First Hand — Finding your way in advertising without a degree: Anthea Agyekum on what she’s learnt
Completing a foundation course in 2015, Anthea Agyekum skipped enrolling on a three-year BA programme, instead choosing to find her way with real-world experience. In that time, mentors and opportunities have shown themselves organically; she’s interned at agencies MullenLowe, Engage Works and Amp London, and has widened her network and knowledge exponentially. Now a production and publishing assistant at advertising publication Pitch and three years into her journey, she shares the highs, lows and lessons learnt in the time it would traditionally take to complete a degree.
In search of advertising at foundation level
When I did a foundation degree, I specialised in graphic design, as it was the only thing remotely linked to advertising at foundation level. When I left I imagined that I’d apply for further education later in the year, since I wasn’t ready to make a decision during the course – I was still searching for my creative purpose. I remember finding a two-year course I liked the sound of, because two years sounded less excruciating than a full three.
During education, I wasn’t able to discover and explore advertising, which is really what I was looking for. Plus, the creative career guidance wasn’t great. The courses felt very sheltered, and my gut instinct told me that I should be in the real world, earning my start.
From bar work to work experience
In my last year of sixth form I started working in a bar. It involved late evenings and weekend shifts, and it still supports me today. Coming from a council-estate background, being able to earn a decent wage by night is a saviour. And working in this bar turned out to be a catalyst of fortune I could have never predicted.
The bar was where I met my first two mentors; the first was a customer who got me an internship in a graphic design agency. This was when I was just coming out of my foundation course, and my only hint of an advertising-related career was in graphic design. “Yeah, I could do that,” I thought sceptically – but actually, I was onto something in that I was eliminating options and getting closer to understanding my creative career.
“During education, I wasn’t able to discover and explore advertising, which is really what I was looking for.”
My next mentor worked behind the bar with me, and was also supporting his dreams with the extra work. He invited me to be part of an ongoing industry event, and it was here that I met someone who landed me a week’s work experience in an advertising agency after my foundation.
Both my mentor situations happened organically, without actually realising how much of good opportunity they presented. By the time I started calling them ‘mentors’ we were already quite far into our journey. This may have warped my idea of opportunities for a little while. I started to think that if people liked you and you were enthusiastic, they would give you the time of day. What I hadn’t realised was that to actually secure an opportunity, you need real evidence of your brilliance. You can’t just speak of being passionate, you have to prove it.
A year after my agency work experience I still had no portfolio. I’d built many creative portfolios during education, but now I had no peers to work with, no idea where to begin, and for the first time in my life, I was crippled with a lack of confidence. I wasn’t one of the ‘best in class’ anymore; I didn’t know my environment – in fact, I had no consistent environment and felt like an idiot whilst networking, because I assumed people could tell I was inexperienced.
“As the industry stands, the technical qualification of a degree might do very little for most.”
Freelancing, networking and building a portfolio
This past year I’ve been freelancing at advertising industry magazine Pitch, which is a brilliant position to be in, especially with my boss [Sherry Collins]. She understands my position and I’d consider her another mentor. Aside from all the direct connections I have been exposed to, she always actively puts me in spaces that can benefit me: external events, meetings, and just a few weeks ago, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity – it’s amazing. I now have a stronger network than ever, I have an immensely better understanding of the industry, I’ve reclaimed my confidence and I’ve begun to build a portfolio.
Anthea (far right) with PITCH founder Sherry Collins (centre)
I didn’t go to uni, but I always tell people that I went to the ‘university of life’ instead. In the creative sector, I think both attending or skipping uni can have disadvantages. As the industry stands, the technical qualification of a degree might do very little for most. What uni is good for though, is providing an environment occupied by your peers.
Traditionally, advertising creatives work in pairs, which can be better for ideas. Typically, it’s easier to find someone to work with when you’re at ad school. When you ‘go it alone’, at first you won’t know where on earth all these young people are hanging out. Uni also offers a few years of building a portfolio, and I hear that some ad courses are quite immersed in the industry.
I wanted to help equip young people like me with the confidence of knowledge and inspire networking amongst juniors, so more recently, I also started my own podcast, Poducate. In each episode I speak to a different industry professional about their role, from a novice perspective.
I personally think that finding and exploring advertising on my own was always going to be the option for me. Because of the lack of exposure coming from my background, I believe that if I had applied for a degree, I might have taken a wrong turn, and showed up to the party late. I don’t believe I would have such an authentic understanding of the industry, nor would I have existed in the same way. Nothing will make you the same kind of professional as learning on the job and failing a few times… I think this is how industry rock-stars are born!
At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, 2018