Oxbridge is not the problem

14_Boomerscafe Trip St John College 2

I went to a very nice industry do recently full of some really smart people taking about youth, including the wonderful Shaun Bailey. For some reason the conversation got onto what the advertising business is doing for young people given the appalling levels of youth unemployment in the UK. And two things really pissed me off.

The first was the level of utter complacency amongst the agencies present, all of whom patted themselves on the back about the bits and bobs they are doing with the odd school in Hackney. The other was the commonly voiced opinion that there are too many people from Oxbridge in the business.

Now I admit I am not entirely neutral on this subject as I went to St John’s College Cambridge and I am proud to have got there from what the Government so lovingly describes as a “bog standard comprehensive”. So this point of view is preordained to wind me up.

Saying that there are too many people from Oxford and Cambridge in advertising is effectively saying there are too many really smart, ambitious, imaginative and interesting people in advertising. Since, let’s face facts, if you want one of the best academic educations on earth these are a pretty good place to start.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against people that went to other universities, there is room for us all. But you can fuck off if you want to publicly nurse the colossal chip on your shoulder by slagging of people that did well in their A Levels. After all I don’t march around industry conferences whinging that there are too many people from Edinburgh or Manchester in advertising.

No, the problem is not that there are too many people from Oxbridge in advertising. The problem is that there are so few people in our business with different backgrounds, experiences and stories to tell and this is a far more systemic issue. If we really wanted to do something about this we would stop the arsey anti-Oxbridge back-chat and properly engage with the problem.

We would do something to challenge the ‘poverty of aspiration’ of many young people. It needs to be clearer that jobs in the media and creative industries abound and that the popular culture that surrounds them is delivered by millions of people in a huge variety of roles.

We have  to restore or create more ways of getting a break in the industry. Organisations like Commercial Break and the Ideas Foundation are amazing but there was a time that graduate recruitment was not the only way in and there were a plethora or starting jobs for young people. Advertising used to be full of people that had worked their way up from the post room, secretarial and running jobs but this route has been choked off by technology.

We need to use the intern system to provide breaks for less privileged talent to join the business rather than to curry favour with clients by offering these positions to their nephews and nieces. And to this end they all have to be paid.

We have to engage with the problem that kids without rich parents find going to a decent university hideously expensive full stop. I got to go to Cambridge because my council paid all the tuition fees and gave me a grant so I left with absolutely no debt. The system I enjoyed has been systematically destroyed.

And finally Oxford and Cambridge have to pull their weight too. The debate over admissions has been going on far too long. They have to sort out the issue that while 7% of the population go to private schools, 40% of their admissions come from the independent sector. If this does not change and fast sanctions need to be applied, I favour excluding candidates from private schools for a decade – but this may be too rich for your blood.

There is a lot of well meaning rhetoric in this business but very little real action beyond the tokenistic and totemic. The last time the make up of this industry changed in any significant way was in the 1960 with the influx of art school educated working class creatives and that is half a century ago.

 Image of New Court, St John’s College, Cambridge – my second year halls.



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18 Replies to “Oxbridge is not the problem”

  1. I agree. Agencies need to provide much better, structured, cross-disciplinary on-the-job training across the board. Not just creaming off the top layer to do IPA and D&AD courses. I joined the industry in a pre-digital era and benefitted from this. The explosion in the size, number and volume of agencies since then means many people have had to bring themselves up and it hasn’t helped that media planning and buying has been hived off. The bigger agencies and especially the media houses have a responsibility to support learning (particularly cross-disciplinary) and provide new kinds of entry points to the industry. We are one of the country’s largest and most vibrant sectors and above all we elders need to get off our a***s and enthuse about what we do to those in education and provide them with opportunities to be part of an industry that has treated us so well.

  2. Rachel, I couldn’t agree more about the need to get out there and enthuse about our business. Yes in schools but I wonder if it also needs to be done in broader media as well. It’s a bit crass but we need to put some of the sex back into the business, in a way that’s what attracted me – the quality of the work in the late 80s and the mystique of the industry.

    1. Agree 100%. So much so that I felt compelled to comment on this post (something I dont usually do).

      I started out in the old Bates post room in 2010, delivering post in a WPP building before getting a break as a planner at O&M soon after. So post room and running jobs like this aren’t just relics of the past and still do exist, supplying a lot of agencies with good talent. But, it’s true that you do hear less and less of these stories now.

      I think that one of the main reasons as to why there are so few people in our business with different backgrounds and experiences is BECAUSE there are so few people in our business with different backgrounds and experiences. Walking around a lot of agencies I can see how this would be off putting to people who perhaps would love to work in our industry but decide not to because they feel their face doesn’t quite fit. For me, the allure and the mystique of the industry was enough to help get me beyond this but whether it’s enough for others, I’m not sure.

      Brilliant post.
      Brilliant blog.

      1. Hey Jay,

        I too started out at Bates but many years ago. Even then I thought the start out in the post room thing was a scam. They paid 8K a year which even then was nothing. Nobody could afford to live in London on that wage so the whole graduate scheme became heavily if not completely skewed towards people with wealthy parents who grew up in the south east and invariably went to private school. This even excluded Oxbridge candidates from less wealthy backgrounds.

        I on the other hand got a job in the media department for a significantly higher graduate salary. Media was exempt from the graduate scheme as it was seen as beneath the quality of people they hope to attract to account management or planning. The post room route just wasn’t an option for me as I came from the north and from a family of modest means.

        However after a couple of years it became clear to me that these costed characters had zero intuition around the kind of populist brands Dorlands worked on (e.g. Safeway, Superdrug, B&Q. For example one old Etonian account exec suggested Superdrug should base their media plan around the ‘season’. What’s the ‘season’ I asked. You know ‘the Henley regatta etc’ she replied.

        Fed up with these clueless characters being on the fast track while I was knocking out media plan I eventually transferred to planning and it’s been not too bad since.

        Conclusion – I think a heavy skew towards southern people from wealthy background and nepotism are bigger issues than the presence of Oxbridge graduates in the industry.

        1. I love the idea of old Etonians creating a retail calendar around Henley for mainstream brands – priceless.

    2. Yes. And I think our current preoccupation with the mechanics and financials…especially of social engagement and aggregation… leave an awful lot less space for the allure. Then it’s only the big (but not necessarily great or interesting) things that make it through the monocultural blur to become talking points like the Christmas campaign phenomenon… It’s wandering off the point slightly but I also think diversity of background (and therefore thinking frameworks) is an issue on the client side. I am regularly depressed by a new generation of reductive, process-driven marketers who don’t get excited by creativity or recognise its inestimable value. But I am a jaded old dreamer…

  3. Jay, glad you did comment. Good to hear that you found a different route in and that that door hasn’t been completely closed. But it is also a reminder that we need to ensure more faces feel they fit and do better at communicating the allure and mystique of the business so its not just something you find out about in the final year at university.

  4. Internships will attract very middle class kids. Who else can afford to work unpaid in London, except without generous parental support? Love the way that many of these agencies are getting parents to pay for their junior staff (who, in many cases, are performing fee-earning tasks directly for clients for well in excess of 4 weeks). Abuse by agencies of the internship concept is a scandal. No-one should be on less than minimum wage. Anywhere.

  5. Interesting post. I’m glad you mention that there’s more diversity of background in the creative department (though not diversity of gender). I wonder why that is?

  6. Richard! How are you? We met in a coffee shop (I asked opinion for my portfolio). I moved back to Argentina and finally got to work as a planner. Things here are pretty much the same. Super tough to get in the industry. You get paid peanuts when you first start. With some friends we are trying to start a change, even if it´s a small one.
    I just thought I´d write you to say hi. Keep up the good work!

  7. I’m a Strategy Director and I don’t have a degree. I’ve worked in many professions and have mates from all sorts of backgrounds. I can empathise with people who are absolutely skint and unemployed as well as people whop have a bit of cash in their pocket.
    I believe empathy is one of the most important factors in being a strategist / planner so personally I’d prefer someone with a broad life experience rather than someone who’s taken the predictable route of good school to good university to good job.
    When I look at agency staff and see lots of Oxbridge graduates I see severe limitations in that agency’s ability to understand real people.

  8. Would you rule out somebody who got into private school on a scholarship and then went to Trinity College Cambridge? Is it that on a CV these institutions might appear to have moulded the individual too much for them to have a ‘diverse’ experience of the world, the world a planner must know intimately? How would you know that somebody like me spent their whole time battling against the myopic and exclusive nature of these institutions and was continually labelled ‘subversive’ purely for knowing that life experience within these establishments was not ‘normal’. I agree, my degree means absolutely nothing to the agency I am interning in at present. Indeed, there is even inverse snobbery to battle against. I know, however, that I am interested in people from all walks of life, and sometimes an ivory tower affords a comfortable birds eye view (although equally can act as a prison)from which you can see the bigger picture. I think it is more important to consider the Graduate’s attitude towards an Oxbridge/Private school education. They need to know what to harness and how to critically assess their life experiences. They merely need to be self-aware.

  9. I am not in the industry but it seems to be crying out for some “real” people who know what its like to live in the real world to have an input..the recent “Bingo” advert after the budget was highly patronising. I would’ve thought in the age of facebook/twitter etc it would be easy to see what trends/brands etc are popular or not and capitalise on them. I would say, however, we do need the Oxbridge set as well, having educated people on board is a positive, its just there should be more of a mix of backgrounds…

    1. Everybody in advertising is a real person – of some description. No one is more real than anyone else, though everyone has different experiences and perspectives and that’s why we need greater diversity in the business as a matter of some urgency. My point is that its idiotic and self defeating to have a strop about people that are clever entering the business. If anything we could do with more people that have been to Oxbridge and more people that haven’t been to university at all and just want to get on.

      By the way the offensive Bingo ad conjured up by the Tories after the budget was an in house job. Not even the most rabidly right wing ad person would have created that sort of patronising and woefully unfunny shit

      1. My apologies, I accept everyone is a “real” person – my perception of ad agencies tbh is that they are a bit pretentious but thats just my opinion. I think we’re all agreed that a mix of people from different backgrounds and experiences would be best, however, I would expect all of them to be clever and talented – the question is, how would the industry go about recruiting people from all walks of life? I’m also interested to know how you feel about integrity and honesty within the industry – would you be happy to promote a product you didnt feel comfortable with if it was going to make your company a lot of money? Or do you think ethics are playing a bigger part in the industry nowadays?

        1. Don’t worry I am desperately pretentious most of the time. I do think that ethics and integrity are playing a greater role in business full stop as sustainability becomes a key driver – not simply environment sustainability but the ability to deliver sustainable profit. But when it comes to advertising I feel that personal ethics are desperately important. We all know that we do a better job when we believe in what we are selling or communicating something that we believe in. PR may still be run on the old ‘barrister’ like model of all businesses deserve representation but my long experience is that advertising is not like this.

          1. Im sure ur not pretentious at all dahling….yes, I must confess I did look at advertising and PR as being in a similar vein but i think that advertising is such an influential industry that i am heartened to know that ther r people within th industry who care about ethics and social responsibility.

  10. Oxbridge is no more the problem than kids thinking the answer to every brief is a thumping hardcore soundtrack and cool street visuals. Especially when the product is bought by men in their 50s. Or a bunch of blokes thinking cleavage is a great way to appeal to the Mumsnet crowd.

    Oxbridge people do not have a monopoly on prejudice or idiocies. Everyone has them. Personally I think we need more, better educated people in the industry as much as we need not to be so much in awe of young people who, through lack of experience, get it spectacularly wrong as often as they are innovative. Think you’ll find most of the celebrated social media disasters over the past 2 years were simply the result of a lack of experience and common sense. Oxbridge has nothing to do with it.

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