Polymath, world-renowned chicken-breeder, lacrosse-captain, Gaelic-dancer, Lord McKelvey is many things, but one thing he is not is patient: “Spooner, you spineless worm! I need a column on how we are to attract more young people into this appalling yet remunerative industry. Jump to it!”
It does not do to dally when Lord McKelvey demands his due. So, even though I was in the capital, scrabbling a pound or two together at various ‘top agencies’, the request was naturally front of mind when I met my old friend Sheridan (names have been changed to protect the guilty) at the bar of London’s astonishingly expensive Langham Hotel in Portland Place (Sheridan has the kind of expense account we mere mortals may only dream of).
Purple of waistcoat, florid of complexion, floppy of hair, Sheridan is one of the most entitled men in my vast and varied circle of acquaintance. Founder and managing partner of one of the world’s most successful agencies, he, surely, will have the facts I need to satisfy the Decision Marketing editor…
“Bwahhhhh! Spooner you amusing grotesque! How are you?,” he bellows from the depths of a vast, mauve, velvet armchair, “Come! Have one of these Gin & Golden Beetroot cocktails and amuse me with tales of your pitiful life!”
I wait until the third Gin & Golden Beetroot cocktail has disappeared inside the purple waistcoat before asking my question and when I do, the answer is a little surprising.
“How to attract young marketers to your business? Bah! It’s simple! Be better, you hopeless toads. Simply be better.” When asked to elaborate, Sheridan launches into the following oratorical crescendo, his plump fingers and chins wiggling becomingly, as he speaks: “Young people? Forget the fact that we make them work for us for nothing when they start their careers. Forget the fact that merit does not matter, when the hapless, privately-educated, sons and daughters and godsons and goddaughters, and nephews and nieces and friends of friends of every last insignificant client bags the best of the placements that we do not pay them for.
“Forget craft coffee and croissants and flexible working and office dogs and guinea pigs – for the love of Jesus – and yoga and tennis leagues and Friday drinks trolleys laden with warm Beck’s. Forget, even, flexible working hours and WFH and peer reviewed promotions and all that fal-de-ral.” He gestures extravagantly.
“Forget planned career paths and mentoring and endless, earnest lip-trembling conversations about ‘How does that make you feel, though?’ amongst the aspidistras and ball-pits of the break-out area with super-sensitive and considerate HR people who have ‘only their best interests at heart’ as they manage them both into and, more importantly, out of the business.” He twinkles.
“Forget, especially talent and efficiency and good manners. Forget connectedness and a minimum number of social media followers and digital awareness and fingers on pulses and a Weltanschaung that is instinctively attuned to the Zeitgeißt. Forget their pitiful Personal Statements and the finagling of a job at an uncle’s furniture store into ‘an understanding of the consumer at the point of interface, pre-and-post-transaction’.
“Forget all of this! Another of these excellent Gin & Golden Beetroot cocktails may help you to forget, dear Spoon!
“Forget every last thing that you have ever been told about how to attract the very best young talent into this god-forsaken industry of ours as dear Martin Sorrell’s robot advertisers march towards us with their impassive, dead, bulldog faces made in their master’s image.
“The only way to attract young talent into our business is to be good at it.
“That is why <Name redacted>, <Name redacted> and I were able to sell our business to the <Name redacted> global network for a sum that allows me to treat you to Gin & Golden Beetroot cocktails in the bar of the Langham, dear boy.
“How do you think we do it? How do we have the finest young minds from the finest universities in the land clamouring and all but paying us (now there’s a thought) to work at our agency every summer?
“Is it because of the roadshows that we run at careers’ fairs at those top universities? NO!
“Is it because our Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram and Reddit feeds are full of deliciously-contrived click-bait, endlessly re-imagined by ever-smarter algorithms to attract these young people? NO!
“Is it the guinea-pigs? THRICE NO!!!
“It is simply because we hire planners who can plan, account managers who can manage accounts and creative people who can create.”
He pauses for breath and a further Gin & Golden Beetroot cocktail disappears between his luscious, pouting, perfectly-curated lips.
“Yes, reputation matters and having the courage to fire recalcitrant clients matters, and keeping one’s ear to the ground matters. Of course they do, but the fact is that most agencies and most client marketing departments are, frankly awful. They always have been and no doubt always will be.
“Only a few agencies like <Name redacted> will occasionally enjoy a period of ascendancy, which allows men like me (and it is generally men) to make vast profits and acquire agreeable country estates where we can retire and go slowly mad.
He pauses to order more Gin & Golden Beetroot cocktails.
“Young people instinctively know all of this, Spooner, which is why so many of them open pop-up garlic waffle restaurants in Shadwell, or winkle-mead breweries in Whitstable – but, equally, fifty years ago, these waffle and mead merchants would have joined the Army or VSO or, god help us, the Socialist Workers’ Party or CND.
“A brief illusory boom has given young people the misguided impression that a career in advertising or marketing will allow them to express their creativity and acquire a mortgage on a converted lock-up in Cricklewood.
“And for the lucky few that may well be the case.
“But for every Jocasta or Tarquin who finds themselves living the dream and working on a prestige car or airline account. There will be a thousand, perhaps ten thousand others who simply perpetuate the cycle of incompetence and entitlement that makes the business so very unattractive to young people today.
“So in answer to your question, Spooner, in answer to McKelvey’s question (How IS the old scapegrace?) there is only one straightforward, honest and useful answer:
“Be better at what you do – as an individual, as an agency, as an industry. If you set high standards you will attract clever, talented, young people. You just have to be aware that the light of good fortune will still only shine on you for a limited period of time – and all you can hope is that the period of time you are allotted is sufficient for you to be able to get out with a golden parachute and your sanity intact.
So that’s it. That’s “Sheridan’s” message. Be better. It could be that he is right. I wouldn’t like to say, not least because, were I to attempt to say it after several Gin & Golden Beetroot cocktails, it would probably come out as “Biddly-botter-boogle”, or the like.
Floating on a refulgent, sparkling miasma of Gin & Golden Beetroot cocktail-fumes, I made my way to Oxford Circus Underground Station for the Tube to Victoria and the “Brighton Belle”.
Sad, drawn faces loomed at me from the autumn haze, the faces of the young people who only now were leaving their agency hot-desks after an at-hot-desk-supper of unripe avocado and stale sour-dough toast washed down with cold Chia Latte.
How do we attract more of these unfortunate apparitions into our industry, more than are already here, bent double with woe?
“Biddly-botter-boogle.” That’s how.
Jonathan Spooner is consulting creative director at Spoon Creative Ltd