The School of Communication Arts is weird. Based on an upper floor of an old converted church in Brixton, there’s a distinctive community centre vibe about it. The studio is scruffy and open plan, with tables dotted around and groups of students working animatedly around laptops and notepads in casual groups. It couldn’t be further from the dusty libraries and lecture theatres of a traditional university. Yet it competes with every university in the country offering training in advertising. In fact, it beats them all. About 80 per cent of the school’s students get a job at a top-100 agency within six months of completing the course.
The school prides itself in being different from universities and its appearance is a clue. The atmosphere feels closer to an advertising agency than to a place of study. Having met the Dean, Marc Lewis, we’re sure that’s no accident. He told us exactly what SCA is and why, now in its sixth intake, he believes it’s the best place to prepare people for a career in creativity.
But how can creativity be taught? Many would see it as an innate talent – you’ve either got it or you don’t – but Marc and his school would disagree.
"I don't think creativity is any more innate than something like English,” says recent graduate Will Wells, currently on a placement at Wieden+Kennedy. “And yet this sense that creativity is unteachable prevails. Maybe it's perpetuated by 'creative' people worried at the thought that everyone can do it. I think it's a shame that a lot of people don't think they're creative at all; they convince themselves they don't have a capacity for it and so continues the notion that you're either creative or you're not. Luckily Marc doesn't share this view.” It’s helpful to think of creativity as a muscle, and SCA works it every day of the course.
Oli Rogers, another recent graduate now on a placement at AMV BBDO agrees that creativity is more than a genetic gift. “Creativity can absolutely be taught,” he says, “but not by being sat in a classroom or writing a load of essays. Obviously you need some talent to start off with, but hard work and perseverance make up about 95 per cent of advertising.”
Marc explains how these attitudes are put into practice at SCA. “It’s a very intense course,” he says. That sounds like an understatement. A three-year degree packed into ten months in the studio, followed by six months of placements is a daunting prospect, but the delivery of learning is completely different too. Their website reads: “We don’t behave like students, we are out-of-work creatives who want to become the very best talent of their generation. We don’t use text-books. There are no exams. We laugh at the idea of a dissertation.”
Based on the idea that the best way to learn a job is to do it, students at SCA work on briefs and stunts from day one. Like advertising professionals, not students. Along the way they receive advice and criticism from mentors working with them, drawn from a pool of over 700 industry professionals working in the industry, from copywriters to user experience experts.
Adam Newby, Will’s creative partner, insists that having done both undergraduate and masters degrees beforehand, nothing compares to SCA. “The course pushes you,” he says, “finds your limits. The teaching method – all mentors – may seem chaotic, but the course is put together with precision. While we were given a lot of freedom, there were some strict rules in place that drilled professionalism into us. We had to be at school by nine every morning, school hours ran the same as agency hours, the workload was huge and deadlines were deadlines. The course really does crunch three years into one.”
By the end of a frantic year they come to Portfolio Day, where their work is exhibited to perspective employers from agencies and six months’ worth of placements are arranged, which often lead to full-time jobs.
Naturally, Marc is proud of the school’s success in starting careers, but it’s easy to see why the school is top rated by the industry – it’s a part of it. “I think a lot of our secret sauce is how plugged in we are to our industry,” he says. A social enterprise owned by advertising agencies, their involvement with the people who work in advertising is far deeper than simply as source of graduates.
The school is supported by over 100 companies, mostly ad agencies, but there are experiential agencies, music agencies, media owners and tech companies in the family too. “They give us either money, knowledge or people,” explains Marc. “Those three things help us to create what we create.”
Money is vital, of course. Their financial sponsors keep the lights on and fund the scholarships – an integral part of the school’s ethos. Of 38 students in this year’s intake, he tells us that 11 are on scholarships. “That’s really important for us,” he says, “because we’re a very undiverse industry. We’re a very elite school but we want to be a very inclusive school.”
Redressing the imbalances of gender, class and ethnicity are goals the school is keen on pursuing, but they realise that you can’t entice people into an industry they have no idea exists. To tackle this, SCA recently started working with Commercial Break – an initiative that gives opportunities to underprivileged teenagers early on – while they’re still at school – so they can start working towards careers in communications early. Two of SCA’s current intake came from this programme – no giant leap, but a start in making sure the best talent flowing into advertising is from every background possible.
In fact, the school’s distinctive selection process is based partially upon their thirst for diversity. They say on their website, “We honestly couldn’t care less about your A-level results or your swimming certificates.” They select purely on character.
Oli describes the admissions process as “unlike anything I’ve experienced. An impromptu phone call several months after my online application, loaded with off-the-cuff questions ranging from the newspaper I read to stuff I did in my spare time,” he recalls. “After this stage I was invited to an interview day where I was instructed to ‘show my creativity on stage in four minutes.’ It was vague to say the least. I ended up making an omelette and then spent several gruelling hours working on a creative brief whilst being taken aside every now and then to answer questions from the in-house mentors. The end of the day was great. We were thrust in front of the current intake and asked to interrogate them about every single little detail about the school: good or bad. I respected Marc for that. I felt we got honest answers and I knew from then on that this was the school for me.”
Marc’s proud of the process. “We can come to a more accurate decision than ‘were they lucky enough to have come from a family that can get them into a good enough school, for example’ I don’t know that I agree that good grades necessarily make somebody bright. They might be able to store and regurgitate knowledge really well, but it doesn’t necessarily make them intelligent in the dimension that we’re looking for.”
SCA also relies on the industry for is knowledge. The school’s curriculum is run as a wiki and is continually changing according to what agencies are saying. “The industry are constantly feeding back to us what they want emerging talent to learn,” says Marc, “and our job is to aggregate or curate that knowledge, then transcribe it into an experience for the students. We’ll make sure the students are learning what agencies are telling us is currently relevant.”
Then the third way the industry supports the school is with people. The school maintains a network of over 700 volunteers, mostly from advertising agencies, who have signed up and committed to donating at least one day a year pro bono to come and share their knowledge and mentor the students.
Despite the careers they’ve started over their five years of teaching, SCA is still alone in its approach to teaching creativity. Marc wishes there were copycats out there though. “We want there to be a school like this for animation or creating video games or architecture. There should be lots of schools like this and I think one of my major frustrations is the inertia of industries coming forward to put money in a hat and start something like this. It’s so important for us as an industry PLC to create social enterprises that share the responsibility for preparing the next generation so that we can compete against our counterparts in Europe or America or India or wherever. So we would encourage it.”
Free-flowing creativity is misunderstood. One thing that SCA makes clear is that creatives are not born; they’re made. And, in Marc and his school’s view, a degree doth not a creative make, which is why students don’t receive any official qualification from the School of Communication arts, only the skills that earn them jobs. “The school makes you professional,” says Adam. “Despite its openness it really does create no-nonsense, hard-working creatives, used to a heavy workload. Juggling briefs is nothing new to an SCA grad. Neither are long hours.” What more could agencies ask for?