The shift from nepotism to the underdog in the creative industry

The shift from nepotism to the underdog in the creative industry: as by a Northerner living in London

Nepotism is the unfair use of power to get jobs or other benefits for your family or friends. Constructed by favouritism, bias, and preferential treatment.

Of late, it’s unfortunately become a recently glamourised term. Now comfortably claimed by the so-called tribe of nepo-babies. These are the offspring of the mega wealthy and famous who have, and are proud to say they have, carved out careers as lucrative as their parents with seemingly less dedication than those who have found success through hard graft.

Though hugely topical and encouraging new conversations, some argue this glorification dismisses what the term is there to call out. They are asking, does it detract away from the injustice it can cause around diversity and accessibility – something that’s plagued many industries throughout generations, particularly in the arts.

We all know its heritage and impact is more deeply rooted and stretches further than just showbiz click bait. But if anything, has this heightened awareness, yes brought about by celebrity, caused a much-needed guttural reaction. An expose per se? Where those beneficiaries of this systematic error are being outed, or better, replaced by those who have the talent.

Whether knee-jerk or in a planned response, institutions are finally finding and backing the underdog, supporting those with little to no connections, with some even looking and helping talent in places outside of London.

To name a few, there’s D&AD Shift. A new collaboration with Google that is offering free, industry-led night school to enable self-taught creative talent to be honed into career making skills for the design, advertising and creative industry. There’s Ireland’s latest pilot scheme, Basic Income for the Arts (BIA), which aims to provide funding to the struggling ‘arts and creative practice’ by giving a payment of €325 a week to artists and creative arts workers to help them survive and flourish.

And, only last month, Netflix and the National Youth Theatre launched a new awareness program that was developed in reaction to one of their own surveys that revealed ‘alarming concerns’ around the impact nepotism was having on the creative industries. As a solve, they plan to find and support 500 ‘underdogs’, young people aged 14-25 who come from different backgrounds and don’t have the leg up that nepo-babies or the privileged have.

I do wish there were programs like this when I started out. I had no real connections and didn’t live in the place where everything seemed to be happening. As a northerner, I could also say that I was disadvantaged from the off, merely by my location.

Studying in Manchester and then Leeds, my horizons had started to expand, but with classmates originating from the South, it became apparent, very quickly, that to get anywhere it was about who you knew, not how hard you applied yourself.

Sadly, this sentiment still rings true. The survey I mentioned earlier found 79% of young people still believe they need connections rather than talent and determination to make it.

My peers seemed to unlock lucrative work experience opportunities at a drop of a hat, through their families’ connections and for months at a time during the summer.

Though I did do several work placements in the end, my journey was a little bumpier. Seeking and applying was more complicated. Why would they hire a northerner who doesn’t have big city experience? Then actually completing the work experience was a little fraught too; sofa surfing for months at a time and not being paid for the placement (unless you count the odd bus fare).

Was it all worth it? Absolutely. To build resilience and prove your worth as an underdog is a fine thing. It helped me navigate people and company structures as my career developed.

A couple of jobs in and working in London, I did find the industry around me to be predominantly white and privileged. Colleagues were often from wealthy families and lived on the ‘right side of river’, tending to have more rigid opinions that were often in conflict with my own.

Being a Northerner too was a polarising factor for some, or more of a novelty. Copying accents was ‘fun’ but the questioning of intelligence was worse. And, because of this subtle criticism or underestimation, initially it did cause an internal pressure to work twice as hard to secure the same types of opportunities that the more fortunate were more likely exposed to.

Thankfully, things have and will continue to change.

There’s been a great push and development of numerous DEI initiatives, the concerted effort for unbiased hiring and the priority of equal opportunities to improve talent pools within the creative industries.

But as Jim Coleman, UK CEO & regional lead UK and North America, We Are Social, says: “this systemic problem in our industry that leads to workplaces looking the same for generations isn’t going to go away without a collective effort.”

As the new Creative Director at The PHA Group, backing the underdog, as an underdog, is part of the intended NDA and culture I want to build and is something that will be consciously considered as we find talent and grow the department. The agency’s new internship programme – PHA Accelerate – is designed to provide lasting skills and development opportunities for the next generation of industry talent, particularly those from underrepresented groups and those with no prior experience.

Talent, like ideas, can come from anywhere.

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