The power of mentorships: coupling up for creativity
New talent needs to be given every opportunity to thrive and succeed and one way of ensuring that is through mentorship schemes. Tim Cumming talks to mentors and mentees about learning their craft, absorbing inspiration and unleashing their talent.
Just getting a foot in the door can be one of the biggest, trickiest, steps on the career ladder.
And, at a time of economic uncertainty and upheaval, coming in the wake of the deep impact of the Covid pandemic – especially on the development and education of young people – giving a helping hand to the next generation of creatives is a very serious business indeed.
Ask pretty much any creative director, and they’ll tell you that nurturing new talent is essential to the future health and prosperity of the industry.
Ask pretty much any creative director, and they’ll tell you that nurturing new talent – and a more culturally and socially diverse and inclusive range of new talent – is essential to the future health and prosperity of the industry.
A range of schemes, including mentorships, vocational apprenticeships and creative incubator programmes – rather than the oft-criticised practice of unpaid internships – are springing up across the industry, whether that’s The Barn at BBH, marking its first year, 1stAveMachine’s mentorship programme, the Trailhead initiative launched by Canadian digital agency Critical Mass, or the Brooklyn Brothers Night School, now in its third year of launching a more diverse range of new creatives into the rest of their lives.
Above: Brooklyn Brothers' junior creative Nana Ama Owusu-Ansah.
London-based Nana Ama Owusu-Ansah is now a junior creative at Brooklyn Brothers, working from their Soho offices. “I first discovered Night School through an Instagram post a friend shared,” she says. After filling an application which involved answering the question “what does creativity mean to you?”, she joined the Night School programme. Its eight-week curriculum is designed for 18-25 year-olds, and is followed by pairing each of the students with a mentor.
“Mentorship shouldn’t be underestimated,” Owusu-Ansah stresses, “because its effects can stretch much further than any one internship or training programme. Mentors have been hugely instrumental in my own creative journey so far and, without them, half the opportunities and experiences I’ve benefited from wouldn’t have been on my radar, nor remotely accessible. Mentorship can help open doors to wider groups of people and bring much-needed diversity of experiences and thoughts to the table.”
Mentorship shouldn’t be underestimated because its effects can stretch much further than any one internship or training programme.
Her mentor was Rogue director Joe Connor, whose credits include music videos for The Rolling Stones, Coldplay and Harry Styles. “Our mentorship relationship was, and still is, very organic,” she says, “with check-in calls where we chat about our ongoing creative projects and share creative inspiration.” It was Connor who helped her get her first experience on set, and connected her to the people who gave her her first job in the industry.
The Night School curriculum comprises round-table discussions, talks with industry experts and creative workshops. “Each session had a given theme,” she adds, “from creative ideation, to visual expression, to production processes. Some of the most important things I learnt were dealing with imposter syndrome and appreciating the creative process. My fellow students were, and still are, an important creative community for me,” she adds. “I found a safe space in them; to explore new creative paths, worries, but also dreams, too. I’d say to other young creatives, seek out mentors for yourself – be it through a training programme, an email or Instagram DM to someone you admire… Just shoot your shot.”
Above: 1stAveMachine's Anthony Dickenson, left, is a mentor for young director Nathan Baxter.
1stAveMachine director, cinematographer and photographer Anthony Dickenson, renowned for his work for the likes of the World Wildlife Fund, believes mentorships need an organic connection and that the act of looking, or being open to finding someone to mentee, is an important part of the process so that a strong creative relationship can grow. He met his mentee, Nathan Baxter, in a vintage clothing store near his home. “After chatting for a bit, he mentioned he was interested in becoming a director and working in the environmental sector. It seemed the perfect opportunity for us both. We connected pretty quickly, not just over film but also with our similar outlooks on life.”
“Not coming from a film school background, the quickest way to learn was being hands-on, spending time around the set,” says Baxter. “Being able to give direction in a constructive manner is how you make everyone comfortable and work harmoniously,” he adds, “and by being around the processes start to finish, I’ve also been able to absorb Anthony’s techniques of building out a concept from just an idea, to visualising it in a treatment and turning it into a tangible film.”
All directors should know how to edit and how to self-shoot. But the most important thing was helping him understand the structure and process of making something beyond the treatment.
“We constantly talk about the technical craft of filmmaking,” adds Dickenson, “how to get certain looks, why camera language makes you feel the way it does, and so on. Also the importance of understanding all the pieces of the puzzle – all directors should know how to edit and how to self-shoot. But the most important thing was helping him understand the structure and process of making something beyond the treatment.”
1stAveMachine was there to support Baxter’s mentorship through to his first production, a music video, with Dickenson acting as producer and “a slightly annoying and overbearing and first AD”, reeling in DoP Ben Magahey to shoot at Time Based Arts’ studio in Shoreditch, and editing at the Assembly Rooms. “1stAveMachine gave us both the support we need to make projects like the music video happen,” says Dickenson, “and they’re also starting to bring in job opportunities for Nathan.”
Above: Critical Mass’s Chief Talent Officer Sara Anhorn.
As a production company that regularly brings its directors together on jobs, 1stAveMachine will continue to support the mentorship so that Dickenson and Baxter can work together on bigger projects before Baxter is ready to go it alone. “This menteeship will continue to push me to experiment and create, knowing I’ll always have someone to touch base with if I ever have any questions about projects,” says Baxter. “My dream would be to hopefully direct one or multiple promos or films together with Anthony, so everything will have gone full circle. That way I’d feel like I’ve repaid him for everything he’s done for me.”
Over at Critical Mass, the banner slogan for its new Trailhead in-house development programme is: Inexperience Encouraged. “It was built for students, new graduates and career changers, so we have a wide range of backgrounds in our program’s first cohort of 107 people,” says Critical Mass’s Chief Talent Officer Sara Anhorn. “Some went to school for design or marketing, others come from careers in law enforcement, theatre, homeware design and non-profits. But, no matter where they come from, they've demonstrated a sense of creativity, curiosity and an eagerness to learn – all traits that we look for.”
We don't ascribe to the typical 'sink or swim' mentality that comes with most internships.
At Trailhead, the spirit of potential is buoyed by a mix of training, support, and a sense of community, an inclusive space for a new generation of talent to try new things, to take risks, make mistakes, and develop their craft. “In turn, this talent infuses the agency’s culture with fresh ideas, perspectives, and energy,” says Anhorn. Trailhead sets its mentors a couple of levels ahead of their mentees - drawing them from the same discipline and often from the same team and location – to enable direct oversight and project-specific guidance. “We don't ascribe to the typical 'sink or swim' mentality that comes with most internships,” says Anhorn. “We intentionally designed the program to provide both Trailheaders and their mentors with the support and tools they need both to succeed.”
And it’s paid off. “I thought it was going to be a typical internship,” says designer mentee Valeria Paz Garcia, “but the team treated me like another designer. I was able to pitch and make comps – I felt like I was really part of the team.”
Above: The Barn tutor Tony Cullingham and BBH's ECD Helen Rhodes.
While she describes it more as a “vocational apprenticeship or creative incubator programme” the latest iteration of The Barn at BBH was raised to answer the need for greater social and cultural diversity across the agency’s creative teams. “BBH is founded on the power of difference so it was important to do something that expands the pool of creatives coming to BBH and the wider industry,” says ECD Helen Rhodes, who set up the programme last year.
The first year’s fee-free 10-month course comprised eight students and tutor Tony Cullingham of the legendary Watford Course, with each student paid a living London wage – an absolutely crucial level of support. “They wouldn’t be able to do something like this had they not been paid,” says Rhodes.
One team has been hired by BBH and all of them have placements at other agencies.
This November, 10 new students will enter The Barn for eight months, each hand-picked by Cunningham. “Tony sets candidates a copy test, a lateral creative thinking test. Things like ‘make a musical instrument, make a song up and play it’.” Previous advertising experience is definitely not required. “The first few months is more of a boot camp, with Tony telling them how to write ads and setting lots of briefs.” Then Cunningham brings in mentors such as Dave Dye and Rosie Arnold before setting them loose on live work and developing their own pitches. “One team has been hired by BBH,” says Rhodes of the first year, “and all of them have placements at other agencies.”
Which is a testament to the success of programmes like this, and like Trailhead and Brooklyn Night School – all wrangling the spirit of invention from creatives who may go on to change the industry, and who might otherwise have never had the chance.