We Might Not Need Mail Rooms Any More, But We Really Need Mail Rooms

I enjoyed this article A Level results 2015: A lesson in why they aren't crucial for career success by Dave Trott in City AM yesterday. I'm glad he wrote it, the gist of it is encouraging people to realise that they can be successful without formal qualifications. A good sentiment, and true obviously.

In the article he talks about how some of advertising's most successful and respected figures worked their way up from the bottom with hard work and smartness. They all started out in the mailrooms of agencies.

The list of ad people who started out in the mail room include the following: Charles Saatchi, Peter Mead, Sir Frank Lowe and Lord Tim Bell. Amazing huh?

But there's a problem isn't there? Mailrooms in agencies have all but died out. We don't have one here. We've never had one, but then again we're a tiny company, which is a rarity in the business. But mail rooms are even dying out in the big and very big agencies.

So what happens next? Imagine advertising without all the people who worked their way up from the bottom. This is the problem that the business faces at the moment. There are precious few ways for industrious, inquisitive, smart and hard-working people who left school at 16 to work their way into the business.

And Jesus, the business needs them now more than ever. It's swamped with nice middle-class university educated people. And there's nothing wrong with them individually. But there is a problem with them as a whole. Advertising has become too nice and too middle-class, too polite and too intellectual.

The industry needs to be challenged. We need more variety of people, more trouble-makers, more people who aren't afraid to speak up, more people who don't treat the job like the civil-service or an intellectual exercise. More people who don't think of selling products as something beneath their delicate university-educated sensibilities.

How are we going to help these young people help us? The great thing about the mail room is that it wasn't a 'scheme'. It required people to find the job, be inquisitive and work their way up. Some people who worked in the mail room never worked their way up. And that's fine. It's the opportunity to do it that's important.

But a 'scheme' works differently. When agencies have schemes, they tend to be a lot more selective about who gets on it. The mail room was more self-selecting. Once you start being more selective, you are possibly refining out the potential for surprising people, people who you might not expect, to get in and rise up.

And schemes train people, and coach people. Now, one of my great bugbears of advertising is that so few people in the business are trained in the basics. But, schemes work differently. They train people how to behave and think like the people training them. And to be honest, that's the last thing we want. We want these kids because they won't do that.

How are we going to do it? Maybe we need to think about what the modern version of the mail room is? Maybe we should just bring back mail rooms anyway. Even if we don't really need them for mail. We definitely need them.

If you're a smart, hard-working person who is inquisitive. If you aren't scared to have an opinion, aren't worried about challenging authority, regardless of what exam results you may or may not have, however old or young you are, the advertising business needs you.

Please find a way into it.

Have a great Friday.


  1. If you aren't scared to have an opinion, aren't worried about challenging authority, regardless of what exam results you may or may not have, however old or young you are, the advertising business will sack you.

    1. Some people just don't know how to take their medicine.

      I've worked in companies that sack people for this attitude. They last longer the bigger they are, but they'll all go the same way in the end.

  2. The annals of advertising are filled with successful, talented people who happened to get fired at some point, then went on to be more successful than those who didn't.

    I'm guessing that isn't either of you two, but that's okay.

  3. Didn't Ed Morris come up through the mailroom?

    The mailroom route could be a a job (not an internship) called Opportunity. It's a minimum wage job with a six month contract (that could roll on). The job spec is 'make yourself useful'.

  4. "Please find a way into it."

    How can they, if the entire system is predisposed to a certain type of candidate/criteria that they don't meet?

    I see this topic cropping up regularly now, with various agencies demonising the lack of diversity, etc. while simultaneously continuing to employ the same old people.

    Isn't it about time some action is taken, rather than just another tweet or blog post?

    1. Good one. I agree, let's never mention it again...

      Can you suggest some action?

    2. By no means was I suggesting we not mention it. Indeed, I think the fact it's mentioned regularly demonstrates its widespread importance within this industry. However, what good is it if it ends there? How will anything chance if it goes no further than an online discussion?

      Sometimes I feel adland folk like to discuss this and highlight the issue so they can convince themselves they're doing something about it. As someone attempting to break into this industry, I was hoping action would come from the top, not the bottom.

    3. Obviously it shouldn't end there. What have you tried so far to break into the industry?

    4. I'm not entirely sure how relevant/helpful my own experiences are, given that the responsibility for a diverse workforce fall to the employer, not the employee.

      However, I am glad you agree this shouldn't end online and I look forward to seeing what Sell! Sell! and other agencies who're vocal on the subject are doing to change that.

      Btw, my name is Sam Guinivan. I'm happy to discuss this further with you or anyone else who actually wants to do something about it.

    5. Hello Sam, thanks for introducing yourself.

      I think your own experiences are extremely relevant. How have you approached agencies, and what jobs have you applied for? Have you had any success? What kind of responses have you had? Where are the barriers coming down for you?

      Agencies have to be smart in finding ways for smart, hard-working people who haven't gone through the usual university channels to find a way into the business. But equally, it requires some will, hard work and effort from people wanting to find a way in - in that respect there will always be a kind of self-selecting quality to it.

      So if you're that kind of person, I'm sure you've been trying all sorts of things to try to get an 'in' or some experience of the business, hence my questions above and my interest in any success you might have had or dead-ends you may have hit.

      If you're more the kind of person who is sitting back waiting for someone else to do something about it, then possibly not.

    6. Ok, I'll discuss my own experiences (apologises if this goes off on a tangent somewhat).

      Typically, agencies offer minimum wage internships. If, like many candidates, you're not from London and have no family in the south, how can you successfully complete that internship? How can you pay extremely high rent, cover your cost of travel AND eat for potentially months on end? It isn't viable, thus the candidate has to somehow borrow money (taking them further into debt if they're at university). Or, more realistically, they decline the position.

      I've managed to accumulate a decent chunk of agency experience as a result of navigating the difficult scenario above, and my frustrated perspective on agency diversity/recruitment is a result of me hoping future interns and juniors won't have to encounter the daunting scenario me and many of my friends have been through.

      And you're right, this industry is biased towards hiring grads. However, even within that the bias goes deeper as demonstrated above. Not only are we hiring grads exclusively, but we're laying down financial barriers that are realistically only open to grads living in certain areas. A northern grad can not realistically hope to compete with a southern one in gaining valuable work experience.

      So If the system is excluding certain types of graduates, what hope is there of any non-graduates ever getting through the system?! And that’s what really bothers me. I agree that it does requires will, hard work and effort to find a way in, but I believe even more so that amazingly creative, inspiring people (with degrees and without) are falling short still because agencies aren’t open enough. I see a lot of agencies banging the drum of diversity, ostensibly fighting the cause of open employment (through articles in Campaign or posts on Twitter, of course) while actually making no difference. If you’re going to complain about the problem, be part of the solution.

      If change in advertising diversity is going to happen, it needs to be facilitated by agencies themselves. No amount of ambition, hard work or will power will help all prospective employees if there continues to be these barriers in front of them.


      FYI, I myself am a university graduate and I've been lucky enough to land some decent agencies on my CV. You may be thinking well why am I complaining? It certainly would be easy for me to shrug my shoulders and say 'well I had to struggle on minimum wage, so future interns should too'. But I think that's bullshit, and it's a cyclical approach that's been consistently perpetuated by this industry for years. Advertising should be open to all. Certainly, the level of work would improve if it was.

    7. Thanks for that. You're exactly right, and these are some of the problems facing people trying to get into the industry today.

      If we want to encourage people from other backgrounds, there needs to be entry-level jobs that pay a reasonable wage - a wage that someone can live on. It seems there are fewer of those kinds of jobs in advertising now.

      And even with the system that's in place currently - it favours those grads who have money behind them, well-off parents basically.

      We're a tiny company, so what we do is just a drop in the ocean, but we have always walked-the-walk in terms of living up to our principles in this area. We don't and have never done unpaid or minimum-wage placements or interships. When we have wanted to hire a new entry-level person, we always advertise it through this blog, not through the usual recruiters or universities, we haven't discriminated on academic qualifications, we just want the best person. And we always start the person on a decent starter salary, full contract (with a standard month probation period) that it's possible to live on in London. We are not at this stage yet but in time we hope to create jobs for a studio assistant, or general assistant, they would be entry-level jobs that would suit school leavers or anyone without experience in the business, regardless of age, as an introduction to the business, much like the mail rooms would have been ten or twenty years ago.

      But that's just our small outfit. My hope is that some of the big agencies will take on this kind of approach too. If we keep the subject in the air, hopefully that will help.

      Whether you meant it or not, your posts came across as quite aggressive, as if we weren't allowed to bring up this subject without having already solved it. I don't agree. But hopefully you can see that with us it's not just hot air - we have already been doing things in our own small way for the last ten or so years to address it - it's my hope that posts like these, which do get read by other agency people, will keep the subject in the air and encourage others to take steps too. And a secondary audience for this post being people themselves who are trying to get into the business - to encourage them that even though it might not seem like it - the business does need them, even though agencies need to do something about it, to encourage them to try.

    8. My intention was never aggression, if that is how it came across I apologise. As this topic is continuously brought up and debated with little notable action taken across the industry, I guess it's more a growing frustration on my part.

      I'm glad you guys are doing your bit, and it makes me think if you can do these things, why aren't more bigger/network agencies? I too hope this post passes the eyes of industry folk and will spark some action (not just online debate) on how the industry should recruit its juniors.

  5. Being from said North, I managed to get a year's worth of placement experience under my belt with no money or contacts. So it can be done.

    The money barrier (especially affording rent) is a bigger issue than the uni barrier, at last that's what I found. What really helped was a 3 month stint at VCCP, as it's the time when you're in between placements that really eats into your cash reserves. Long term placements give you the chance to plan a bit in advance.

    Maybe D&AD should buy some digs in Clapham and give them rent free to the top entries in each year's student awards.

    1. Look, I'm from up that north too, and did the sleeping on friends' sofa thing when I first came down to that London. There are ways of busking through it for a short length of time, but it is harder for people who are outside London and the South East.

      Clearly there are levels to this issue. On one level is the difficulty for students and graduates from the north and elsewhere, there is obviously a barrier there.

      But I'm particularly interested in those people who haven't done an art school or university course in advertising, marketing or design, people straight out of school. They're the people who I would like to able to find a way into the business.

      Anything to do with D&AD awards though.. you've lost me there... zzzz...