Helping new crew members chart uncertain waters

Siobhan Brunwin, People Director at MullenLowe Group UK on the vital importance of the agency’s ongoing apprenticeship scheme and what apprentices can bring to every business.

Siobhan Brunwin

People Director MullenLowe Group


Apprenticeship schemes in this country are in crisis. Last year we saw a 19% decline in the number of apprenticeships offered. And whilst of course the atypical events of the last year have had a particularly negative effect, sadly, since the apprenticeship levy came in 2016, legalisation which was meant to completely re-energise this sector, we’ve seen a steady year on year decline of apprenticeship opportunities. 

This decline is a huge worry and makes no sense to me particularly as when done correctly, these schemes massively benefit all involved. We’re in our fourth year of intake at MullenLowe Group and the evidence of the value that apprenticeships bring to the business is undeniable. Through past schemes we have found incredible talent, real rising stars that have properly embedded into the business and have grown and developed their career with us.

We know that starting a job virtually can be really tough for many reasons and we spent a lot of time debating whether we should put a pause on things this year. Starting as an apprentice behind a series of Zoom calls doesn’t really feel like a fair start point but given the world of work doesn’t seem to be getting back to normal any time soon, we thought we’d adjust the scheme accordingly and crack on. It wasn’t a tough call really. This year has been about ‘needs must’ and about looking at the challenges presenting themselves to us and pivoting accordingly. Offering a bunch of brilliant people employment during Britain’s worst recession in decades? No brainer.

So, our apprenticeship scheme The Ship set sail in early March 2021 and we welcomed nine ‘crew members’ into the agency team.

So, what can apprentices bring to your business?

When you commit to taking on apprentices, in the same breath, you ought to also be making a commitment to retain them.

Siobhan Brunwin

Untapped talent treasure trove

We had over 400 people apply for our scheme, and honestly, we could have hired about 100 of them. The quality of talent out there is phenomenal. But the key to taping into this talent is in thinking about where you market your scheme. Our industry is bloody fantastic but it’s also bloody hidden to most people so advertising on your company website/LinkedIn/Instagram is not going to bring in fresh diverse talent, it’s going to bring in more of the same and risk exacerbating the nepotism that is already rife within our industry.

We took a different approach and partnered with amazing organisations like Creative Mentor Network, Brixton Finishing School, The Other Box and Social Fixt. We invested lots of time in finding youth organisations across the country to share our scheme, and any apprentice training provider worth their salt should be advertising roles on the government apprentice site.

There is a misconception that all apprentices are school leavers or can’t be grads. These are both wrong. Anyone can do an apprenticeship at any age. Fun fact, the oldest apprentice in the UK is currently a chap called Bob who is 76 and working for Thameslink railway. Our Strategy Apprentice Rose explains: “As someone who was looking to switch careers, it was important for me to utilise the skills I had currently built in the most effective way. An apprenticeship allows me to do that. If I were to go back to university, my practical skills wouldn’t be put to the use I would like. Also, as an older apprentice it feels as though I am continuing my career, rather than ‘going back’ to study which could feel like a step back even though it isn’t.”  

Another fun fact, you can actually also have a degree and be an apprentice, so long as it’s not in the same subject as your apprenticeship.

Readjusting the pre-requisites to your hiring briefs obviously means your talent pool becomes much bigger. Brilliant. But then how do you go on to ensure you hire in an inclusive and non-biased way? Just asking for a traditional CVs isn’t going to cut it. You need to give candidates the opportunity to showcase their talents and their potential in a more creative way. Our advice is to keep the application as open as possible and make it easy for each individual to bend it to the particular experiences and aptitudes they want to draw focus to.

The interview is key also. You need to think more creatively about this too not least because of the volume you’ll need to get through. Speed ‘dating’ brings fun and efficiency to the table and why not involve previous successful candidates in the process? Afterall who understands the process nose to tail better than those gone before?

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They will stay with you

When you commit to taking on apprentices, in the same breath, you ought to also be making a commitment to retain them. By the time the scheme draws to a close, you have, or should have, invested significant time, energy and money in these people, so it makes little sense to cheerily wave them off as soon as the qualification certificates are issued.

Treat apprentices like you would any other employee. Yup, bloody obvious isn’t it!? Challenge them, give them opportunities to learn and to contribute and be heard, help them navigate a clear path to development and watch your retention rates soar past the typical 18-month mark.

I set up an apprenticeship scheme nearly five years ago at a previous agency, and right now 40% of those original apprenticeships are still at that agency. When you think the average tenure of a graduate hire is 18 months, that is a good old return.

Your business needs them

We all know it because we’ve all read it and said it a thousand times and numerous studies have proved it. Diverse teams deliver superior results. A recent study I read on Forbes stated that inclusive teams make more effective business decisions up to 87% of the time. 

Clearly, diverse teams operating in inclusive cultures can offer ideas and viewpoints that help drive innovation, creativity and thereby effectiveness too. This is especially true in our world where a team that reflects the incredible diversity in the marketplace is much more likely to develop messaging and advertising that resonates.

And look, if they are at the opposite end of the scale to our friend Bob at Thameslink then let’s not forget how instinctively those young lot tend to navigate the stuff us more aged folk find a little tricky to get to grips with. Many of our clients are of course marketing to Gen Z, so let’s get some of that genuine expertise properly embedded into our teams. TikTok, Snapchat, Twitch, and whatever the next thing is that we’re going to have to learn from our nieces and nephews just to try and keep up, we want natives who use these platforms daily, hourly probably, and intuitively to help ensure we’re creating meaningful content at the right times in the right ways etc. 

Abigail, our new Media Apprentice, sums up nicely the attraction from her side: “My motivation to seek an apprenticeship came after I made the difficult decision to drop out of university, which I had previously thought was my only option in order to have a successful future. I felt hopeless, until it occurred to me that I didn’t need to give up on education just yet. I quickly realised I didn’t want to work full-time, or even part-time, in a position that I wasn’t interested in so, I didn’t settle. I continued my search, until I came across The Ship apprenticeship scheme. A mixture of creative and realistic, educational and real-life experience, I knew I had discovered exactly what I was looking for.”  

Abigail, I promise we will do all we can to help you chart the waters ahead.

Guest Author

Siobhan Brunwin

People Director MullenLowe Group


Siobhan (Shiv) is responsible for all things people, culture and talent across the MullenLowe Group UK. Siobhan has worked within the HR, learning & talent space for the past nine years across a range of different fast paced industries. After a brief stint in financial recruitment, she moved to Groupon which was at the time the fastest growing company in the world, building out their learning & talent development functions across the UK & the EMEA region. Siobhan then moved into the media world, working in a number of different roles at Wavemaker UK including Head of Learning & Development before leaving to set up the people function at m/SIX agency at a time which saw headcount growth of 200% over two years. In 2019 she won Campaign magazine’s first ever ‘Talent Person of the Year’ Award. She believes that fostering a more honest and content working environment where people can bring their ‘whole selves’ to work will help businesses achieve success. Siobhan is a very proud and active member of the Bloom, the women’s network for the communications industry.