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Apprenticeships matter to the marketing industry – just ask an apprentice

To mark National Apprenticeship Week, Darnell Buckle, an apprentice at BTL Brands, shares what agency life has taught him so far.

With university dropout rates for UK students on the rise, a spotlight may be able to shine a little more brightly on apprenticeships. A lot of people’s preconceptions about apprenticeships are that when you come on board, you’ll just be making tea and be looked down on. They are often perceived as the ‘lesser’ option compared to a formal education. This hasn’t been the case for me.

I’m treated as an employee, not an assistant. And I can safely say that, 18 months in, I’ve not had to make a single cup of tea for anyone. It’s been a challenge, that’s for sure, and I’ve had to push myself while thinking on my feet to make the right decisions. However, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Here’s my story.

It all started in my final year of secondary school when everyone was filling out college applications. At the time, I assumed that I would take the normal path of going to university. But when I found out that I would get paid for learning on the job, I knew this route was right for me.

What really drove me to take an apprenticeship was the opportunity to be immersed in a variety of experiences and learn skills across different disciplines. I didn’t like the idea of going to university to study just graphic design – to be honest, the thought of it gave me anxiety. I currently practice graphic design, photography and videography and while my studies revolve around graphic design, I get the flexibility of using different skills at any one time.

No matter how many books I read or YouTube tutorials I watch, for me, nothing beats gaining real experience. Just being in the presence of my boss (Stu) and a group of talented creatives and strategic thinkers, I’m actively absorbing information often without even knowing it. Watching them deal with clients, seeing them come across problems and find solutions – these are things that I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up in any detail or colour in a university lecture room.

Most graphic design students will spend three or four years doing mock projects with a made-up client and brief. I was thrown into the deep end with real clients, real deadlines and real consequences if we don’t deliver the right results. I was shocked to see how difficult and confusing working with clients can be. I’ve learned that not every project is going to run smoothly and that’s OK, you just have to stay calm and focused, working through every problem as it arises.

I’ve been given the opportunity and resources to do things I know I would not have been able to do this young and this early on in my career. I’ve been entrusted to film and direct video shoots abroad, which has been awesome. The shoot for our fitness and wellbeing client was a pretty steep learning curve. We had to be up at 4am to organise the crazy amount of equipment we were taking to the south of France and catch our flight. We shot throughout the day and into the night, followed by a 6am alarm call to go running (literally) with the client around Nimes with my video camera to the point of being sick (I’m a sitter not a runner). As exhausting as this was, it opened my eyes to the fact that in this industry, sometimes late nights and early mornings will be required outside of the usual nine-to-five. I’m constantly being tested but I’ve learned that it’s the only way to learn and it has helped me grow in confidence too.

I think the most rewarding thing about this apprenticeship (yep, I know it sounds cliched) is that I’m being paid to do what I love. If I had a nine-to-five retail job I feel I wouldn’t have the time to really explore my creativity. Right now, I’m improving every day as I work. I've been trusted with real work without the safety net of calling myself 'just a student', which has been a huge confidence boost for me. A survey by Recruitment International found that 76% of employers are willing to make an offer of a full-time position to apprentices, following the completion of their apprenticeship, which is encouraging. And as a young person I’m able to earn money and even save. If I’d gone to university and got a degree I’d be in serious debt. My family can also see a maturity in my personality that might not have progressed so quickly if I was still a student.

But I’m not the only one getting a whole lot out of this. My colleagues say that it’s refreshing working with me. I’ve been told that what I bring to the table is actually something I lack: formal training. I will approach each new project as a blank canvas without any pre-conceived ideas of what is right or wrong. My agency gives me the freedom to follow my instinct. Yes, I’ll usually zig-zag (with a few pivots along the way) but I will sometimes come up with an unexpected solution to a challenge that’s very different to that of the creative team.

To many people an apprenticeship may still seem like the ‘lesser’ route to forging a career. I don’t agree. It’s not a bad career choice, it’s just a different path that more often than not, leads to the same place in less time with less cost. There’s beauty in the unconventional, anyway. A true creative will always think different to the status quo. For me an apprenticeship really is a good example of ‘less is more’.

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