What’s it Like to be the Last of a Species?
A week ago, a man who I saw as a great competitor for nearly 30 years announced that his school was no longer viable and had to close. Tony Cullingham ran Watford Ad School when I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to study under the late, great John Gillard at the School of Communication Arts. The rivalry in the early 1990s was like Spurs and Arsenal, and it motivated us to keep producing brilliant students.
John was very ill when he ran SCA and the school closed soon after I left. I had the joyous opportunity to reopen his school and start competing with Watford again.
When we reformed, our first objective was for our students to produce better work than Watford. We wanted our grads to leave with sharper ideas, and with books that were more geared for the modern age. When I welcomed our first cohort back in 2010, I estimated that Tony had been running Watford for over 20 years, and that this would be one of the key advantages that we could take in beating one of the best Portfolio Schools on the planet.
My other key weapon was scholarships. I wanted to repay the debt that I owed for the help I was given in 1993, and I am incredibly proud of the fact that SCA has been able to help more than 120 people into exciting careers through scholarships and the occasional bursary. It’s a weapon, because the diversity that I have been able to attract gives us a competitive advantage over Watford and also the universities.
Generally, I don’t see most universities as a threat to SCA because the quality coming out is well below a level that either Tony or I would find acceptable. There are always one or two good students on most courses, and there are one or two good courses, but the university model doesn’t deliver reliably and doesn’t innovate fast enough. It also fails miserably with diversity, in the truest sense of the word.
The practice of agencies running training programmes in house, however, is a huge threat to SCA and to the quality of creativity over the next few years. We lost Ogilvy as a sponsor a few years ago, when they closed Nicole Yershon’s brilliant Lab (our benefactor) and set up their own course. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, but we are still holding our breath and waiting for a graduate of their course to break through.
The problem with these programs is not just that they could never deliver to Portfolio School quality, but more tragically that they cause harm to these schools. These agencies use their resources to advertise for students in ways that Tony and I could only dream of, making promises that we can’t make.
There is something quite special about working with a cohort of students from very diverse backgrounds, striving to produce brilliant portfolios, taking them towards a broad spectrum of agencies. Indeed, some of our students don’t end up in agencies at all. They start companies, like Appear Here, which was started by one of our students whilst at SCA and is now worth tens of millions.
At Cream this year, the competition in which global CCOs and ECDs score the portfolios of graduates worldwide, SCA students represented 50% of the talent on show. This matters for the UK creative industry, because we are competing against the Miami Ad School franchise, and against great Nordic portfolio schools. There are courses in Asia that keep me on my toes, and you couldn’t help but notice Latin America as a permanent force at D&AD New Blood.
What’s it like to be the last of a species? It feels bloody scary.
I see agencies who run in house courses a bit like people who cut down large parts of forests, because they are damaging the ecosystem. They fail to produce the quality of output that would justify their vandalism, and they probably don’t see it as such.
I wrote recently about how I view agencies who take our graduates (especially our scholarship students) without contributing towards the ecosystem as being like shoplifters. Stretching my forest analogy, I see them more like the creepy old men who steal eggs from birds’ nests, hoping to hatch them back at home.
If this sounds melodramatic, let me explain with an example from this same week that Tony was forced to close Watford.
A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of meeting Ally Owen, who was about to go on a journey starting something called Hoxton Finishing School and focusing on the digital world near where she lives and works, and which had become London’s Silicon Valley. I begged her to rename it Brixton Finishing School, and it was born inside the SCA. The reason why I was so invested in helping BFS become a force for good is that it helps us find and filter talent for SCA scholarships.
We’ve had many success stories between BFS and SCA, bringing students into the industry who were trained by the very best faculty of any ad school. This year, not one of the BFS grads put their name down for a scholarship, simply because they were attracted to the various agencies’ in-house learning opportunities. The reason for this was money. Quite rightly, they see the benefits in earning whilst learning. Talent in their teens or early-20’s can easily have their head turned for a few hundred pounds a month in their pockets.
However: there is hope.
Covid taught SCA to move online, which means that we now have a fantastic Distance Learning version of what we deliver every day in London. This has enabled us to reach talent globally, and also discover talent locally who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to attend. Last year’s Black Pencil winner at D&AD studied with us remotely, whilst becoming a father for the second time and juggling a full time job.
If we are the last of the species, we have taken the decision to diversify even more. Look out for a number of new products from the SCA over the next few months, all engineered to help us unlock the creativity within humanity.
Often, when a species is under threat of extinction, there is a fund-raising surge. We are not a charity, but I beg every brand to challenge their agency to support us, and I urge every agency, brand and media owner to explore how supporting us is not charity, but promises an immediate return on investment, whilst benefiting an ecosystem in which (for now) the UK is still a global leader.
I don’t want to end up in a museum, like other extinct animals. Please protect Portfolio Schools.