Win a pencil, teach a pencil

My experience on the D&AD New Blood Academy

Ellis Sargeant
Mar 8, 2018 · 10 min read
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Part of the D&AD New Blood Academy at the awards show.

This blog, like the subtitle states, is a quick overview to my experience at D&AD New Blood and hopefully, some insightful tips for you to utilise in your creative endeavours, both inside and outside of the organisation. So sit back, relax and enjoy my awkward journey through D&AD.

Throughout this blog I will say ‘New Blood Academy’ and ‘brief’ a lot, so, for your sake I will abbreviate it to ‘NBA’ and unfortunately, I cant make brief any briefer.

The premise of the D&AD awards is to promote an ever-increasing excellence of creative work in the world. This is true for both the professional awards and the New Blood awards (D&AD New Blood is specifically for young creatives aged between 18–24). Prizes come in the form of stubby pencils in a variety of colours. The Yellow Pencil is the hallmark of D&AD, its history stems back to 1963 and has been prolific in the branding of the company, this is awarded to the most outstanding creative work that has achieved true creative excellence. Basically, if you manage to take one home, pat yourself on the back, you smashed it! The Wood Pencil is for work that has achieved the best in advertising and design and is worthy of a place in the legendary yearly D&AD enchiridion. A Graphite Pencil is given to stand out work beautifully executed, with an original and inspiring idea at its core and the Black Pencil is awarded to work that is truly groundbreaking in its field, the crème de la crème of pencils! Last but not least we have the White Pencil, this is awarded to work that has the power to promote positive change in the world and in my opinion the best award.

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Wood, Graphite, Yellow, White and Black Pencil awards

To get your hands on a pencil you will have to impress a panel of judges who will critique the work you have submitted and ultimately determine who gets what. These panels consist of accomplished creative minds from all over the world, as well as brand representatives. VBAT’s Creative Director (Graham Sturt) is on the panel for the Hellmans brief this year, so, I will be taking bribes at the end of this blog.

Now if you manage to bag yourself one of five pencils you will be invited to take part in the NBA. This is a 2-week long creative boot camp in Shoreditch which is designed to challenge your ideas, to collaborate with other creatives and ultimately set you up for everything the industry has to throw at you.

However, there is a backdoor to this academy which doesn’t require a pencil but some nerves of steel and in my case, a great repertoire of jokes.

Don’t make this your go-to plan, this is a last resort for a wildcard spot, but like Robert Frost said ‘Take the road less travelled’ and trust me it is a hell of a lot more fun!

While the festival-goers browse the exhibited work there are lots of events going on in the background including incredible seminars, workshops, portfolio crits and even talks from the likes of Paul Smith. One of which my ex-creative partner Tom and I got put forward to partake in by our lecturer. This was a presentation to 40 industry professionals about ourselves and our work, with the top two teams getting a place in the NBA. Now, if you go down this route you will be put against other hopefuls looking to grab this wildcard spot, so expect competition. In fact, it draws similarities to the X-Factor where Simon Cowell gets you to sing for survival against the competition, apart from there are ten times the amount of judges and it’s only the under 24’s category taking part.

Anyway, the time came for us to head in. Our presentation was scheduled three-quarters of the way through, this is the sweet spot for presenting work as people tend to forget the first few acts and are bored by the end. So, we got mic’d up like Ant and Dec backstage and proceed to get ourselves in the ‘zone’. This consisted of shaking our limbs around like we were preparing to run the 100m sprint in the London Olympics and reassuring each other that ‘We got this’. We then went out on to the stage, set up the laptop, primed the projector and introduced ourselves to the audience. This consisted of the usual formalities, our names, disciplines and a classic ‘It’s great to be here today!’ but, before I could utter another word our plan went out of the window. The whole D&AD wifi crashes! Presentation? Gone. Tom is frantically smashing buttons on the laptop to try and get it working, in what looks like a homage to the monkey working at a computer GIF.

Actual footage of Tom.

Then there I was, stood on the stage with no podium or laptop to hide behind at the full mercy of the audience. So, with a huge amount of noradrenaline rushing into my prefrontal cortex, I began envisioning the lovely crowd turning into a ravaging mob armed with rotten tomatoes and bottles ready to hurl at any moment.

I then began to do what every reasonable person would and started telling Christmas cracker jokes from 2007. Yep, it was as awkward as it sounds.

In this highly stressful moment, my natural instinct was to tell terrible jokes in a bid to win over the crowd and stall it out for Tom to stop monkeying around. Fast forward ten agonising minutes and we had just finished our biggest freestyling presentation ever. Remarkably, either through sympathy or the quality of my jokes, it ended up working for us and we got offered a spot on the academy! I guess when you think you have nothing to lose, you end up being natural and deliver a very simple, honest presentation. That coupled with a great understanding of your work makes improvising super easy. In four days time, we would be living and working in London for one of the biggest creative award schemes in the world, all off the back of terrible jokes and some quick thinking.

The NBA started in the magical backdrop of Ogilvy Amphitheatre at Sea Containers with a presentation from Andy Sandoz (the D&AD president of 2016).

Little did we know this would go full circle and become the place of our final day on the academy where we would pitch to 60 professionals and peers.

After the introduction, we were told to meet the following day at our new home for the two weeks, which would be at D&AD in Shoreditch.

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D&AD Shoredtich: Our home for the next 2 weeks.

For the first week, we tore down everything we knew and rebuilt our creative structure so we could understand the meaning behind our work and what kind of values we represented as creatives. There were also ongoing talks from leading creatives giving their specialisation and perspective on the industry. One notable talk was from Al MacCuish the Creative Chairman of Sunshine, whose seminar was on storytelling. After he gave us insight into how to construct stories around themes, he set us on the task of coming up with our own story within the teams we had been assigned. It was incredible to see how he crafts his narratives to make emotionally compelling work and little did I know that Al would become my first boss and give me my break into the industry.

This really shows the importance of working hard in front of the right people, everyone at the NBA has the potential to make a huge impact on your career.

Al was one of many interesting speakers and I implore anyone who is part of the academy to listen, note down, ask questions and fully engage with everything. It’s very easy to be blasé and disinterested but that’s the dumbest shit you could do, it’s not every day that the Executive Creative Director of Google, Steve Vranakis teaches you about creativity, so, pay attention and own the opportunity that you have.

The second week took the form of a more hands-on approach, we were briefed at the start of the week by a client and given mentor agencies who are all part of WPP. We then had the majority of our time to work on the brief at our agencies around London. The 2016 client brief everyone had to tackle was from TFL and to help us my team and I were given VML, an award-winning advertising agency in Mornington Crescent as a mentor agency. Now was the time that we had been training for, it was our opportunity to come up with some sick ideas and make them look as sexy as possible. VML let us have full rein of the agency so we could utilise their tools and facilities to help answer the brief, this included our own meeting room, beers and snacks. Make sure to take the most out of this opportunity, you are in a position most people dream of, inside an agency with mentors and Creative Directors investing their time into you, working on a big client pitch, don’t waste it…or the beers.

The last week flew by from the number of things going on and before we knew it, it was pitch day at the amphitheatre. Today will be the best day on the academy, it is the ribbon around the present the cherry on the cake or the Parmigiano Reggiano over the Spaghetti Bolognese. It was presentation time, by now you should have it all sorted and everyone knows which part they need to say and when, so all you need to do is go out there and do your thing.

A lot of people try and add drama or entertainment to their presentations with costumes or props or whatever seems relevant. This can be a good idea if you wanna lift the energy but avoid gimmicks.

People (especially creatives) can see right through them and if they don’t add anything to your idea then I would always suggest leaving them out. When you have to pitch to clients IRL you probably won’t be wearing a wig and a fake nose so its always good practice to get great at presenting by just being yourself. Our turn arrived and we got 10 minutes to present our idea which was Lifelines a plug-in app to help London commuters reduce their intake of pollution. Once we had finished the presentation it was question time. One important thing to note is that you are in a room full of highly creative people and by nature are very curious, so expect a lot of clever questions. You can’t prepare for this specifically besides knowing your idea in and out, so just make sure everyone is on the same page and everything will be fine.

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Team E presenting Lifelines (Left to right) Maya, Adam, Ellis, Benas, Melissa.

Once the presentations finish the judges will go deliberate in another room while you wait for the results. After they return and announce which ideas they liked it becomes beer o’clock and your chance to network. Have your portfolio ready, your smile on and once again just be yourself and authentic.

People aren’t only looking at your work but sizing up your character to see if they could work every day with you, therefore it’s important to remember to network as much as possible without coming across as one of those annoying people that don’t understand social queues.

Now you are standing there with a bit of a dry mouth, beer in one hand, portfolio in another and the pocket where your business cards were is now empty. You did it. Congratulations! Now I would suggest moving promptly up the stairs located behind the amphitheatre to the rooftop bar and celebrate generously in what you have accomplished. Thousands of people worked so hard to get where you are now, so have a beer on them for pushing you to work harder and have one for me.

Finally I will leave you with my most important tip for any budding New Blooders, enjoy every moment. Have fun, create new things, new friendships and a new way of thinking. It is an unforgettable experience and will be the start of your creative journey from the moment you get that pencil. Or for those who seek the road less travelled #wildcardgang may you continue to pave new routes so others can follow you in your success.

Its been your boy Ellis, peace.

Note of the editor: The Awards are open to students, recent grads of any age, and aspiring creatives aged between 18 to 24, and will get you prepped and primed to launch your career.

The New Blood Awards entry site is still open, so get your work entered. Deadline 20 March 2018, 5PM GMT.

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written by Ellis Sargeant, Creative Intern at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme, PR at VBAT

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