WPP is the world leader in marketing communications services, and The WPP Fellowship is a fantastic three-year insight into the industry, which sees Fellows exploring different companies all over the world. But with only a handful of successful applicants every year, how can you go about making yourself stand out from the crowd? We spoke to WPP Planning Director (and former Fellow) Ben Kay and current Fellow Clara Zabludowsky, about what it takes to impress the recruiters.
The prestigious Fellowship involves completing placements at three different companies working on a variety of projects, and there’s plenty of opportunity to be placed abroad, too. Ben and Clara talked about some of the things they have most enjoyed about the programme, as well as some of the things they have found most challenging. You can watch a sneak peak here:
Lots of Debutants tuned in and asked some fantastic questions. Ben and Clara didn’t have time to answer them all so we caught up with Jon Steel, Director of the WPP Fellowship, to get some further answers for you all.
Jon wasn’t able to take part in the livestream as he lives in Western Australia (and it was past his bed time) but he was more than happy to answer some of the extra burning questions you had. “I’ll do my best to answer the questions that were not addressed in the session. Some were posed directly to Ben and Clara as Fellows, and while I won’t attempt to answer for them, I expect that they would agree with my response.”
“Good luck with your applications – I look forward to reading them in the next few weeks.”
If you’re interested in applying for The WPP Fellowship, head to the Opportunities tab on the Debut app and submit your application before November 9th.
1. Although there isn’t such thing as a ‘typical fellow’, are there any specific traits that successful applicants usually have?
The best Fellows are interesting, and interested. They bring energy and enthusiasm to any project. They are useful; I always look at a candidate and ask myself, ‘if I had to sit next to this person on a plane for 8 hours, would I enjoy the experience?’ By that, I mean would we have an interesting conversation? Would they be able to talk about subjects other than our business? Those qualities have to come through in your application.
2. What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on this year?
I hesitate to answer for Clara and Ben, but…
Clara spent last year seconded to Police Now (the police equivalent of Teach First), driving the strategy behind the organisation’s national expansion from its Metropolitan Police base. She also took time out to help Sir Martin Sorrell and others establish WPP’s first business in Cuba, meeting Cuba’s vice-president and other political and business leaders along the way.
Ben has led WPP’s Common Ground initiative, bringing together the six major marketing communications Holding Companies with the United Nations, in support of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As part of this, he has driven WPP’s chosen area of the SDGs, namely gender equality. I’m sure that, among other things, he also enjoyed working with Aston Martin this year.
As for me, I’m a Board Director of WPP AUNZ – we are a separate, public company in our own right in Australia and New Zealand, following the merger of WPP with another marketing services group in the region. Putting together and managing a group of 80+ agencies may not be ‘exciting,’ but it’s certainly never dull. I’ve also helped launch a new global campaign for Vodafone, while working with a group of Fellows on the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – a Kenyan organisation that rescues and rehabilitates orphaned elephants, and protects wild elephant populations.
3. How often do you recruit?
We recruit once a year, and have done since 1995. Applications generally open in early September, and close around the first week of November. (This year, the deadline is on November 9th.) We invite between 150 to 200 candidates to submit the answer to a further question by video in mid-November; selections for interview are made by the first week of December. First round interviews take place in early January, and final selection over two days in London on February 7th and 8th.
4. Is there any flexibility with the interview dates in January?
The interviews have to be completed between January 8th and 11th, 2018. We can’t go any later than that, as some candidates require visas to attend final selection in February. If a candidate is invited to an in-person interview in London during that week in January but is going to be overseas at that time, we can arrange a Skype or telephone interview. In exceptional cases, I have conducted such interviews in December, but that’s dependent on my own schedule.
5. Do you have to study a relevant degree to do a placement in Advertising?
I regard any degree as relevant, as long as a candidate has achieved a high standard. I have a degree in geography and, in my first advertising job, was trained by an aeronautical engineer and a Classics scholar. Each year, I deliberately try to hire people from a range of academic backgrounds, so that they bring different experience and problem-solving approaches. In fact, most of the best people I have encountered in my 35 years in the business do not have degrees in marketing or communication.
6. How many people do you take on per year?
We generally take on between 8 and 12 Fellows each year. The exact number depends on the needs of our business, and the quality of candidates.
7. Can you apply after working for a few years out of university?
Yes. Many of our best candidates have done other jobs before joining the Fellowship. In many ways, they have an advantage over people applying direct from University, because while they may not have direct experience in our industry, they are at least used to the rhythms of full time employment. (This can be a significant shock to people coming out of the academic world!)
8. What is your preferred amount of work experience?
It’s good to have some work experience, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in our industry. If it is, that’s great – it will be clear to us that you know what you’re getting into. If it’s not, you have to be able to convince us how your experience as a barman, killer whale trainer or professional athlete is relevant. (And I’ve met examples of all three who have successfully convinced me.)
If you’re worried about your lack of work experience, I should admit that before I got my first agency job, my only work experience was three days as a gooseberry picker.
9. Do you have any advice for tackling the essays?
First, ask yourself why we are asking the questions. If you understand that, your chance of success will be greater. And second, take your time. Think about it, write a draft, and then leave it for a while. More ideas will come. The essays need to be crafted, and candidates who leave everything until the last minute are less likely to succeed.
10. Are our answers read in isolation of each other or as one long narrative? Is there a method to answering the questions that you prefer?
Your written application is read as a single entity, in the order that you answered the questions. Every part of the application is important – don’t just list facts, courses studied, qualifications gained, but rather explain the thought process and why you chose the courses you did. Show me you can write. (Hint: I hate bullet points.) Answer honestly, and tell me what you really think in response to the questions we pose.
11. What are the exact steps after the three-year fellowship?
After three years, Fellows interview with agencies for a permanent role. Some stay in the role they occupy as a third-year Fellow, just moving from WPP’s payroll to that of the operating company. Others might return to their home market and a company where they worked in an earlier year as a Fellow. And the rest may move into something completely different. Fellows continue to be advised by their WPP mentors through this process, and I assist with the negotiations!
12. What can I be doing to improve myself before the interview?
Find out everything you can about our company, and our business. There’s nothing worse for me than rejecting an otherwise promising candidate on the basis of them being unprepared. You also need to develop your own theory of communications – what works, and what doesn’t? You don’t need professional experience for this – after all, you’ve spent at least twenty years being the target of various industry campaigns, and you’ll know what kind of approaches succeeded in engaging you, and what failed.
13. Do you have to travel or can you stay based in London?
We recruit Fellows from all over the world, and they now all start (around the middle of August) in London. For those joining us from overseas, visa regulations mean it may not be possible to stay in London for all three years, but for Fellows from the UK, it’s fine.
The opportunity exists – economics permitting – for Fellows to spend their second and third year in different markets, but some prefer to remain in London. This allows them to take advantage of professional opportunities and not be disrupted by the move – exploring opportunities in another market takes time, as does finding the right place to live, getting a bank account, and all those other logistic issues of changing country.
One of the best parts of the Fellowship is the ability to develop the cultural flexibility that results from spending a year in each of three different markets, but some Fellows already have that cultural flexibility. Clara, for example, grew up in Mexico, but studied in the United States and France, and worked in London before joining the Fellowship. Her work with WPP has taken her all over the world, but she has chosen to remain based in London.
14. What is a typical day at work for Fellows?
There is no typical day, as it varies according to different agencies, client responsibilities, and the nature of different Fellows. Ideally, however, all Fellows are in front-line, client-facing roles, with a significant amount of responsibility. My brief to host companies is to give a Fellow a level of responsibility ‘that makes you both nervous.’
15. How much flexibility is there with your choice of company?
For the first year, we discuss your preferences, but I make the final decision, based on where I believe you’ll have the greatest chance of success. This depends on a combination of your preference and experience, the agency brand, and the presence of someone who will mentor you well. No one spends the first year in an agency against their wishes; it’s just important that your enthusiasm is tempered by our experience.
For the second and third year, you make the decision. Your mentor (and I) will advise, and make sure that you don’t make a grave error. We also suggest options that you may not have considered and, most important, introduce you to the most senior people in your preferred agencies for discussions about the nature of the role you might fill.
16. Do you think that having a Master’s degree gives an edge over a Bachelor’s degree when applying for the fellowship?
We look for academic excellence, and a Master’s obviously shows a higher level of academic achievement (and also, in many cases, is evidence of the kind of passion for a subject that we like to see). Every year, however, we meet candidates who have fantastic academic qualifications, yet lack the personality and instincts necessary for a successful career in marketing communications. It’s a balance.
17. Who are the major players that WPP offers its services to?
We offer our services to a huge range of clients – from major corporations (between them, our 160+ companies work with 360 of the Fortune Global 500, all 30 of the Dow Jones 30, and 78 of the NASDAQ 100) to local businesses, from political parties to charities, from governments to pressure groups.
18. What makes a candidate stand out?
A good application is like half of an interesting conversation. You engage me with your personal introduction, talk engagingly about your experience, and provide stimulating, thought-provoking answers to the essay questions. When I finish reading the application, I should want to continue the conversation in person.
Remember – we are hiring people, not qualifications, and any application that gives just name, rank and serial number, or provides a very narrow, marketing communications-centric view of the world, is unlikely to succeed. You must also ensure that you don’t stand out for the wrong reasons: poorly written applications will be rejected, and attempts to be controversial for the sake of standing out tend not to be well-received.
19. Do you have any summer internship opportunities?
Individual WPP operating companies run their own internship programs, so it would be best to look for opportunities with them. The only one that operates at WPP level (in partnership with RARE Recruitment) is the ‘microfellowship,’ designed to introduce our industry to minority candidates. Participants spend a week in each of three different WPP companies, while also working in teams on a new business pitch.
20. Since you’re moving every year during the Fellowship, are you still able to see through an entire project?
While we like Fellows to move after 12 months in a rotation, we can be flexible in exceptional circumstances. If a Fellow has worked on a project for 12 months and it’s just a few weeks from completion, it would be silly to abandon it. We just talk and figure out between us, the existing host company and the next host company, when would be a good time to move.
21. How do you find working in other countries? Is there any aid from WPP to ensure you settle?
WPP helps Fellows with relocation and, if necessary, with temporary accommodation. Other Fellows who have worked in the market and the host operating company may also provide support and advice. In some markets, multiple Fellows may be moving at the same time; in the past, many have chosen to share accommodation.
One of the major benefits of the Fellowship is the ability to work in other countries. Many who have taken advantage of this opportunity have described the experience as ‘life-changing’, in both professional and personal terms. In broader terms, WPP supports all Fellows in settling into their roles, whether in their home market or overseas. All fellows have a peer mentor – someone recently graduated from the program – and a senior WPP mentor. I also mentor everyone on the program, and the 100-plus current and former Fellows working in the Group ensure that everyone has a robust safety net below them.
22. Do you sponsor visas?
Yes, if Fellows decide to move between markets, we do sponsor visas. We can’t guarantee getting one, as immigration rules are becoming tougher all over the world, but we work with some excellent lawyers, and do our best.
23. I graduated with a 2:2 in my undergraduate degree but I’m going to graduate in March 2018 with a Master’s degree with a 2:1, can I still apply for the fellowship?
Yes. We ask for a minimum level of 2:1 in your undergraduate degree, but a successful Master’s degree overrides that requirement.
24. Do you have any tips for a recent Law graduate looking to move into advertising/marketing?
Over the years we have hired several law students onto the Fellowship, and they have all made the transition very successfully. The main task for someone looking to make such a move is to think about everything you have learned as a lawyer, and how that might be relevant to our business.
The same applies to people from other disciplines who do not have any direct experience of our industry – don’t worry about what you don’t know, because that can be learned. Focus instead on what you do know, and how that experience, and instincts, can be applied to the communications world.
25. What did you guys want to be when you were younger?
I have no idea what Ben and Clara wanted to be when they were younger, but I very much doubt that they grew up wanting to be a WPP Fellow, or even to work in the marketing communications industry. When someone tells me that they have ‘always wanted to work in advertising,’ I always wonder, ‘why?’
The success of our campaigns relies on making connections between brands and the human and cultural context in which they exist, which means that the people creating campaigns have to spend as much time as possible in the real world, and have interests beyond our business. After I realised I wasn’t good enough to be a professional footballer, I wanted to teach geography and coach sport in some leafy English private school. I found my way into advertising entirely by accident. But it was a happy accident.
26. If I’m interested in filmmaking, and have a passion for it, what sector would you recommend me to work in?
The obvious answer would be to work in the film industry. Having said that, you could also indulge your passion for film in our various advertising agencies and entertainment companies. One of our former Fellows, Otto Bell, worked with Ogilvy Entertainment in New York after his three Fellowship rotations, and developed skills as both a producer and director during that time. He recently left WPP for a role outside the Group, but continued to indulge his passion for film. He wrote, produced and directed the feature film Eagle Huntress, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award last year.
27. What are the career prospects like in terms of progression? (I ask purely because of the yearly rotation to a different area of the business.)
Long term career prospects are very good. The Fellowship allows the opportunity to experiment with different disciplines, and find the place where the Fellows might contribute most to our business, and also get the most enjoyment and stimulation from their work. In three years, a Fellow might gain experience that would take others outside the program between five and ten years, which means that the learning curve is very steep, but also that on leaving the program it doesn’t take too long to find a senior role.
28. Do you have any legal departments in WPP?
Yes, WPP does have a legal department, but applications to that are outside of the Fellowship. While we have hired lawyers on the Fellowship, they have all joined us because they have realised they don’t want to be lawyers.
29. How did you find the interview experience?
Most Fellows would tell you that the interview experience was tough, but enjoyable. Through the entire application process, they learned as much about themselves as they did about WPP and our industry. (This being helped by the fact that I offer personal feedback to all of those we interview after each stage.) My advice for the interview stage: be yourself. Don’t try to be the person you think we want to hire, because even I don’t know who that is. Every year, I just try to hire people who are different from each other, and different from those who went through the program before them.
30. Are women in management well represented at WPP?
Women are well represented in senior positions at WPP but we’d like to increase those numbers. Part of our gender equality work with the UN involves creating more senior opportunities for women, but also making such positions more attractive – both in the agency world in general, and on the client side. You may be interested to know that over the lifetime of the Fellowship (a program specifically designed to attract and prepare people for leadership roles), 60% of Fellows have been female.
31. How would you describe your corporate culture?
Our corporate culture is difficult to describe, as it’s the sum of the corporate cultures of each of our constituent companies. You will find that each agency is its own, unique ecosystem. This is why I always say that it would be almost impossible for a Fellow to fail to find a corporate culture within WPP that suits them. As for WPP itself, as the parent company we exist to support our operating companies, and ensure that we are running a healthy business – a business that benefits clients, shareholders and employees alike.
32. How can a WPP Fellow make themselves future-proof in this digital market?
For a start, we all get too hung up on the word, ‘digital.’ ‘Digital’ simply represents the latest in a long line of technical developments that have expanded and enhanced the way we can communicate with members of our target audiences. Future-proofing yourself does depend on keeping up with the possibilities that this implies (but you don’t need to be able to build a website or a mobile app to understand and exploit its communication potential, any more than I need to understand the workings of an internal combustion engine to drive my car).
But it also requires you to remember that whatever the technological changes around us, we are still in the business of communicating with humans. And because humans haven’t changed as fast as that technology, the basic rules of human communication still apply.
33. I know that rotations on the fellowship offer international positions, but what about after? I would love to work in the Spanish-speaking world so can you tell me about any of the projects there?
You can seek a permanent role after the three rotations anywhere in the world. In some regions, this requires total fluency in the language, but in others, where a more international role is played, much of the business is conducted in English. It’s hard to describe the opportunities in the Spanish speaking world, because there are as many opportunities as there are agencies. It would be up to you to create your own opportunity, based on the experience and expertise you develop during your three rotations.
34. How has the effect of technology benefited or limited WPP?
Technology brings enormous potential benefits to companies like ours, but only if it’s used to enhance our understanding of, and communication with, the people with whom our clients desire productive relationships. Too often, technology is applied for technology’s sake – we do things ‘because we can’ rather than because they’re the right thing to do. Having said that, many WPP companies are at the forefront of technological development, and the relevant application of this technology can only benefit us and our clients.
35. Where do you think the future of marketing and communications will go?
If you look at the inscriptions on the walls in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, you’ll see advertising that was created 2,000 years ago. Fundamentally, advertising hasn’t changed that much in the intervening years. Everything we do is about creating awareness of, and engagement with, our clients’ brands or ideas. In 2,000 years’ time (assuming we haven’t destroyed the planet by then, which is a big and perhaps over-optimistic assumption), I suspect that people will still be using advertising, in its many and varied forms, to create and sustain such commercial or ideological relationships.
Another way to answer your question is to say, I don’t know. Five years ago, I’ll bet you could not have accurately predicted what you’d be doing today. I know I couldn’t.