Finding the Future

26 Nov

I am depressed. Not medically, just when I think about the emerging generation who, one day, hope to be doing our jobs. I remember the summer and autumn of 1990. I had a zeal for advertising that bordered on fanaticism. I would read Campaign Magazine cover to cover in Willesden Green Library because I couldn’t afford to buy it. I would spend half of my dole on Magic Markers. I would walk to Brent Cross to buy food for me and my Grandma (I lived in her spare room) and would stop at every billboard on the way and drink in the words and the images and marvel at how they played together, magically, to create advertising. I stood in silence in an office at BBH as Russell Ramsay and John O Keefe leafed through my portfolio and took every word they said as gospel. When Ramsay re-drew a layout for me, it felt like it had been touched by God. Without banging on any more, I had a passion – a calling. I fixated on my goal – a copywriting job in a London ad agency – and I let nothing get in my way.

So why am I depressed? Last week I gave a talk to media studies students at a major university on the outskirts of London. The talk was not to sixth formers for whom media studies was one of their modules, these were kids who have decided on media as a career choice and who have convinced a university entrance panel that they have the chops to realise their dreams.

It was the second time I had spoken at the event and my hunch that today’s universities are every bit the same as any other business was confirmed. Basically, if you (or your parents, or the Local Education Authority, or the bank) have the money, you can come on the course. The result of this is that the job market, which remains as small as it ever was, is now flooded with ‘graduates’ who really have no hope of employment. Meanwhile, the public bemoan the plight of these unemployed graduates as if employment is the birthright of everyone with a degree. What has happened is this: the universities’ greed has devalued both the concept of university and the degrees these institutions issue. Surely somebody has done the maths – twenty years ago, there were far fewer universities, far fewer graduates and much less graduate unemployment. Those who didn’t make the entry grade got jobs, or undertook vocational training, or re-sat their A-levels.

So, cut to 2013 and I’m sat in a room filed with media students. Let us for a moment consider the media. It is a vast swathe of industries that includes magazines, TV, PR, advertising, web, film. When we think of people in those industries, are they quiet? Shy? Bored? Indifferent? Dull? Did they drift into it because there was nothing else to do? Did they identify their own lack of drive and realise that they were perfectly suited for a job in the media? I marvel at what these students (many of whom texted and checked Facebook during my talk) must have said at their university interview to convince the board that they were the moguls of the future and I am depressed that a university should be so content to take the money and run.

Of the eighty students I spoke to, two asked for my business card. One emailed me. Last year was similar. One student only showed up because he loved Mad Men so much. ‘I want to be Jon Hamm’ he said. ‘He’s an actor’ I told him. ‘A good one.’

At HHCL, someone applied for the job as tea girl by drawing a picture of a flower. She got the job instantly and at the end of her gap year was instructed by Adam Lury, the L of HHCL to return as soon as she had a degree, regardless of what it was in or what grade she got. Maybe he knew even back then that the right people are hard to find and that any number of cash dollars and years of study can’t make the wrong student right for a job in advertising.

On a more cheerful note, my agency is looking for an intern. Terrible hours, almost no pay. The suitable candidate needs to be bright, fun, sparky, quick, enthusiastic and show initiative. I’m not even sure if that person exists. The simple fact that our phone has not rung with a student on the end of it in the four months since I have been here suggests I am right. And that’s why I am depressed.

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