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First Class Talent Minus the Degree

Posted 2 months ago by Ollie Purdom
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My business partner is (annoyingly) a few years younger than me. I remember him walking in to the office as a young up-start who thought he knew it all. He didn’t and he frequently antagonised our boss at the time, but he also had something about him. Fast forward five years and two companies (he followed me), we found ourselves starting Pitch together out of a spare bedroom in 2007. He did go to university, but got bored after a year of academia and having exhausted his student loan, decided to quit and get a job instead. He’s always been one of the most driven, focused people I know. And he’s turned in to one of the best leaders I’ve met. Just don’t tell him I said that.

The reason for this anecdote is simple. The default hiring requirement for the vast majority of roles in the marketing/advertising sector is that a degree is a pre-requisite. But does that always guarantee you’re getting the best person for the role? I’d argue not.

Another anecdote. One of the best young advertising Account Execs I ever met didn’t have a degree. The passion for the industry that he exuded was immense; he’d read more books on the industry and knew more about famous campaigns, creative directors, industry thought leaders, than I’d wager the majority of marketers/adland folk have even heard of. He was hungry, he was bright, he had a thirst for knowledge and gaining experience by any means necessary (he’d also sought out unpaid placements to gain experience). All of which gave him stand-out and, having convinced my client to see him despite his lack of ‘qualifications’, he was hired within one interview. Three years later he was an Account Director.

Before the world of higher education starts lambasting me, I’m not suggesting that a degree suddenly isn’t worth having. But it doesn’t always guarantee the best hire. Some of today’s graduates expect everything to be handed to them and have a wildly inflated sense of their market value – we’ve met our fair share of them. We’ve also met a lot of incredibly talented graduates, who you instantly know are going to be successful in their chosen careers.

This isn’t a blog about Gen Y/Millennials and the misrepresented habits of this demographic. The point is simply that in a world where so much importance is placed on diversity in the workplace, to be so prescriptive as to rule people out of consideration based on their lack of degree, is arguably as limiting to creativity and productivity as a lack of gender or ethnic diversity, both of which are rightly high profile topics. It’s time to step back, look at things differently and hire with attitude and aptitude at the forefront.

There’s a broader picture here too: with the average student graduating with £30k of debt, there’s an increasing number of people who are prioritising work experience over studies, so the degree requirement on an HR form is fast becoming a limiting factor in talent acquisition.

Unlike lawyers or doctors, marketers and creatives don’t have to have specialised training to be leaders in their field. Granted continuous learning and development to keep honing and refining skills is essential to keep pace with all the latest thinking, especially with the influence digital innovation has in the industry, but this can take many forms, which is why I disagree with Mark Ritson that formal qualifications are essential to be an ‘expert’. It’s interesting to see that some of the traditional elite, such as Ernst & Young, are also beginning to wake up to this. Maybe we all should.