The improbable story of Marc Lewis, dean of the School of Communication Arts

Marc Lewis, dean of SCA

At the Chip Shop Awards this week, The Drum is honouring Marc Lewis, dean of the School of Communication Arts. The man is extraordinary.

When you first meet Marc, what do you notice? You notice the hair – it’s like he’s just plugged himself into the mains. Then there’s the trousers - good God, the trousers. Stars, stripes, colours...his legs dream of being deckchairs.

And there’s also the beady eyes behind unapologetic specs.

He keeps up a barrage of questions – it’s data capture – and if he thinks you may have something useful or usable to offer, he’s not bashful in asking for it. It’s not for himself, but for the SCA. The school.

Now the school is 10 years old, hence the award for Marc. It’s a congratulations on getting this far, plus encouragement to keep on going. Because no-one else could do it. They really couldn’t.

You see, Marc was a student at the school himself. This is what happened.

Education had failed Marc. He had zero GCSEs, zero A Levels. He simply couldn’t fit into the system.

He had a succession of menial jobs. He did bad things, the way you do when you’re skint.

Then, by chance, he saw an ad in The Guardian. He’d never read The Guardian before – someone had left it on a table in a canteen. The ad invited applications to the School of Communication Arts.

He applied, and John Gillard, the dean at the time, took him on, gave him a scholarship and showed him that he had a future – not as a copywriter, as it turned out, but as an inventor.

An innovator – someone who couldn’t stop having ideas.

He made millions (when I first met him, he drove a Bentley).

But then John Gillard died; he was already seriously ill when he gave Marc a place at the school and Marc was the last student enrolled before it closed.

Ten years later, Marc decided to start the school up again.

It was because of gratitude, of course, but also because of anger that the system still excludes so many potentially brilliant young people.

Now, his school doesn’t give a monkey’s about exams and grades. Instead they want to know if you’re interesting, if you have a point of view, and if you have ideas. If you have what it takes but come from a disadvantaged background, he’ll give you a scholarship.

About a third of all the students have had financial help – that’s where the money goes.

It certainly does not go on smart premises and IKEA furniture: the school started in a shed in Lambeth, and now it’s in the upstairs part of an old church in Brixton.

It’s all a bit rickety. There’s a fifty-fifty chance the toilets will flush. There are old sofas and chairs rescued from the tip.

But none of that matters.

What does matter is the students, and the people Marc dragoons into mentoring them and lecturing. They all turn up for free – even Rory Sutherland, the celebrity ad man who usually charges £3k to talk. Steve Henry, founder of Decoded, comes and fills the students’ heads with thoughts of subversion. Steve Harrison teaches how to think, Vikki Ross teaches how to write and Alex Taylor teaches how to design. There are hundreds more people who give their expertise and time because of Marc.

But things are getting harder.

Disruption has come to ad land and the big agencies are struggling. Those that used to give money to the school are now finding it difficult. So Marc has been turning his entrepreneurial skills to finding new ways to raise the funds for his scholarships.

But there has been a cost, and not just a metaphorical one. In the first year, the school received no government funding at all, so Marc funded it.

I remember the day I turned up at the school and Marc was uncharacteristically quiet.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s just the Bentley went this morning.”

He drives a Mini now.

But there has been a metaphorical cost, too. Marc has to have heart surgery and

when the surgeons open him up, they’ll find a heart the size of an elephant’s.

They’ll tell him to rest, and he might (for a bit.)

They’ll tell him to slow down, and he might (for a week.)

He’s already planning for the next academic year.

So, when The Drum gives honour to Marc Lewis, it’s to a man who has done more for creativity in the UK than any other single person.

If you want to pay your own respects, he’d prefer it to be with a cheque. In the meantime, give thanks that there’s someone out there inspiring a new generation of creatives who, I’m hoping, will keep the rest of us afloat.

Until 25 January, Patrick Collister was creative lead with Google Zoo EMEA

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