Medieval and Modern History

July 2012

Where did you study?

Birmingham University.

What did you Study?

Medieval and Modern History (BA Hons).

What year did you Graduate?

2005

So we can feel more intimate, three words to describe your physical appearance.

Couldn’t possibly comment.

What did you do when you left Uni? Be brutally honest! If you cried into a bowl of cereal every morning & treated your local pub like your favourite Uni nightclub, say so.

Controversially, I decided to stay in Birmingham rather than return south (to Winchester, where I’m originally from). I was playing in a band at the time, so I spent a few months staying on the floor of a bandmate’s flat. It sounds rock ‘n’ roll but it wasn’t – I was fed pumpkin seeds and given an electric drumkit as a pillow.

The singer and I ended up (serendipitously) temping for the same company – a public sector organisation, which funded further education for disaffected youths. Essentially we were paid to send faxes and email our friends and eat communal buffets on the fourth floor. It wasn’t exactly challenging work, but being under-employed was better than being unemployed – it paid the rent and I met the odd interesting/inspiring/insane person along the way.

I spent a year with the company, in which time I moved into a house share before joining the ‘dark side’ of the private sector and embarking on a career in marketing.

What are you doing now and how long do you see yourself doing it for? Are you in your dream job? If not yet, what is this?

I’m working as a copywriter for a communications agency. We provide marketing content (essentially editorial and design services) for clients including Toshiba, Siemens, E.On and Honey Monster Foods. We’re a small company but with some pretty big clients on the books.

‘Marketing’ can be a bit of a catch-all for arts graduates. It’s as interesting a discipline as you want to make it, so it’s worth doing your research before you dip your toe into what is a very broad field. Market research, for example, is a million miles from working as a ‘creative’, which in turn is a million miles from media buying or account handling.

A lot of the pleasure (or pain) comes from the brands and clients you work with, and the media in which you are communicating. Micro-managing a graphic designer as he bangs out a poster for a service station canteen is a far cry from Mad Men. However, hearing adverts that you have created on the radio, or seeing copy you have written in public or in the press is a real buzz. At least it is for a sad copywriter like me! You have to experience the mundane briefs to identify what’s interesting.

I can see myself spending many more years in communications. It’s a fast-paced, progressive sector that’s rarely boring. Digital media is becoming ever more important and as one of the generation who lived through the digital revolution, it’s great to work within it.

I think ‘dream job’ is a bit of a red herring. I defy any British office job to be dream-like on a drizzly Monday morning. I think it’s more about aspiring to a role in which your strengths and talents are recognised and rewarded. In my case, it’s nice to be paid for my creative ideas and writing skills, but every job surely has its nightmares. ‘Marketing’ is an inherently subjective field, so you’re often at the whim of opinions and personalities, meaning people (clients) can soon make or break your day.

I think there’s also an important distinction to be drawn between ‘output’ and ‘process’. Your dream ‘output’ might be working for a good cause, like an inspiring charity, but if the ‘process’ of this role is all spreadsheets and pie charts, it might not be the job for you. Working in brand communications, I appreciate that I’m not necessarily making a profound contribution to humanity, but I enjoy the process of being creative every day. Getting the right mix of worthy output and engaging process is crucial.

Do you think Uni has helped you to be where you are now?

It’s a tricky one this. My degree almost certainly helped me to get and impress at, interviews (ears pricked up at the mention of a First), but I think once you’re in a job, it’s advisable to keep mentions of your degree to a minimum. If I were to talk it up at interviews now (seven years after graduating), it would be seen as amateur, and probably a bit desperate. These days my degree gathers dust on the second page of my CV, but it’s good to have it on there.

A degree allows you to jump through certain hoops but it certainly doesn’t guarantee a fulfilling, well-paid career, or even a modestly-paid job. There’s nothing like the crushing feeling of discovering that the lad from school, who struggled to scrape together some A-Levels, is now on 5K more than you. That’s when feelings of being sold down the river by Mr Blair et al can flare up. But the tables do turn.

To use a crude analogy, a degree is a bit like an invite to a house party but an invite that only gets you as far as the front gate. You’ve still got to find a way into said house, whether by charming the hosts or asking those nice neighbours your parents know to lend you a back door key.

When it comes to securing that first temping job (not everyone walks into a grad scheme and not everyone wants to move back in with their parents), your degree is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Talking up your degree to ‘Paula from Manpower’ is a bit like holding up a red rag to a bull. Forget tales of dissertation successes, which will only make her foam at the mouth, she’d much rather you simply fibbed: ‘Yeah, I’m alright on Excel’. The experiences a friend and I had with recruitment agencies inspired us to write a comedy about graduate recruitment called ‘Twenty-Two Thousand CVs’, which you can see at www.youtube.com/forresterfletcher.

Also, going back to my house party analogy, your degree doesn’t protect you from the huge bouncer that is the dreaded psychometric test. Regardless of how good your degree is these inane tests (and they’re about as helpful and reasonable as your typical bouncer) can scupper your career plans in an instant. Almost every large graduate scheme seems to insist on using psychometric tests as a default part of the application process, as if they’re some sacred rite of passage. I, along with many others it seems, think this is a big mistake. Psychometric tests don’t and can’t test essential personality traits like ambition, motivation, conscientiousness, analytical ability, creativity or interpersonal skills. Their only purpose, it seems, is to massage the egos of ‘left brains’ – those who are incredibly logical, but not necessarily incredibly motivated, or ambitious, or effective etc. If there’s a sure-fire way to keep creativity out of a business then flooding the application process with multiple-choice questions about one-dimensional shapes is it. All a psychometric test does is test someone’s ability to answer a psychometric test. If employers want a helpful model for identifying an individual’s working style then they should use Myers-Briggs personality types. But that’s quite enough of my ranting.

Ultimately, I think my degree has helped me to get where I am. There’s no doubt that having a good degree will give you certain advantages over your ‘university of life’ colleagues. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they regard you as a research genius or a grammar guru – which goes to show that all those hours spent wading through dusty periodicals weren’t necessarily wasted.

Any advice for graduates who aren’t yet in their dream jobs or still battling against this rubbish economy for just an interview?

Don’t rule out working for small companies! You can get direct exposure to senior people, often-entrepreneurial senior people, and develop a much broader skills set than you would tucked away in a silo of a large organisation. You can probably be yourself more too. And, if you’re a ‘right-brain’, you won’t have to grapple with that psychometric bouncer.

My job hunting tips: have a repertoire of CVs for different jobs/sectors; buy The Guardian Guide to Careers by David Williams (there’s some good stuff on interviews); prepare for ‘quirky’ interview questions (I’ve had both ‘what’s 7% of 7?’ and ‘Windsurfing or caravanning?’); get some interesting hobbies and never forget: you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you. If a company/interviewer doesn’t feel right, for whatever reason, go with your gut instinct and look elsewhere.

Finally, if you would be so kind, tell us briefly about your day ahead – just in case we might want to change our career path.

I’ve got a phone interview with a client tomorrow morning regarding the emerging economies of the CIVETS countries (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa). The client is a language services provider and I’ve been tasked with ghost-writing a 1,500-word article for a trade press magazine on the communication challenges faced by countries entering the CIVETS markets. Which is where the History essay skills come in.

After getting up to speed with the CIVETS (so I know what I’m talking about), I’ve got to plan a month’s worth of Facebook content for the Honey Monster. I’ll be looking to create engaging posts in the right tone of voice for this iconic brand character (there goes the marketing spiel). Oh and someone’s just given me a headline to write for an article in Kennel Gazette, on the subject of the privatisation of forests.

As a copywriter you’ve got to be able to write about absolutely anything and everything– from economics to Sugar Puffs to Forestry Commissions.

That’s it. Olly, you have been wonderful.

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