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‘It’s vandalism’: dean of ad school asks talent poachers to give back

Dean Marc Lewis warns agencies that if they keep shoplifting, the shop can’t keep restocking forever without going bust

The School of Communication Arts is in dire straights, recording a loss of £200,000 this year. Its dean, Marc Lewis, is appealing to agencies who ‘shoplift’ talent to give something back to help the school continue to produce great creatives.

I was obliged to be quite forceful with an agency leader last week. After six years of trying to persuade his profitable, global agency to sponsor scholarships, including some years in which we educated two of his sons, we were getting nowhere.

So we sent the agency leader a list of the School of Communication Arts (SCA) students who have found their way into his network. The list was long into the dozens, including many, many scholarship beneficiaries.

This leader’s boss replied saying that he has the greatest respect for what SCA does, but is not willing to contribute towards the diversity that our school provides.

I got angry, snapped and called this person a shoplifter. Worse, he’s a shoplifter who has been taking talent from the industry’s charity school.

The school was forced to close in the 1990s because agencies abused it. When an agency takes dozens of students, without contributing towards the cost of educating them, it puts us in peril of closing again.

So it’s not just shoplifting, it’s vandalism.

A few weeks ago I discovered that the school recorded a loss of nearly £200,000 this year. I borrowed £300,000 so that we could keep making great work, extending this school year and last so that our students weren’t too disadvantaged by Covid-19.

We’ve awarded over 100 scholarships in our first ten years, bringing more diversity to the industry than any other portfolio school, while winning more awards than any other ad school on the planet. Sometimes we had to pay for housing for those scholarship students. Other times, they lived at mine. Whatever it takes to bring great and diverse talent in.

It’s been the right thing to do. Many of our scholarship students have become valuable contributors to our industry, creating a path for future talent to follow. Most of them understand the school’s North Star – reciprocity – and keep giving back, with time, support and introductions.

More recently, with the creation of an online school, we set ourselves the ambition of sharing hundreds of scholarships every year. We’ve created products that allow people who are juggling jobs or who are carers to follow our intense curriculum at their own pace so that we can continue to drive diversity. We won a grant in which we can double up the money we raise from the industry when we award scholarships to talent in our local, and very diverse, community.

Keeping the school running, performing at the top of the game, has nearly killed me. Twice. I’ve had two rounds of heart surgery and must have a third go this summer.

This school is a lifetime’s work. I won a scholarship to this great school in 1993 and I owe it everything. It is an honor to have brought the school back to earning a reputation for constantly turning out great, diverse talent. It is an honor to teach alongside my classmate Pete Cain, who also wouldn’t have made it without a scholarship.

I will not allow shoplifters and vandals to bring us down again.

Shoplifters will be prosecuted.

If your agency is full of SCA talent (most of the great ones are) and you haven’t contributed to our survival, then you are playing a part in our downfall.

I don’t want to name any names or blame anyone, because it’s perfectly possible that some agencies didn’t realize they were shoplifting from a charity shop. Vikki Maguire, now at Havas, genuinely believed that we were a school for rich kids until she gave me the opportunity to explain our model of reciprocity – and how it ensures that one in three of our students receive scholarships. Now she’s a convert.

I am very grateful to Gordon Young and his team at The Drum, who are crunching through ten years of data to show where our fantastic talent has worked, and which agencies have benefited the most, in spite of putting in the least.

If you think that your agency might be one of them, please get in touch. If you ask any of our sponsors, they will tell you that they get more than 10 times the return on their investment with us. If you ask us, we will show you how. If you are spending any money on training or freelancers, it’s very, very easy to do the right thing.

It’s much better than shoplifting. If you keep shoplifting, you should know that this shop can’t keep restocking forever without going bust. That’s why all shoplifters will be prosecuted.

Don’t get me wrong. Take our brilliant students and launch them into glorious careers. They deserve a diverse pool of employers as launchpads. Just step up and put something back into the pot when they create value for you, or when you realize that you’ve taken nearly 40 of them.

Marc Lewis is founder and dean at the School of Communication Arts.

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