Oddballs and misfits welcome: Inside the famed School of Communication Arts

The cultish School of Communication Arts has no shortage of would-be followers. But how does the SCA recognise what it calls the 'plant pulse' when it recruits candidates for its famed advertising course and how does it then nurture this family of creative oddballs and outsiders?

Making an omelette. Covering themselves in tattoos. Dressing as a lobster. Brandishing a butt plug. Stripping down to their underwear. Teaching hip-hop dance. Just some of the things students have done to show they are in... the 5%*
* The proportion of people that the School of Communication Arts says are truly creative

Upstairs at St Matthew’s Church in Brixton, in a space that used to be a nightclub called Mass, a young man dressed in a cowboy costume picks up a guitar and sings a ballad about broccoli. "I’m a broccoli-loving cowboy…" he croons to a crowd sat on tattered sofas and armchairs.

Next, a woman hosts a teddy bears’ picnic, passing around bear-shaped bottles containing a mysterious sparkly pink liquid. But the hit of the afternoon is Ivan, a graphic designer who has travelled from Slovenia to teach a lesson on making crop tops. After demonstrating that he can rap all the lyrics of TLC’s No Scrubs, he cuts the bottoms off T-shirts featuring inspirational quotes and throws them into a rowdy audience.

It’s selection day at the School of Communication Arts, a one-year advertising course in London. Before the presentations begin, Marc Lewis, dean of SCA, gathers Ivan and the four other candidates in a circle and sets the scene. He is wearing floral trousers and a bright yellow graphic T-shirt, his dyed-blue hair uncombed. "Welcome to our chaotic little school!" he says.

In an average year, Lewis vets about 300 potential candidates for SCA. He is searching for what the behavioural test Belbin Team Inventory calls "plants": people within teams or organisations who are highly creative and can solve problems in new and interesting ways.

"Creative people are rare. In the UK, about 5% of us are plants," Lewis explains to the group. "I’ll be looking to see if you have a plant pulse."

At SCA, the most crucial part of this process is the in-person interview on selection day. Lewis asks applicants to prepare a four-minute presentation demonstrating their creativity without showing any work. In the past, people have done this by making an omelette, covering themselves in tattoos, dressing as a lobster and brandishing a butt plug. They’ve taught hip-hop dance, stripped down to their underwear and brewed cups of tea that revealed individual messages.

"Seeing someone’s character is the most important part of Selection Day. Do I want to spend the rest of my life having pints with you?" Lewis says. "We’re a family. I want to be careful who comes into the family."

The extended SCA "family" is now dispersed throughout London’s top agencies and includes some of the most talented emerging creatives. A partial tally of alumni: Tom Bender and Tom Corcoran, the Wieden & Kennedy London creatives behind Nike’s "Nothing beats a Londoner" and Three’s "Phones are good" in 2018; Arvid Härnqvist and Amar Marwaha, the ex-BBC Creative duo who got poached by Apple’s agency TBWA\Media Arts Lab; Frazer Price and Teddy Souter, part of the resurgence at Droga5 London who made award-winning work for Amazon Prime Video; most of Uncommon Creative Studio’s creative department. The list goes on.

Lewis: 'We have people with all different life backgrounds and this breeds a much stronger group of creatives. I want to build a choir of introverts and extroverts'

In the decade since reopening its doors after 15 years of closure, Lewis has transformed SCA into the UK’s dominant advertising school. He seeks out misfits and sets them on an unpredictable and unorthodox path of education, birthing a unique breed of creative talent.

There have been three major figureheads in advertising education over the past few decades. Dave Morris led the creative advertising course at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College (now known as Bucks New University) from 1990 to 2005. Alumni include Damon Collins, founder of Joint and former creative chief of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R (now VMLY&R), as well as Fallon co-founders Richard Flintham and Andy McLeod.

For more than 30 years, Tony Cullingham has run the Watford Course at West Herts College, long considered the UK’s premier educational institution for advertising. Many of its graduates became creative leaders at major ad agencies: Danny Brooke-Taylor, creative founder of Lucky Generals; Andy Jex, chief creative officer at TBWA\London, and his former partner Rob Potts; Caroline Pay, ex-CCO at Grey London; Rob Doubal, co-president at McCann London and CCO at McCann UK; and so on.

And in recent years Lewis has overlapped with Cullingham, emerging as another influential teacher whose students are coveted by UK creative directors. "You can put a lot of people [in advertising] in the Dave, Tony or Marc camp," Stu Outhwaite-Noel, CCO of Creature, explains.

Both Cullingham and Lewis "look for highly conceptual, weird and wonderful people they can shape", Outhwaite-Noel adds. Yet despite some similarities, Lewis says he "wakes up every morning thinking, how can I make my school better than Watford? I was trained to hate Watford so I felt it was my duty to kill it."

That may sound like an extreme goal, but Lewis is an extreme person. He takes in oddballs and outsiders because he is one himself.

A self-described "troubled kid from Croydon", Lewis came to SCA in 1993 aged 20. SCA was founded in 1985 by John Gillard, whose pupils included industry legends Sir John Hegarty and Graham Fink. The eccentric Gillard wanted SCA to be the "antithesis" of bureaucratic, rigid universities, Lewis says. SCA was "a saviour for me", Lewis adds. "It was the first school I wasn’t expelled from. I felt absolutely at home there."

That’s why, when SCA shut down in 1995 due to financial troubles and Gillard’s failing health, Lewis promised himself he would one day help reopen it. Gillard died in 2000.

After a brief stint at Leo Burnett, Lewis went on to become a tech entrepreneur during the dotcom boom, selling one of his ventures to Chime Communications for £20m. From the outside he appeared to have it all – a successful career that made him rich – but in 2008 he suffered a mental breakdown. "I was this really flash idiot," he says. "I didn’t like who I was or what I’d become."

Lewis craved a path that was more meaningful and in 2010, with the support of the IPA and the backing of Gillard’s widow, he launched SCA 2.0. He set out to honour Gillard’s anti-establishment vision while bringing his own mark to the school.

The main difference between the two iterations, according to Lewis, is a greater diversity of students. A criticism lodged at the original SCA was that it catered to privileged white kids.  "When I was there, there were 40 kids, two with scholarships, 95% male and 90% white. There was one black lad called ‘Black Dave’," Lewis recalls. "I wanted to smash diversity into the school in every sense of the word."

SCA 2.0 operates as a social enterprise supported by more than 100 agencies. Though located in expensive London with annual fees of £16,500, the school awards need- and merit-based scholarships, funded by the industry, to about one-third of its 36 students each year. It also offers some bursaries to help with living costs.

This assistance helps attract a wider talent pool of various socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and ages (the oldest student last year was 44). "We have people with all different life backgrounds and this breeds a much stronger group of creatives," Lewis says. He also tries to mix personalities, adding: "I want to build a choir of introverts and extroverts."

Lewis acknowledges that while he himself was never the best advertising creative, "I’m good at spotting creative potential in people and helping them flourish". Following a phone interview with Lewis, a handful of applicants get invited to each of the school’s selection days, where along with delivering their presentation they meet with mentors, mingle with students and respond to a brief (a recent example: Kim Kardashian is becoming a lawyer. Come up with a name and launch strategy for her law firm). After jumping through these hurdles, a select few get the chance to join SCA’s ranks. And that’s when the real test begins.

"I’ve been to Barry’s Bootcamp and SCA was way more intense," Ads DeChaud, a creative at Wonderhood Studios, says. Her partner Phil Le Brun, with whom she teamed up on the course, calls it "a madhouse".

"You can smell the nervous energy and lack of sleep," he says.

"This is education on steroids," Nina Beyers, a creative at Uncommon, adds. "It’s basically three years of school crammed into one. Everyone in the year will cry."

An initial shock comes when students are taught barely any advertising lessons in the first term. Instead, they learn about things such as stand-up comedy, meditation, poetry and painting.

"The first term is about finding yourself creatively. [Lewis] talks about being playful children and retraining your brain to be less rigid and university-like," Poppy Cumming-Spain, a creative at Creature, says.

For introverts in the cohort, the intimidating challenge of performing in front of others is intended to "build the confidence to be yourself", Mike Nicholson, a mentor at SCA, explains. Creature creative Megan Egan adds: "Once you’ve done stand-up, presenting your ideas feels like nothing."

After the film Whiplash was released in 2014, Lewis began likening himself to the character Terence Fletcher, the intensely demanding music instructor who stops at nothing to realise his students’ potential. "Marc was inspired by that guy. In our year he was really pumped up, red-faced and shouting a lot," Souter recalls. "From what I understand he’s a bit more chilled out now."

Yet pageantry remains a major part of the SCA education. Lewis plays loud music to kick off lessons and lift the mood of the room. If students are late to class, he’s been known to make them dance in front of everyone or smash their coffee mugs.

"There’s divided opinion on Marc," Cumming-Spain says, but few doubt his single-minded dedication to SCA. Alumni say he has missed time with his family and once delayed surgery when it clashed with the course. Because of his unusual teaching methods, they have compared him to a "circus master", "magician" and "football manager".

"He plays games. He’s clever at spotting how to get the best out of people and knows how to give you a bollocking if you’re the type of person who can handle it," James Reynolds, a creative at Mother, says.

For example, DeChaud and Le Brun remember a couple of days when Lewis stopped speaking to them and their portfolio inexplicably took a dramatic fall on SCA’s running leaderboard of student books. It later transpired that Lewis wanted to jolt the duo, who had been performing well, out of complacency.

Or there was the time when Lewis threatened to split up Souter and Price, who had teamed up early on in the course, telling them: "It’s over for you guys, choose a new partner." "We came in the next day and he hadn’t done it, but it was a shock to the system," Souter recalls. The bluff had been part of Lewis’ strategy to push the pair to greater heights.

"He has various tactics designed to embarrass and confuse you but also build you up," Price says. "If you can’t survive Marc breaking your mug on the floor, how are you going to survive in a normal work environment where your ideas are constantly trashed and you’ve got to go again on rounds of creative work and you’ve lost the pitch? It all comes from a good place."

The pressure to excel is high at SCA, which Souter (son of TBWA chairman Peter Souter) calls a "cultish environment". The school is designed to mimic fast-paced agency life and client pitches, so students will have two or three briefs on the go simultaneously, with tight deadlines. A typical daily schedule, if there is one, includes talks from Lewis, industry practitioners and other creative types (Hegarty and filmmaker Richard Curtis were recent guests), with the rest of the day devoted to tackling the latest brief.

"It’s a rollercoaster. One day you’re on top of the world and someone’s given you a nice comment, and the next day you feel like jacking it all in," Reynolds says.

There is no set curriculum and Lewis is constantly tweaking the course to keep pace with industry change. "He’s like a sculptor working on a piece," Nicholson says. Instead of a syllabus, Lewis writes a 60,000 to 80,000-word "story" for each year, using a rags to riches framework, which he reveals to students in week two of the first term. They also have to form and name a pseudo "agency". These methods are designed to unite each cohort around a common narrative and identity, Lewis explains.

The course combines copywriting, art direction, interactive design and innovation; some students have gone on to start their own businesses rather than join agencies. They work in pairs and are encouraged to find a creative partner, in a speed-dating environment likened to Love Island, although some leave the course as singles.

High expectations and a competitive atmosphere at the school can sometimes produce "a slightly entitled creative", Outhwaite-Noel cautions. "There’s almost a mini celebrity that comes out of SCA."

But he adds this caveat: "That swagger is also to be embraced and celebrated, because god knows we need that confidence and mischief in the industry. Hell, if it ends with us making a Nike ‘Londoner’, then fucking great."

Despite any perceived entitlement, SCA is "based on an ethos of reciprocity", Lewis says. This is true of its business model, in which agencies that donate more money or mentoring hours to the school get first access to its talent at showcase days. "The industry owns the school. The more they put in, the more they get out," Lewis says.

The dean also acknowledges that by putting students through the mill, "we carry the risk of breaking them. We have a pastoral responsibility." Perhaps because of his own experience with mental-health struggles, Lewis has demonstrated an acute empathy for students when they are at their most vulnerable. Many alumni have a story about how he went above and beyond to look after them, devoting the same level of attention to their wellbeing as to their performance.

"He helped me a few times when I didn’t think I could do it anymore, and he was literally a shoulder to cry on," Reynolds says.

Lewis put up Naomi Taylor, a former foster child, in his own home so she could afford to attend the course. When one of SCA 2.0’s earliest students, Tom Houser, ran out of money, Lewis gave him a scholarship in exchange for cleaning the school at the weekends. When DeChaud struggled with depression, Lewis let her retake the year and introduced her to stress-coping tools such as mindfulness and journaling.

"I still do these to this day," she says. "Marc pulled me aside and said, you have to face your demons. He helped me get out of this."

Even after students graduate from SCA, Lewis is "still looking after people", Outhwaite-Noel says. Some alumni continue to call his office to ask for advice. In return, after they make it in advertising, many come back to give talks or book crits, passing on what they’ve learned to the next generation.

"This is also something SCA teaches us – you know you have to give back to someone else," DeChaud says.

"The idea a lot of people have of schooling is they owe you something. It’s the other way around at SCA. It feels like we owe something to them," Ben Conway, a creative at McCann London, says.

This is also because SCA, as arduous as it is, ends up being an emotional journey of self-discovery for many of its students. "At [SCA] they spend so much time just unearthing who you are as a person. A lot of people bury themselves away and don’t want to be honest about who they are, because someone might think that’s weird," Conway says.

Helena Pelsmaekers, Conway’s creative partner, recalls her own moment of self-realisation. She thought she wouldn’t fit in when she arrived at SCA because she’s introverted and reserved. "After three weeks [Lewis] was saying to people, ‘you’re this, you’re that’. I thought he would say to me, ‘you’re shy’, but he was like, ‘you’re dark’. And he was right," she says. "I realised that I might not have the loudest voice, but I don’t have to be loud to be creative."

Houser, now a senior creative at Uncommon who returns to SCA a few times a year as a mentor, says those who have passed through the school "have been some of the strangest people I’ve ever met". But Lewis "encourages you to be comfortable with who you are, even if who you are is a bit odd".

Click on image to see larger version

There is a school of thought, which Lewis subscribes to, that says everyone is born creative. But as people go through life, their education, social expectations or corporate demands tend to crush their creative instincts.

His flamboyant approach at SCA is all about helping people regain this muscle memory and return to their creative roots. One of his mantras, which many of his pupils still repeat years later, is "people buy people". He recognises that, in an industry where talent is the backbone, your ideas, creativity and unique way of seeing the world are your most valuable assets.

"There’s a danger in advertising, especially advertising education, that people try to teach you the rules," Houser says. "I don’t think there are any rules – the rules are always changing. Our job is to surprise and delight people, to embrace the new and unknown. [Lewis] fosters that in people and encourages them to be themselves."

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