Posted 17 June 2019

Inside The Pipe, Ogilvy’s unconventional creative internship programme

Originally founded in 1948 by infamous adman David Ogilvy, the agency that bears his name is one of advertising’s most recognisable, with over 500 offices in 120 countries across the world. Serving as an advertising, marketing and public relations agency, it sits alongside the likes of AKQA, Grey and Mediacom as part of the WPP Group. Its London headquarters houses around 2,000 staff, with departments ranging from advertising and customer engagement, to design, social, PR and behaviour change specialists.

Among its many creative talents are group creative directors Johnny Watters and Angus George, who together launched The Pipe internship scheme three years ago. Founded under the belief that diversity breeds creativity, the initiative welcomes so-called ‘Pipers’ from all walks of life. These aren’t your typical fresh-faced graduates or usual creative suspects; this is a programme open to anyone with a creative bone in their body. Here, Johnny and Angus fill us in on The Pipe’s origins, before we meet some of this year’s cohort to get an insight into life as a Piper.

The current cohort of 14 Pipers

Early Origins

We had the idea for The Pipe long before we joined Ogilvy. And for most of our careers, we’ve been helping young talent in one way or another, from giving advice and doing book crits, to running agency placement schemes and hosting student workshops.

The vast majority of new talent coming into our industry comes from university, and this is a good thing. Year after year, we’re blessed with thousands of incredibly smart, highly creative, well trained, articulate, hungry young things, desperate to carve out a place in our industry. We’re lucky to have them.

But university isn’t for everyone. Some of the most creative people in the world don’t have an academic bone in their bodies. Couldn’t write you a paper. Couldn’t sit a test. Couldn’t even even sit still in class. They’re just wired that way. While others simply can’t afford it, and our industry misses out on all that talent.

“We already had a pipeline for ad-school people. What we needed was a pipeline for everyone else.”

Plus, most of the students we were seeing were from quite privileged places, and were generally white, middle class, university-educated males. Which reflected across every creative department in London.

We wanted to look for some completely non-traditional candidates – people who offered a different approach with their creative ideas. But it’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake. All we care about is how they think. It’s about diversity of thought. Because diversity breeds creativity.

Outside Ogilvy
Inside Ogilvy’s London location, on the South Bank

How It Works

The Pipe is made up of 14 creative people, who are paid the London Living Wage for nine months. Together, they work as a single unit and are fed briefs from across the whole agency.

For the first few months, it’s about getting their heads around what we do at Ogilvy, and what they might want to do within it. Some of them have never been in an office before, never mind an ad agency.

It’s important that we don’t pigeonhole them into departments either. Instead they get time to understand and experience all the different opportunities on offer within Ogilvy and the creative industries as a whole. This could be anything from PR, customer engagement, advertising, social and design, behaviour change – they actually get a more holistic view of the agency than most full-time employees. All of which puts them in a better position to more assuredly set themselves on a path that works for them.

The first three months are a steep learning curve, but we help give them an understanding of how the industry works. And that’s when the hard work starts.

“They get time to understand and experience all the different opportunities on offer.”

Because they’re paid for by Ogilvy and not clients, The Pipe is essentially a free creative resource for brands. So they’re always working on live briefs. For example, you see a lot of brands losing traction with young people; we basically throw these briefs to The Pipe and they respond instinctively with the things they want to see or experience. And 99 times out of 100, their answer is not an ad.

We had a pitch for Formula 1 last year, and we asked the Pipers what would make them interested in it. They came back with all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas, from really fast driving lessons to spaghetti in the shape of the race tracks.

But it’s not just about them being younger than the rest of the Ogilvy team – they often answer these briefs as well as, or sometimes better than, traditional creatives.

The final three months are about knuckling down, producing as much as they can, and starting to embed themselves in agency life. When their first six months are up, they decide whether they want to stay on at the agency. If so, we embed them much further into a particular team. And if not – for example, if they decide they’d like to become an illustrator – we help get them off to a good start by connecting them with contacts.

The Pipers at work
The Pipers at work

The Application Process

Round 1: Submit a project
In the first round of the process, we ask applicants to submit a creative project. This can be anything they judge to be creative – something that will make us think, “I want the person behind that in this building!” The selection process for this is deliberately blind, and we look at everything.

We always receive a crazy range of work. We’ve had people submit everything from a piñata of a bumble bee to ceramics, a sequinned swimming costume, poetry, novels, screenplays, alter egos, even a video of a woman claiming to be Britain’s fastest crayon-colourer. Last year we had over 2,000 entries, which we went through one by one.

Round 2: The Instagram brief
We narrow these down to the 200 most exciting entrants. Then we set them their first brief to sell something over Instagram. This is because: a) we need a leveller to judge them equally; b) to see if they’re confident enough to publish their idea on Instagram; c) to see if they can actually answer a brief.

In the first year, we bought a 1997 Vauxhall Corsa for £50, parked it below Sea Containers [the building where Ogilvy is based], and challenged the candidates to sell it over Instagram. Once the entries are in, everyone in Ogilvy gets to vote for the top 50.

Round 3: Interviews at Ogilvy
Those 50 then come in for assessment and do speed interviews with people from across the agency, which is the first time we really learn anything about them. In the earlier stages we are looking for a great creative idea, but in the later phase, it’s about ensuring we also have a broad mix of people in that group of 14. We don’t want 13 designers and one writer, for example. We want people with a mix of interests and skills – creative tech, film, photography and so on.

We purposefully have a range of people and backgrounds. But we’ve been very clear over the years that this doesn’t mean excluding some of the people you’d traditionally find in advertising – you’ll still find white male grads on The Pipe – but it’s the mix of everyone together that makes it so special. Diversity of thought.

“We’ve had people submit everything from a piñata of a bumble bee, to a video of a woman claiming to be Britain’s fastest crayon-colourer.”

The Pipers at Ogilvy

The Pipe’s Impact on Ogilvy

The Pipers bring this wonderfully refreshing energy. They’re so passionate and excited. In an agency of this size, it’s very easy for that to get lost as everyone goes into their own rhythm.

And it’s as much about us learning from them as them learning from us; they bring unique knowledge and experience to the team too. It lifts everybody else. And frankly, sometimes they scare the shit out of us.

David Ogilvy himself once said, “Talent, I believe, is best found among non-conformists, dissenters and rebels.” That’s the driving ethos for The Pipe, and what we continue to refer to when thinking about the impact it should have.

“It’s as much about us learning from them as them learning from us; they bring unique knowledge and experience to the team.”

Inside Ogilvy

Life After The Pipe

We’re now in our third year of The Pipe, which means that 28 creatives have already gone through the programme, with another group of 14 with us currently.

One of the most powerful parts of the programme is seeing how the Pipers start to form micro-networks beyond the agency. Because they end up doing so much work together, they become quite close and continue to help each other out after they’ve left. They build a network they can rely on, which will last their entire careers as they go forward into the industry.

“One of the most powerful parts of the programme is seeing how The Pipers start to form micro-networks.”

Not everyone goes on to work at Ogilvy, but if they do, some stay on to become creatives, some go into the design department or become planners. If we’ve got planners, producers and account handlers who are creatively-minded and appreciate both the creative and the process, that to us is a win for the programme and the industry.

One of our previous Pipers, James Papper, spent his final months knowing he wanted to become a director, and he used that time to connect with Blink, who he’s now signed with. We also had a creative team who came through The Pipe, Jo and Joe, who won a Cannes Lions award while still on The Pipe, which became Ogilvy London’s highest Cannes award that year. Gulp.

Inside Ogilvy

Meet Some of the Pipers

What made you want to be part of The Pipe programme?
I really wanted to get into my creative side and decided to change my career. I found The Pipe randomly online and applied, being very honest about my interest in technology and storytelling through sound and visuals.

What are the best and most unexpected parts of the programme?
Finding out that being a creative technologist was a job in the first place! To know that I could merge storytelling, visual creativity and tech into a job was certainly unexpected, and yet the best thing to come out of this programme. I’m enjoying the work so much, and I don’t know if I would have discovered it without The Pipe.

What would you like to do next?
I want to see where creative technology can take me. I’m not entirely sure of the what’s and where’s, but I’m definitely enjoying the ride!

What made you want to be part of The Pipe?
After leaving university I was told I had no chance of joining an ad agency in a creative position. When I found out about The Pipe, I remember feeling relieved that previous experience accounted for nothing, and that I would only be judged on a random creative task. It was the first application that I actually cared about.

What are the best and most unexpected parts of the programme?
I love how we are largely left to our own devices, and encouraged to make weird and wonderful things. Above all it’s a privilege to work on live briefs for big clients, and it’s great to feel trusted.

What would you like to do next?
What I’m doing now!

What made you want to be part of The Pipe programme?
It stood out to me because it was very clear from the onset that we were going to be doing real creative work for real clients. Coming straight from the second year of a design degree, it was the perfect opportunity to develop my skill set, and figure out what I actually like doing, just in time for my final year.

What are the best and most unexpected parts of the programme?
The variety advertising has to offer. I could spend a day trying to come up with a prototype for a PR stunt, writing copy for a radio ad or thinking of catchy lyrics to put into a song.

What would you like to do next?
Graduating would be nice, and then getting a full-time job in design. I’m not too sure in what specifically, but I’ll figure it out.

What made you want to be part of The Pipe programme?
I was still kind of lost after university, not knowing what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. The Pipe seemed like the perfect opportunity to test the waters in an industry I’ve never thought about exploring before. Having previously felt institutionally discriminated against for being visually impaired, it felt refreshing to be asked to represent myself in a purely creative way.

How would you describe an average day on the programme?
You’ll have every last bit of creativity drained out of you and you will enjoy every bit of it. Every day you face new briefs that need new thinking and creative energy from the weirdest places in your mind.

What would you like to do next?
Having had a taste of advertising, I would definitely love to stay in the industry. Constantly coming up with weird and wacky ideas is the most intense but fun experience I’ve ever had.

What made you want to be part of The Pipe?
After graduating from art school last summer, I was looking for a new creative challenge and a way to bring my background in sculpture into advertising.

How would you describe an average day on the programme?
We are pitched a brief: think, drink coffee, mock-up, scamp, draw, write copy, think some more and then present back ideas – all whilst balancing other briefs on the go. If it’s been a particularly busy day, you will likely find the Pipers in Sunset bar after work.

What would you like to do next?
More, more, more! Ogilvy is such a great company and I would love to keep working here, and also continue making and exhibiting sculptures.


Find out more about The Pipe here, and how to apply here.

Ogilvy is a Lecture in Progress agency partner. Every year, Lecture in Progress partners with like-minded brands and agencies to support our initiative and keep Lecture in Progress a free resource for students. To find out more about how you can work with us, email [email protected]

Photography by Andy Donohoe
Written by Johnny Watters and Angus George