixton Church to give talent the chance Lewis was afforded by the old ad veteran. Now, as Patrick Collister wrote in The Drum, Lewis is “inspiring a new generation of creatives who, I’m hoping, will keep the rest of us afloat”.
In the years since SCA’s pursuit of relevancy has seen it embrace thousands of expert speakers and tutors. Additionally, the curriculum has shifted from Lewis's stint in education in 1995 - the focus on paid-for media like radio, print and outdoor has expanded to encompass earned and owned media too.
Lewis admits: “The spectrum of channels is growing exponentially, we try to understand these channels while remaining mindful that the idea is the most important thing.”
One of the biggest pitfalls in the industry is “worshipping at the altar of wanky new tech” he warns.
Marc Lewis is tasked with scouting and develop strong characters. As he says, “in this industry people buy people”.
Next, he needs to tool these people to "futureproof" the industry. Thirdly, his students are expected to leave with a thick book of agency contacts.
The game hasn’t changed, but the players have. To him, it is vital to the UK’s advertising health that more agencies provide support to the school in some way (he says some 200 do). Themission is the latest agency on board, pledging to set briefs, dole out advice and offer placements to SCA students. Dylan Bogg, executive director at themission, outlined the value exchange. “For us, it means access to a pool of exceptional talent whilst SCA students gain valuable experience and insight.”
This is one of the “really well-behaved agencies that put into the system, nurture the students and take them,” Lewis adds. “We are very grateful for those”. Not everyone is playing ball, however. Lewis throws shade at the “sexy” agencies that pursue his students without supporting the school. “Parasites” he brands them.
Lewis has a mission to draw in “diverse talent”. Beyond gender and race, he is looking outside the London bubble, and at age, mental health, physical health, experiences and character. This year, around a third of SCA's students are supported by scholarships (12) and Lewis “absolutely” believes that his goal to get different voices in the room is linked to the school’s awards success. His students, or “mavens”, he says, learn more from each other than him.
In particular, he spoke fondly of a brainstorming process between two students, one 18-years-old, the other 43. The different cultural viewpoints, in his opinion, created a unique campaign from a wholly new perspective.
“The more I can fill my room with talented outgoing people with different cultural references and creative skillsets, the more that grows exponentially in the room and creates great products.”
From his perch, Lewis has observed notable industry changes.
“The agencies are shitting themselves, there are enormous job losses and mergers to be announced… they have lost their courage, there was a time when they were full of self-belief and understood audiences and brands and how to sell. The industry needs more confidence. The game hasn't changed, we have more choice, but it remains the same."
To this end, his students are increasingly forgoing agencies as their graduation destination. Media owners have become increasingly hungry for creative in the last five years, brands are having mixed success bringing talent in-house, and the management consultancies have sensed “weakness” in ad land says Lewis.
"If you are Facebook, or Google, or Deloitte, or PwC or McKinsey right now, then the weakness that agencies are presented can be an enormous opportunity for those who have the courage. Agencies have lost their courage, there was a time when they were full of self-belief and understood audiences and brands and how to sell, lead by phenomenal visionaries like John Hegarty and the Saatchis. Now a number of the agencies are not led by the same calibre of visionaries."
Notably, SCA’s last two major sponsors are the from the management consultancy side – and it may not be a coincidence that these industry intruders are now waging a talent war at the student level. For Lewis, the more the merrier; the school is always courting support for scholarships and funding.
Just two years ago he was shifting bottles of bubbly during Cannes Lions, guilt-tripping C-suites likely to spend a scholarship-worth of cash on fine French champagne.
Rosie Nathan, international creative and marketing head at Hearst Magazines, reflects on her time at the school. She remembers being plucked up for a scholarship after securing a classics degree that left her fewer job opportunities than she may have liked.
Nathan says: “I did every internship under the sun until I stumbled across copywriting and realised people will pay me to be creative and come up with ideas for a living.
“The SCA put me on the path I am now on. It gave me the start of the career. With the school's mentoring model, I was at such an advantage to a lot of other people who were starting. You have a little black book of some of the top names, even if they can't offer you a job they can give you advice or their take on your work or what direction you should be going and it allowed me and my creative partner at the time to actually get into the top agencies.”
She tells stories of the students having to use their wit to earn tables, even of assembling cardboard desks at the back of the church hall. These activities in her view prepared her for the realities of the industry.
“It massively prepares you for the real world, unlike a degree. Instead of an essay every term you are working on eight briefs a week, so you are not phased when you go to work because you are so used to it.”
Nathan was an early mover into media, as a strategist for Metro and now at Hearst. The SCA provided her access to try out different roles and agencies to discover where she fits in. “Money can't buy that,” she says.
In a parting piece of advice, she concludes: “My first two bosses were mentors I met at SCA, they came to me with jobs because I stayed in contact with them.
The full feature comprising top advertising schools and tutors appeared in The Drum's recently released Advertising issue. You can get your hands on it here.