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According to The Media Leader, is a degree required to work in the media and advertising?


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Rishi Sunak has vowed to crack down on “rip-off degree courses”, that don’t lead to good jobs and leave people with high debts. How much does having a degree matter for job in media or advertising?

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There is a well-documented disparity between the ad industry and the wider UK population on many fronts, but it’s particularly apparent when it comes to socio-economic background and education.

For example, the latest All In Census found 72% of advertising professionals have a degree, compared to 42% of the population. The same data showed 19% of ad industry employees have attended a fee-paying school, compared to 8% for the overall population. These metrics are flat compared to the All In Census 2021. Meanwhile, just one-fifth of this industry identifies as being from a working-class background, compared to 40% of the UK population.

There had recently been evidence, however, that this disparity was changing. In 2021 the Advertising Association’s All In group revealed younger cohorts joining the industry were “less likely” to have attended private school, but it highlighted “a key factor that is underpinning the lack of socio-economic diversity” within the industry is the tendency to recruit graduates.

Then last month the UK Government committed last week to crack down on “rip-off degree courses”, defined as those with high drop-out rates which leave people with poor pay and high debts. But will this help encourage the industry to widen access to people without degrees, or will it simply worsen inclusivity by closing off access to people who don’t want to study traditional subjects?

Do we have an over-reliance on graduates?

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Sharon Lloyd-Barnes, commercial director and inclusion lead at the Advertising Association (AA), reckons Sunak has triggered a bigger question for the advertising industry — not just about whether you need a degree to do the job itself, but about the over-reliance on graduates in the workforce.

She considers herself “really lucky” to join the industry at 19 without a degree and that the agency she worked for had both a graduate scheme and “opportunities to prove yourself” without a degree. “If one of our industry’s core skills is problem-solving, shouldn’t the recruitment process be adjusted to identify that as a priority?” she asks.

Lloyd-Barnes emphasises a need to reach school age talent to promote the diverse range of roles and exciting careers available in advertising. The AA is exploring a campaign around this but Lloyd-Barnes says wider recruitment is only part of the solution and that the industry needs to support and nurture talent once in the role, too.

The need for wider recruitment policies is echoed by Jamie White, deputy sales director at Pearl & Dean who left school at 16 and started in a sales role at Emap before moving to Bauer Media.

“Not having a degree has never held back my professional progression, but the media industry as a whole has the responsibility to ensure people are being recruited from diverse pools and without judgement,” White says. “Blind CVs, which we have adopted at Pearl & Dean, are a great way forward in tackling unconscious bias, and should be adopted more broadly to ensure we consider people based on their skills and experience, rather than any other quality we might personally value.”

While White is clear that degrees offer value, they are not as essential to work in media as work experience. He recalls how he “soaked up” all the knowledge and skills from his peers when he started.

However, White warns that, without a degree, getting your foot in the door is “the hardest part” which is why work experience and learning on the job is so important, and in line with this, he has been involved in the Pearl & Dean apprenticeship scheme and Cinemasters programme.

Chris Kenna, founder and North America CEO of Brand Advance Group, is even firmer that degrees are not necessary to work in the industry. Kenna joined the British Army nearly 25 years ago when his contemporaries were going to university.

“[University education] is not needed,” Kenna says. “You need passion, understanding of people, and working-life discipline, all of which I got from the military. What is a CPM Rate or the difference between a SSP & DSP? That is all stuff you learn on the job. The bit you need is to understand humans.”

Missing out on potential talent if we do not look beyond

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Sarah Parkes, chief sales and marketing officer at outdoor agency Talon, highlights the value of experience over a degree. She grew up in Jersey, left school at 16, and initially started her career in banking, before making the switch to media, at first working as a telemarketer at a media business acquired by Hearst where she progressed to MD for UK and APAC, before moving to the world of out-of-home.

Parkes says she “certainly felt in the minority” when she came into the industry, and working for an American company she felt “cultural expectations that further education was a given”. However, things are changing.

“Being more flexible in our thinking and accepting that those without a degree can be valuable in combatting things like imposter syndrome that breeds when we put people into boxes,” Parkes says. “Luckily, my progression wasn’t hindered but the attitudes then could have deterred me from staying in media altogether. I’d hate to think of the talent we are missing out on if we don’t look beyond.”

The All In Census social mobility representation data (2021 and 2023) shows the differences between the industry make-up compared to the overall UK population (Source: Advertising Association).

Parkes adds: “With rising costs and university fees, higher education is becoming even more financially out-of-reach to many, so the industry needs to ensure it is providing better access to those without a degree. It is also important for DE&I — we need diversity within our businesses and this includes people from different educational backgrounds.”

She highlights the work that Brixton Finishing School and Creative Access are doing to improve access to the industry, and insists companies have a responsibility to widen their training offers in addition to access so there are opportunities for all.

An old way of thinking

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Dinah Williams, founder of diversity consultancy The Avenir Network says her degree in fashion journalism and PR “did nothing” to prepare her for her first media job as a classified sales exec. After a successful 16-year career in the industry and through her current work on culture transformation with organisations of all types and sizes across the sector, she is emphatic a degree was not needed to work in media and advertising.

“The industry isn’t representative of British society in many areas — age, race and ethnicity, disability, and social mobility to name a few. As we are ultimately the people that shape the work to engage consumers and audiences of all types, the fact that we over-index with white, middle-class, university-educated people is a reflection of the old way of thinking that the industry needs a ‘certain type’ of individual.”

Williams also champions initiatives solely focussed on opening up opportunities to talent from historically marginalised communities like WYK Digital and Digilearning, saying they were “much more valuable” and do not leave their students with more than £45,000 of debt.

“I’d welcome more organisations providing more on-the-job training opportunities rather than asking for degrees,” she concludes.

Recruiting graduates ‘preferable’, but there need to be other routes

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Columnist Jan Gooding warns against policymakers who see the value of higher education purely in terms of how it will impact your job prospects.

She explains: “Higher education in all its forms teaches us how to think independently. Whatever the subject, we learn how to broaden our minds, to hear wide opinions, to make an argument and to grow in confidence. For many people going to universities the first time they live away from home, and have the opportunity to mature as an adult and experience living in a new place and community. Going to university and studying a degree is a privilege and something worth achieving in its own right — regardless of subsequent employment.”

However, she stresses a lack of degree does not by definition exclude people from a career in media or advertising. Not everyone is academically inclined, might prefer to do something else, or are not inclined “to saddle themselves with significant debt”, the latter a potential reason why the value of a degree is being questioned as the funding model is “seriously based” on graduates finding relatively highly paid jobs.

Gooding says: “I am deeply uneasy with the idea that degrees should be specifically vocational. There have always been some occupations like being a doctor or architect where degree study is geared to subsequent practice in those roles. However the creative industries should resist that kind of linear thinking strongly. A diversity of knowledge in any agency is far more desirable.

“I believe recruiting graduates is preferable given the kinds of strategic communication roles available in advertising and media agencies. However, intelligence isn’t only measured by academic achievement and so there need to be other routes in as well to ensure we get the best creative and communication talent.”

She gives an example of her first job at Selfridges where they had replaced management development opportunities so it was solely available to graduates, which she says was a mistake. This recruitment of talented people from the shop floor was soon after restored.

Stigma around apprenticeships

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Danny Donovan, CEO and founder of Build Media, tells The Media Leader it is “a really important question” and “quite a layered issue” which has been discussed at length in a recent meeting of the AA’s Social Mobility Working Group chaired by John McGeough, commercial operations director at Global Radio.

He highlights the impact of student loan repayment, effectively equating to an additional 9% tax, which is “only worth it” if a graduate salary is higher than what you would get if you did not get the skills a degree gives you.

“On that basis the advice I gave my three kids when thinking about university was: only go if your degree is going to help you get a better job, and one you think you want to do.”

“Higher education is becoming even more financially out-of-reach to many, so the industry needs to ensure it is providing better access to those without a degree.”

Sarah Parkes, Talon Outdoor

Donovan says specifically for the media and advertising industry, part of the challenge is beyond a few specialist courses there are not really any “proper qualifications” which can fully prepare people for work, combined with the fact that there is such a “hugely diverse” range of job roles where so much is learned on the job.

When hiring for entry level, the challenge is to find “bright people” with the right attitude and an ability to learn, Donovan says, and a degree provides evidence of some of those abilities, whereas someone coming straight out of school will have less evidence of these. This is why more graduates are hired and “the cycle continues”.

Donovan adds: “Of course degrees aren’t solely the preserve of the privileged classes. But we also know that a person from a ‘privileged’ background with a lower class degree from the same university as their classmate from a working-class background will get a better job.”

This becomes more complex when you factor in the cost-of-living crisis and geographic mobility issues which “exacerbate” this problem, he stresses.

Additionally, Donovan makes the point that a degree is a very broad, and sometimes hugely wrong, indicator of the type of job someone might be suited for. To help solve this issue he said the industry needs to find a better way of identifying talent.

Amanda Pitt, a senior recruiter and partner at executive search firm Kingsley Gate, thinks the stigma around apprenticeships is “frankly shocking”. She cites her three children as an example of differing life choices from within a single household — all want to pursue separate further education opportunities; an apprenticeship, university and Brit School, the specialist dramatic arts college.

From a talent perspective and from a headhunting point of view, she said clients “most certainly” do have a view on candidates having degrees, especially for the kinds of senior roles she recruits for.

However, for those coming into this industry, in general she said you do not need a degree to deliver and be successful, although employers do not always see that and it can depend on the role.

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