SPARKing Conversation (and Hopefully More)

November 16, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Could CHI&Partners’ new recruitment scheme help create advertising diversity?

Every advertising conference for the last two or three years seems to have featured some discussion on diversity. Like so many industries, and shamefully more so than many, Adland has done poorly to welcome enough women and people from minority ethnic or underprivileged backgrounds into its ranks. Finally the agencies are starting to take tangible steps to remedy this though, and CHI&Partners’ new initiative is one that might help.

About a month ago they announced their new entry-level recruitment scheme, SPARK – appealing to ambitious people from all backgrounds to apply to come and work at the agency.

From school-leavers and young people with vocational as well as university training, to those moving into advertising from other industries, SPARK aims to attract diverse new talent to the agency – building on its skillsets and culture, and bringing new experience and thinking to its creative output.

The agency has stripped requests for CVs and photos from its application process. Instead, applicants are simply asked to answer four creative and strategic questions before coming to meet the team in November. A number of candidates will then be selected to begin working with CHI&Partners in January 2017, with another intake following in September 2017.

Applications were open last month. The selection process is underway and by 12th December successful candidates will be awarded places.

We asked Chief Executive and Partner Sarah Golding about the impact she hopes the scheme will make.

The Beak Street Bugle: Why did you decide to start SPARK?
Sarah Golding:
Not to be glib, but the world is changing. All ad agencies have traditionally hired graduates at entry level, but we’ve recently found – and you read about it in the news – that more and more bright young people are turning away from university, so only hiring graduates is limiting our talent pool in a way that maybe it didn’t 20 years ago. Bright minds can exist anywhere. We want the most creative and ambitious people out there in our industry, and in particular in our agency, regardless of their education or background.

It’s quite interesting when I think about my daughter. I did go to university and I never would have dreamed of not going. It was my way of getting out of Blackburn. I went to a really good university and I’m sure I got a great job because of that. But if I think about Florence today, who’s six, I’m not sure that she will have a better future if she goes to a great university. The world has moved on. It’s important that the advertising industry continues to attract the best creative talent that there is out there. That’s what I want this programme to ensure.

Also, we wanted to do our bit to promote diversity in the industry. You’ll probably have read that the IPA has set various targets – 40% of senior roles in agencies to be filled by women in 2020, and 15% of all roles to be filled by people from BAME backgrounds. I sit on the IPA council so of course I signed the agency up for that. But I wanted to do more as an agency, which is why we’ve removed photos and CVs from the SPARK application process.

If you’re going to continue to be relevant to a client as an agency you need to represent all aspects of society. And how can you be sure that you do get all those aspects of society if it’s not reflected in the agency? Our clients are selling to modern Britain so it’s essential that the agency is made up of modern Britain.

BSB: What have been the biggest obstacles to promoting that diversity in the industry?
There have been a few things. One is awareness. Everyone knows what a doctor does or what a teacher does, but working in an ad agency isn’t an obvious career for anyone growing up. My parents do not understand what I do at all. I think often unless you actually know someone in an agency it’s not a career that would cross your mind.

Access to work experience is another. Work experience is a great route into the industry, but only a very select section of the population can afford to work for free, which is what is expected too often. If you don’t have parental support it’s not a realistic option.

There’s always been that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,’ I’m afraid to say. And I’m not saying that is unique to advertising by any means. But how many times have I been asked to interview a friend of a friend or a client’s son or daughter? I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Therefore it’s not a surprise that we end up with an industry full of people from similar backgrounds.

Advertising leaders in agencies today are a very similar bunch, who come from similar backgrounds, who have followed a very similar educational path. I hope that if other agencies embrace our vision of diversity then the leaders of the future will be a properly diverse set of people, bringing different life experiences to the table. And that will help keep the industry fresh and relevant.

BSB: What have you done to make sure a diverse set of people is made aware of SPARK in the first place?
We’re communicating SPARK on all of our social platforms but we’re also reaching out more directly. For example we’re working with the Prince’s Trust to actively communicate the scheme to their database of young people. We’ve also been reaching out to colleges in traditionally underprivileged areas.

We had an open evening before the launch and it had only been out on our social channels for about a week and the agency was full of people. It was interesting how diverse a group that was, not just in terms of ethnicity, but also age. We had some people who hadn’t gone to university, who were still teenaged, some who were university or college age and some who had been working for ten years but had always wanted to get into this industry.

The recruitment process has become very lazy. People haven’t got time. It’s cyclical. It’s gets to that time of year and companies roll out the old recruitment programme. And some of them haven’t changed in decades.

Part of this is also about helping us to up-skill for the future. I think all agencies need to up-skill in areas where they haven’t historically been strong – tech, data analytics; we all need to embrace channel-agnostic creativity and collaborative work. This also enables that because it’s allowing you to fish in new talent ponds.


BSB: What can successful candidates expect?
We make sure everyone here learns on the job. So whatever department you’re in, you’re client facing almost from the get-go. We’ll put them into a pretty extensive training programme, which we pull together here across our group of agencies. It will also include enrolment in the IPA Foundation Certificate. Everyone will have a mentor in the agency for career development, but also a more informal body to support their transition into what could be their first full-time job, or just their transition into advertising from, potentially, another industry.

BSB: What do you think about positive discrimination or quota systems to push the diversity figures up?
SG: There are agencies or businesses that have historically been male dominated. I’m a female Chief Executive of a top agency. My board of partners is 50/50 male and female. I’ve got a creative department that’s got as many women in as it’s got men, so I don’t feel that I have to positively discriminate. However, I totally understand why people are doing that because you create a richer agency culture with both genders, diverse backgrounds, diverse skillsets. That makes for a more valuable creative culture. I want the best for the job, but I’m lucky because I’m in a pretty well balanced agency from a male-female perspective. I don’t think currently we’re a well balanced agency from a background perspective, hence the SPARK initiative.

At the end of the day I want this industry and my agency to get their share of the best creative talent out there and in order to do that you have to look everywhere.

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