Work & Wellbeing

Creativity doesn’t see class, so why does advertising?

By Niki Herring |

June 16, 2022 | 7 min read

Just one in 10 people working in media and marketing don’t have a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification, potentially shutting out tens of thousands of talented youngsters each year. Niki Herring, director of the UK’s only all-female influencer agency ChannelMumTalent.com, is one of them – and she’s worried the industry isn’t improving.

I grew up in a single-parent family on a Gloucester council estate and made it to the top without a degree. But we’re rare, and I wonder what it will take for the industry to give young working-class talent a chance.

University

Only one in 10 people in adland don’t have a bachelor’s degree / Image via Unsplash

Today is National Social Mobility Awareness Day, but with just 12% of creative industry staff hailing from working-class backgrounds, there is still much work to be done.

Despite more than half the nation identifying as working class, the odds against making it in media and marketing are heavily weighted against applicants from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The result? Our job may be selling to others, but we’re selling ourselves short.

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The UK government’s research shows you’re still 60% more likely to get a professional job if you’re middle class than from a working-class background. And even more worryingly, only one in 10 people working in our sector get to their position without a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification, potentially shutting out tens of thousands of talented youngsters each year.

Creativity isn’t defined by class, so access to our industry shouldn’t be either.

As we all know, success in our sector needs focus and flair, empathy and determination – plus the ability to think quickly and analyze incisively. These qualities are not exclusive to middle- or upper-class kids. I firmly believe that talent is distributed equally but opportunity is not, so how can we do better to uncover these ‘rough diamonds’?

First and foremost, the way we recruit has to fundamentally change. The cozy cabal of work experience, unpaid internships and networking builds a barrier to entry so high that few working-class kids can scale it.

If you’re growing up on benefits in an estate in a northern city or in rural poverty, you have no chance of scraping the money together to fund a London internship, and no useful network of contacts to recommend you.

Instead, we need a much more modern system to highlight roles and widen the access to opportunities for all. Direct access routes such as apprenticeships or paid work experience that includes fees for accommodation, travel and food – plus annual bursaries – are a great start to encouraging a more diverse range of young people into the media.

A few forward-thinking firms have also begun to offer virtual work experience that young people can log on to from anywhere, breaking down barriers to access. These small steps all combine to make a big stride forward.

But let’s discuss the universal problem of uni degrees. The vast majority of job ads still ask for them, but are you losing out on the best talent by insisting on this?

I’d like to see a complete change where hiring managers consider whether a job really needs a degree – or can candidates prove themselves another way? As an industry, we can collectively make the most of other ways to screen applicants such as psychometric testing or work trials. Degrees should not be compulsory for many roles. It’s the ability that really counts.

Next, let’s consider the often-overlooked soft skills. Middle-class children are brought up to navigate the professional world and are well used to the ways of behaving at work. If you’re the first in your family to have a job, it will be a very steep learning curve indeed.

Many privileged middle-class people don’t even realize this soft skills gap exists, which is exactly why we all need to do much more to close it.

To make a quick change, firms should consider partnering with local schools in low social mobility areas and working with one of the social mobility charities offering soft skills training for secondary school children across the UK. Thetalenttap.com and Makingtheleap.org.uk are good places to start.

There is also so much more we can do within our own organizations. We’re used to seeing everything from LGBTQ+ to BLM networks at work, but why is no one discussing the one thing that impacts us all – class?

If your business is big enough, setting up your own social mobility network is relatively simple and can reap immediate rewards. You may be surprised how many people have kept their own background quiet until now – but will be willing to help others.

And don’t forget the one impact you can make solo. Mentoring is a brilliant way to help working-class youngsters navigate the ups and downs of our industry. You can be a professional advisor, a sounding board for fresh ideas, a referee for job roles and their biggest cheerleader once they succeed.

I personally mentor two young women working in the media and it’s a virtuous feedback circle for all of us. But ensure you keep up the relationship after the official mentoring period has ended. Be there to support and sustain their personal and professional growth.

It’s really not that tough to create change.

With a few tweaks to the way we recruit and a fresh mindset, we can give career opportunities to the widest possible talent pool, which will benefit companies, clients, our nation’s children – and build a better future for all of us.

And a final thought? Remember a working-class kid has further to climb. If they’ve already made it as far as considering our industry against the odds, how much further can they go? A person that embodies drive, savvy and determination is exactly the kind of employee the industry needs.

Niki Herring is director of ChannelMumTalent.com.

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