Brixton school bringing diversity to media and advertising

Richard Haas meets the founder of a high-achieving but free Brixton course that is beginning to change the face of the advertising industry

Ally Owen (centre) with students at the end of the 2018 course in St Matthew's
Ally Owen (centre) with students at the end of the 2018 course in St Matthew’s

After the Daily Mail hired controversial right-wing TV presenter Katie Hopkins in 2015, Ally Owen, founder of the Brixton Finishing School, decided she could no longer work for the paper.

Leaving the Mail marked the end of a long and comprehensive career in advertising for Ally. She had previously worked at Yahoo, The Guardian and women’s magazines, but increasingly felt she needed a purpose. “I started to fall out of love with the whole thing,” she says.

Leaving the Mail, Ally embarked on a journey which eventually led to her launching the Brixton Finishing School. She encountered bosses who only hired people from Oxbridge universities and began to realise the lack of diversity in the advertising industry.

Brixton Finishing School students at an end of course event in St Matthew's
Brixton Finishing School students at an end of course event in St Matthew’s

The social mobility she was able to achieve as a single mother during the start of her career “just wasn’t happening any more”.

She says that “people have a very fixed view of what talent looks like, which is generally white, male and public school educated”.

With the launch of The Finishing School, she hopes to change this and help drive diversity and social mobility in the advertising industry.

The Brixton Finishing School runs a free 12-week accelerated summer advertising and media course, based in the School of Communications Arts (SCA) in Brixton’s St Matthew’s Church.

Ally describes it as an “extremely premium learning experience”, designed to target particularly underrepresented groups such as BAME, working class, neurodiverse and female.

The course had its pilot last year, which proved to be hugely successful. Out of the 20 students who graduated, the school says that 95% of them entered full-time work at “Tier One Companies” like Vizeum and Media Com.

Daniel Johnson, who goes by DJ, graduated from The Finishing School last year, after which he was awarded a full scholarship at the SCA.

He is now three months away from finishing this year-long course, after which he hopes to launch his own start-up.

“100%, I wouldn’t have gotten here without the Finishing School”, he says. Despite Finishing School being free, and having a scholarship for the SCA, DJ tells me the finances have still not been easy.

Yoga with advertising industry veteran Tia Castagno
Yoga with advertising industry veteran Tia Castagno

Alongside his course at the SCA, DJ works as a babysitter during the week and as a tour guide on the weekends. The Brixton Finishing School offers bursaries on request, but notes that most people on the course last year managed to do it alongside at least one job.

The secret behind the course’s success may be its hands-on nature. Last year, Brixton Finishing School students attended masterclasses by industry leaders such as David Pullan, GlaxoSmithKline client lead at WPP, the world’s largest agency group.

The school also runs experience days, examples of which include talks at Vizeum, Global and Oath.

Ally says the school also hopes to prepare graduates in a more practical sense – there are classes dealing with work behaviour and office etiquette, and even a weekly yoga and mindfulness class, taught by industry veteran Tia Castagno.

Brixton Finishing School is now accepting applicants for its 2019 course. If you are from an under-represented group such as BAME, working class, neurodiverse or female and have an interest in advertising or media, Ally urges you to apply on the Finishing School website.

Applications close on Wednesday 15 May.