Developing the digital marketers of tomorrow: Q&A with WYK Digital’s Rob Jackson

We spoke with Rob Jackson, founder of WYK Digital, about the digital marketing social enterprise and the great work it does supporting young people who are entering into the industry at the start of their careers.

Hi Rob, thanks for taking the time to do this! I’d like to start with some background on you – where have you worked in the past, and what experience do you have within the digital marketing industry?

I was just reading the other day that the third poorest local authority in the United Kingdom is Knowsley, which is the part of Liverpool where I’m from. I come from a working-class background, had great parents and managed to go to uni. After uni, I stumbled randomly into a digital marketing job, and I’ve had 16 years of amazing opportunities that have been afforded to me by an incredible industry. I’ve worked in medium-sized agencies, global network agencies and I started my own company.

It’s an incredible career space to be in. A few years back, I got together with a friend who works in youth employability. He and I actually designed a business plan to do something to help underrepresented young people get careers in digital, and it basically came to fruition. The stars seemed aligned for it to launch in March 2020, but then obviously, the pandemic happened.

Then you went on to start WYK, tell us a bit about the programme and the service you provide?

WYK is a digital marketing social enterprise with the goal of widening access to digital marketing careers. We run skills accelerators in partnership with the Prince’s Trust, which are full-time and completely free. We’ve proven that regardless of background, education, work experience or prior training – if you have the right attitude, the right support and the right skill development, anyone can launch a career in digital marketing. That’s the reason we exist.

What inspired you to start the initiative? Did you have any particular experiences within this industry?

Yeah, absolutely. My company was acquired by a media holding group in 2012, and from day one, I observed that the big agency space was lacking in diversity. My company was originally a really diverse mix of people. I felt that change when we went into this new space, and it made me think, “What if more people from different backgrounds knew about this as a potential career?” I don’t think it’s very widely sought after with people who are coming out of education or starting their career.

At the same time, the industry had a shortage of talent as well. It’s a rapidly growing industry and that means there’s a talent requirement to sustain that. So my thinking was that I can help solve a challenge in the industry, and from a personal perspective, I really care about equality regarding access to opportunity. It’s something I’m really passionate about.

Did you find that people were usually getting hired because they just knew someone in the industry? I’m guessing that’s where the phrase “What You Know” comes from.

Right. The only way to get ahead in life is who you know, and I thought, “Well, let’s build something that can challenge that.” There is an irony because as you know, a big part of WYK is about building connections. The peers that you made on your cohort, the mentors that we put in place, the relationship with the trainers. A professional peer network is actually a very important part of a successful career, so there’s a bit of tongue in cheek when we say it’s “what you know”.

But networking is an important skill for these roles, and that’s also something you train these young people on.

Yep. And confidence, mate. We have to take the young people in the programme from a place of low confidence, of low self-esteem, and help them realise that they deserve a seat at this table. In this massive digital economy that is laid out before us, we want them to know that they deserve a shot too. So whether it’s the mental health nurse that we have on board, the physical wellbeing coach, the confidence coach, or the wonderful staff at the Prince’s Trust – they are all really good from that pastoral perspective, in terms of supporting people throughout. But yeah, that ability to network and have confidence and get out there in the real world is a big part of what WYK’s about, as well.

While I was on the course, I was blown away by the passion and dedication of everyone in the team.

There’s a common chat around the WYK team. It’s like, “Are we really good, or did we get really lucky?” We wanted to put something together that was really holistic, that would help to get jobs in paid search, paid social and analytics, but at the same time, give young people that view into the wider world. That’s why we have these incredible guest speakers for SEO, content, email, all of these things.

I’ve spent 16 years building a peer network, but the role of the pandemic can’t be understated, I think. Also the fallout from the George Floyd murder, with Black Lives Matter, I think a lot of people just realised they wanted to give something back. Timing is always important with these things. I think WYK came along at a time when people were maybe thinking, “I want to do something, and what can I do as an individual to level the playing field for people who are underrepresented?” So we’ve been so overwhelmed with the generosity of our volunteers and supporters and the guest speakers.

But the fact that you managed to capitalise on that and then also keep the ball rolling for so long is seriously impressive, I would say. You’re now preparing for WYK 6, which is a big deal, and you’ve also helped so many young people (such as myself) get jobs, but what would you say has been your biggest accomplishment with WYK?

It changes all the time. I think seeing now young people who are a year and a half into their careers and seeing them flying, validates the whole thing for me. There was always a nervousness that we’d get young people into roles and then maybe they’d drop out after three months or six months. But seeing young people who are vulnerable, who are dealing with serious conditions, who are coming from a place of trauma, seeing them go on to not only land a job, but thrive and fly, and I know what a great career they’re now set up to have in an industry that’s going to continue to grow. I think the employability is great, but for me, it’s seeing what impact it has on people’s social mobility, which is something we’re really proud of.

So what kind of projects or plans do you have for the future of WYK? Do you have any different things planned?

Yes, absolutely. Never stay still. That’s the motto. We’re now on a journey to train 400 young people in a calendar year. That’s our objective for this year, so very ambitious while maintaining the same standards and keeping the same essence that makes WYK special. We’ve opened a permanent cohort in the north of England, across Leeds and Manchester. We’re branching out into a new syllabus across experience design and UX.

And then my big objective, what I’m really excited about, is putting some time into post-placement. Going back to that social mobility thing, I think there’s a huge opportunity for us to firstly make sure we’re supporting as much as possible the vulnerable young people as they go into industry – those first steps across the probation and the first few months, but also engaging the alumni who are being successful and seeing them come back into the programme and begin to support future cohorts of young people, as well. I think that was always our dream, that it would come full circle and we’d have young people who’ve seen success with us on the earlier programmes come back and support young people on future ones.

Surely you can’t be too far away from that becoming a reality. What would you say has been one of the more challenging aspects of running the programme?

Oh, lots of challenges, for sure. I think we’re a young business and we are improving our capability to support as many people as possible, but I think sometimes we’ve had to make tough calls on who we can support and who we can’t. We don’t want to set young people up to fail, and we’re still developing our capability to support the most vulnerable young people we can. 

When people have dropped off the course because of challenges in their life, we always make sure that they know there’s a seat for them in future. We always want to keep that door open for them to return. But yeah, definitely, that is a challenge, and it’s something people have said to me in nonprofit work, is that you can’t help everyone. You have to be quite clear and honest with yourselves about who you can help and what outcomes you can get for those people.

Yeah, it’s tricky, but the support system you provide works for people from all walks of life.

Absolutely. Our mantra is that it’s a mixed ability programme for anyone. We have that base syllabus that we think anyone who we accept onto the course can finish, but if, like yourself, you’re really able to apply yourself and you’re really smart, then we make sure that there’s additional content and resources available. We have actually just kicked off a partnership with General Assembly, so one of the biggest online and in-person learning platforms in the world. They’ve granted WYK access to their on-demand e-learning service for digital marketing, UX and analytics. So for the young people who we identify as having real high potential from day one, we can make sure that they’re being challenged with additional content and additional learning paths.

So how did the collaboration with Nest come about, and in what ways has Nest supported WYK?

Yeah, it’s another classic case of who you know. I have a very good friend, David Williams, who heads up Seraphine. I asked him one day, “Who’s the best in the business for paid social?” He said, “You need to speak to Stefan and Will at Nest.”

Actually, in its most nascent form, right at the beginning, Will was a great advisor. I’d jump on a call with him when we were training just nine young people, and he had such a vested interest in it. He advised me on what a high-performing company is looking for with entry-level talent and having that feedback was invaluable at the beginning and definitely shaped our thinking around the syllabus. And then we got WYK to a position where we were able to help develop candidates such that they could come in, work at Nest, and get their career started off to a flyer.

So Nest is a top-tier sponsor of WYK, not only because the programme helps to find young, talented candidates to fill our roles, but also because it’s a very worthy cause which helps a lot of people. How does this level of funding and sponsorship help with running the course?

It’s absolutely invaluable. When the course is on and we’re delivering the content, it’s great, but the business runs all year round. Heena Mistry and myself, we put so much work into the recruitment, the employability support that falls outside of the programme. If it wasn’t for donations from organisations like Nest, we wouldn’t be able to provide that support outside of the programme and make WYK as successful as it is. I mean, honestly, without the support of employment partners like Nest, WYK wouldn’t be able to succeed in its mission at all.

We’ve spoken a bit about how there isn’t enough diversity within the marketing industry, but we’ve also spoken about all these different companies that you’ve been able to collaborate with and who’ve been very involved. Do you think companies are doing enough to improve their diversity and inclusion?

So do I think diversity is getting better? Yes. Diversity and inclusivity are not a nice-to-have anymore, it’s actually a requirement. Customers, partners, and employees want to see that organisations are taking a stance on challenging equality of access to opportunity. We’re seeing some positive moves. If you look at the IPA survey, entry-level numbers for BAME and minority communities are up, which is great, but what I’m really interested in (and I think WYK has a role to play in this in the future) is helping to break that glass ceiling, because actually, when you look at senior management teams, when you look at board representation (and I include the female of the species in this conversation as well), representation just isn’t good enough when it comes to those jobs at higher echelons. 

What I think is that as an industry, having initiatives around entry-level is great, but what we need to do is collectively think about what can we do to ensure that those pathways to career success are just as equal for people, regardless of background.

How do you think companies like Nest can benefit from hiring WYK graduates?

I’ve been an employer. I’ve run my own business, and I know firsthand the challenges of getting entry-level talent right are immense. There are so many things that can go wrong, and it takes time. It is difficult to successfully onboard raw recruits. At the same time, Nest, you’ve got a business to run. You’ve got to make sure your clients are happy, you’re delivering great work on time, and so to get it wrong can be operationally very tough, and it can be very costly. 

What WYK does is through our own recruitment process, our skills and confidence training, is that it’s almost like we take those first few months off the hands of the employer, so they know that the young person who’s coming to them knows what the hell the digital marketing industry is all about, has some of those core skills and behaviours embedded, such that when they walk through the door on day one, it’s not a huge surprise to them what to expect.

What I love about Nest is that then you guys take that buy-in and then take the young people on an accelerated learning journey. One of the things that the young people often get anxious and they ask me about is, “Oh, Rob, I’m not ready to go and get a job in digital marketing.” I’m like, “Of course, you’re not.” WYK doesn’t exist to create accomplished digital marketers. It’s only 11 weeks. Digital marketers are always learning. You know this firsthand. But what we do is we create that foot in the door, and the training and support you get on WYK means that you deserve that foot in the door, and that’s, I think, how it works great in partnership with companies like Nest.

Well, I’m eternally grateful for the skills that I’ve learned through WYK and the opportunities that were presented to me, and also for your time, as well. Thank you Rob!

Cheers mate, pleasure!

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