Closing the talent gap in creative: a shared responsibility between agencies and schools

The constant change of the industry presents challenges and added pressure on the schools’ curriculum to keep up.

As the industry is constantly changing at speed, creative agencies that form collaborative partnerships with schools will enable future creatives to learn by doing and being a part of the process. This will go a long way in closing the talent gap in the industry, according to the creative leaders.

Design Bridge Singapore, which has a long-running commitment to only hire Singaporean junior designers and tries to be involved in various university project reviews and lecture programmes, has found that the curriculums of Singaporean design education can be quite abstract, focusing on design research and personal curiosity, rather than direct industry skill training or specific mock-client briefs.

“That has both benefits and disadvantages. One could say that it breeds a type of artistic independence and mental rigor that is very important in a free-thinking creative culture like Design Bridge,” Tim Siro, the executive creative director for Asia at Design Bridge Singapore tells The Drum.

“But it also means a graduate’s portfolio is usually quite detached from industry reality, so it makes it very challenging for agencies to assess a graduate’s aptitude for a specific role.”

Fresh graduates that The Drum spoke to, like Elizabeth Tsang, a new business executive at TBWA\ Group Singapore and a graduate from the Media, Arts & Design School at Singapore Polytechnic (SP), back up Siro’s observations.

Tsang says that growing her communications skills in terms of liaising with the people within the agency professionally is an area which she did not have the opportunity to learn in school since there is little to no client facing opportunities to practice professional communication.

“After working and observing how people communicated in the working world, I realized that there were many gaps in the way we students conversed,” explains Tsang, who began working at TBWA as a social media intern.

“With no proper emails drafted, it caused many miscommunications in the team and created room for poor accountability."

Whye Keat Loh, a junior designer at Design Bridge Singapore, admits that one of the greatest challenges he faced when he first joined the agency was the lack of confidence to share his work with his colleagues and directors.

However, the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Design and Visual Communications graduate from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), explains the fear he felt was easily overcome by the openness of the company, as during the ideation phase, discussions never made anyone feel left out as critics are always objective.

“It was also a really steep learning curve for me to adapt to the workflow of Design Bridge. Having had my earlier part of my work life in the media industry focused on video production, the same workflow was adapted into my designs during my university years,” he adds.

“So, having to adapt to the workflow in Design Bridge was a challenge; especially when working alone, the workflow is a fairly personal preference. Design bridge has a very comprehensive induction program which allowed me as a fresh graduate to transition smoother into the company and the real world.”

The schools on their part, are proactively trying to expose young talent to the industry. Design Bridge organizes the Design Bridge Showcase, which is part of Singapore Design Week 2019, to open students’ eyes to the 'beautiful intangibles of design'. It claims its mantra of ‘Truth and Dare’ is all about inspirational storytelling, bold ideas, and an obsessive curiosity as we dig for brand truth and creative originality.

72andSunny recently formed a partnership with LaSalle College of the Arts to diversify the learnings and opportunities for both students and the team at 72andSunny.

TBWA\ Group Singapore works closely with schools like SP, NTU and Glasgow School of Art to build opportunities that allow for practical application to help make their curriculum more robust. Some of these sessions include ideation workshops, live brief mentoring, pitch challenges, guest lecture sessions on important topics like strategy, branding, culture and data.

It has a 'Disruption Internship Programme', which creates customized learning paths for interns, track their working hours and note their comments after their feedback sessions with their supervisors.

The interns are also assigned to different departments to work on briefs, before presenting their work to their supervisors and the agency's leadership team.

In 2018, TBWA claimed to have interviewed a total of 174 students from 17 tertiary institutions and hosted 69 interns across various departments 10% converted to full-time roles.

Mandy Goh, who is the director of new business and talent development at TBWA\ Group Singapore, says these initiatives are important because the constant change of the industry presents challenges and added pressure on the schools’ curriculum to keep up, remain relevant and at the forefront of the communications industry.

She explains this is difficult due to the various layers of the approval processes schools must adhere to, which means lecturers coupled with the theories can provide a good foundation, but a practical application can only be achieved through working closely with creative agencies and industry players.

“Why wouldn't we invest when these students are our future talent? Students today are hungry to learn, which can be seen by many them learning various software on their own. When students are provided a chance to apply their skills, through an opportunity that allows them to create ideas, the results have been amazing,” she adds.

Concurring with Goh, Wong Pei Wen, a lecturer at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at NTU, notes that if universities have to prepare students for jobs of the future, their curriculum will need to adapt to significant shifts in technologies, platforms and new media trends to address the talent gap.

Wong, who spent time with O2 UK, Yahoo and Cisco in various marketing roles before entering academia, adds that there is a value from the insights shared by industry partners, real clients and creative agencies such as TBWA.

“(NTU and TBWA) multi-year partnership sees us working across various initiatives beyond the usual guest speaking opportunity here in Singapore and also at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity,” explains Wong.

“With deeper course collaborations, TBWA spends more time helping the students improve their craft and spark creativity in real-client projects. With this exposure and TBWA’s structured Disruption Internship Programme, TBWA is one of our students’ top picks for their school internship. In the past three years, a total of 25 interns have been placed with TBWA, with three converted to full-time.”

What about the agencies?

Agencies too, have a responsibility to guide future creative talent and expose them to the right tools to apply their knowledge if they are passionate and curious, tenacious, open-minded to collaborate, have an instinctive desire to learn, and question the status quo.

Goh says the first step is to create awareness of the ad world, the industry and the type of roles and opportunities the industry offers. She explains this allows students to see career opportunities they may not have thought of and helps to provide a perspective of how to apply their academic learnings from school with what they would like to achieve professionally.

For example, students studying motion graphics would never imagine that they would be able to work in a creative agency because their first port of call is using a production house. For computing students, who join agencies as creative technologies or data analysts, the agencies’ job is to show these students how their skills can be applied in a creative world.

“This process is achieved via our agency inductions where we share more about TBWA, our work, and people from different disciplines share their journey and what it took to get there. We also work closely with schools to build opportunities that allow for practical application to help make their curriculum more robust,” explains Goh.

Siro points out that as technology is rapidly and fluidly evolving, creative agencies tend to place considerably more emphasis on character traits, on a person’s personality, rather than on specific skill sets. "Is a person inspiring? Does their storytelling take you to a higher place? Are they confident in their own skin and make you feel relaxed in their presence?” he explains.

“Are they insightful in the way they look at the world? Do they possess an innate intuition to follow their creative instinct? In the creative industry, often, it is the intangibles that are more valuable than the tangibles. This won’t change, in fact, as AI replaces large parts of the detail-centric hard skills in the industry, these soft skills will be more valuable than ever.”

Matt Eastwood, the global chief creative officer at McCann Health, agrees with Siro, and adds that the Interpublic-owned agency is looking for people who are storytellers and do not necessarily have a background in creative.

He explains that with Amazon Alexa now open to doctors, it needs to recruit fewer creative people and more from tech industries because tech is going to play a big part in medicine.

“You don't have to be a graduate of a school of art and design or something like that. I'm very intrigued of talking to graduates and people from a technology background, for instance, because I think what is happening now in terms of the health industry is, medicine is very much moving into technology,” he tells The Drum.

How will the creative industry evolve?

The future of the creative industry will see the marriage of data, creativity and media drive future growth for clients, says Ara Hampartsoumian, the chief executive officer at TBWA\ Group Singapore, because while clients still value the big creative ideas, these ideas need to be braver and bolder and genuinely contribute to culture, to earn consumers’ attention.

“This is what will separate them from their competitors. The connection of brands and culture is key to be able to attract existing and new consumers,” he tells The Drum. “Ultimately our agency goal remains the same; develop communications that involve and locate our brands in culture via disruptive communications that will help secure a greater share of the future.”

One positive sign is that the marketing and creative industry is beginning to understand that in a world of disruption and flux, design and creativity is the true golden thread that connects everything a brand does.

“There is no doubt in our minds that design and creativity will have a more critical and expansive role in the marketing mix than ever before,” explains Siro. “The more a brand’s world fragments and the more difficult it becomes to establish distinctive memory structures, the more important the role of design to form that connective thread. We’re loving the changing dynamics of the creative landscape.”

This is part of The Drum's Marketer of the Future coverage for 2019. You can read our coverage here.

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