Missing out on that uni place could be the start of something amazing, says The Industry Club’s Melissa Smith

Perhaps you didn’t get the A-level grades you were hoping for? Or maybe, if you’re anything like me, full time study for the next three years isn’t for you.

That’s fine. Because you can still earn good money and learn the skills to build a career in advertising through an apprenticeship.


At 17, I left Norwich High School with three A-levels. My grades weren’t great, but they would have got me a place at a university. Had I gone, I would have been the first person in my family to do so. I come from a long line of working class, self-made entrepreneurs. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

I didn’t fancy three years at university. I wanted to work and earn money. And I wanted to do it in advertising.

So, over the next two years I took up work placements in local ad agencies and newspapers. I also spent nine months getting a diploma in advertising at Watford College. After that, it was time to find my dream job.

I didn’t have an uncle or a family friend in advertising. I didn’t have a network in London, nor did I have a university degree. What I did have were steely determination, drive and a tenacious approach.

These vital attributes for a career in this industry helped me land my first job at advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi in 1988. This was the decade in which they came up with some of the most iconic advertising of all time. “Labour isn’t working” for the Tories, Silk Cut’s “Slashed purple”, the epic “Manhattan” spot for British Airways and The Independent’s launch campaign, “It is. Are you?” were just a few of Saatchi & Saatchi’s great moments from the 80s.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s mantra was “Nothing is Impossible”. And, believe me, it’s so true.

For one thing, it says you don’t need good A-levels to get into advertising. Our industry is nothing without creativity, and creativity is rarely learned at school. If anything, schools teach you to think the way everyone else does – the exact opposite of what creative industries need.

Which is why I’m so excited to have launched Marketing Debuts, The Industry Club’s apprenticeship scheme for school leavers (aged 18-25) this month.

Two programmes, one in project management, the other in social media and community management, are now open for young people to learn highly relevant, yet transferrable, skills while earning a decent wage over 13 months starting in January 2021. No A-levels needed.

We’re more interested in personal attributes than your grades. So, if you’re creative, curious, keen to build a career in advertising and have left school in the last two years, we want to hear from you. Go here to find out more about Marketing Debuts and the application process.

Peter Shutz, the former CEO of Porsche, famously said, ‘Hire character, train skill.’ Another great mantra and the guiding principle behind Marketing Debuts.

So, if the A-level grading system means you’ve missed out on the opportunity to go to university, don’t panic, it could be the best thing that has ever happened to you.

Melissa Smith is the founder and managing director of The Industry Club. Based in London, The Industry Club provides recruitment, executive search and training for the creative communications industry, with specialist consultants in the project management, account management, finance and resource management, creative and strategy/senior client service disciplines. The company’s training and networking events include workshops, bespoke in-house training and breakfast briefings. In May, The Industry Club launched Lockdown & Learn, a series webinars and workshops presented via Zoom.

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