Matt Williams: what should today’s creative department look like and who should be in it?

One of the things that first attracted me to Engine was the way it nurtured its employees.

And a big part of that nurturing is through its mentoring initiative.

Mentoring is important, not just because it gives those lower down the food chain the chance to access some of those at the very top, but because it makes you take stock and think properly about your career path.

I personally find this extremely valuable. Without wanting to bore you with the details (I think I even managed to bore my mentor, and he volunteered to be there), I came into the industry in a pretty unconventional way.

I learnt about advertising not at university, or art college, or anywhere at all before I was 21. I learnt about the industry by working at Campaign. If you want a crash course in the ins and outs of advertising, I can’t recommend it enough. But it’s not exactly conventional.

The job I do today is rather unconventional too. I’ve lost count of the amount of people who have asked me what a Content Editor does.

So when I think about where I want to be in one, five, or ten years time, I know I’m unlikely to be able to follow a conventional path.

One thing I do know is that eventually I’ll want to experience working on client business. By nature my role is currently internal – my relationships are with journalists, and the content I create is for marketing material, new business documents and internal purposes.

But I’ve previously felt guilty thinking about creating content for an agency’s clients. After all, I’ve not trained in advertising. I didn’t go to Ad School. I’m not part of a creative team. I stopped Art Class by Year 9, when they realised I could barely use a ruler. Working on a client, working with a creative department – I’d be a fraud.

At least, that’s what I used to think. But the industry has changed.

picture-11I still believe that learning the ins and outs of advertising – the craft, the way of life – is hugely important. But if working in communications is about understanding people, understanding brands, and being able to take those insights and think differently in order to come up with brilliant ideas, then what difference does background make? In fact, surely the more diverse backgrounds you have combining to create a creative department, the better, right?

I’ll use Engine’s digital agency Jam as an example here. They’ve had their best creative year ever in 2014. I could wax lyrical about their campaigns for the likes of Tesco Mobile, Samsung, Xbox etc.

But in their creative department they have natives from lots of different countries. They’ve got one person whose previous ‘job’ was a poet. Another was a film director. One creative, who has recently moved on to CHI & Partners, was hired from his previous role as the manager of mid-noughties NME darlings Razorlight. Seriously.

This isn’t a new idea. And there have been plenty of articles written on those in creative departments with ‘quirky’ backgrounds in recent years.

But as digital has evolved the way that the industry works and the skillsets that clients require, it’s natural that all agencies are broadening the net when it comes to hunting for the next creative talent.

This inevitably raises mores questions than it does answers. How do creative directors go about shifting their hiring policy to ensure they’re getting as broad a view of the talent available as possible? How do you harness this talent internally to ensure that these hires can be shaped into one cohesive creative department? How do you assign job titles, processes and adapt your ways of working? How do respected ad schools and universities respond to this?

I’m not sure if I’ve got all – or any – of the answers. But I know that in this day and age having an unconventional background shouldn’t scare off anyone’s desire to think and work more creatively within the advertising industry. In fact, it should do quite the opposite.

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