Absolute beginners in adland's Oscars

A novice female creative team only a year out of college has won the chance to represent the UK, writes Meg Carter
Click to follow

This is adland's Oscars, complete with sun, sea and sand and all the shenanigans of a creative elite coming together to compete for prestigious awards. But next week's International Advertising Festival in Cannes (16-21 June) will be more than a junket for Sarah Sturgess, 22, and Lena Ohlsson, 27. The pair will represent the UK in the seventh Cannes Young Lions Creative Competition ­ not bad going less than a year out of college, and for an all-female creative team, too.

In the shoebox office in Saatchi & Saatchi's creative department where they have been squatting since December, Sturgess and Ohlsson can't quite believe their luck. Not only have they won the chance to represent the UK in Cannes, courtesy of D&AD (the British design and art direction association); they have just been offered staff jobs at Saatchis, having spent the past six months working there for free.

It took an innovative idea for a new campaign for Wranglers jeans and an impressive "book" ­ the portfolio of dummy ads any creative wannabe needs to get a foot in an ad agency door ­ to secure their tickets to the south of France. "D&AD runs a young creative competition each year," Sturgess explains. "This year the brief was: do something for Wranglers with a Wild West theme, and bear in mind the brand's claim to be the 'authentic' jeans."

Ohlsson and Sturgess came up with a cinema ad featuring a young man whose badly injured hand is not the result of a ranch injury but an accident at the local supermarket where he works. "The idea was that 'authentic' is about what real people wear," Ohlsson says. "Rather than focusing on cowboys, we wanted to feature the people on the periphery in the Wild West ­ people who work in bars or shops. So we wrote a script about a cowboy who thinks everyone he meets is a cowboy because of the way they dress."

What swung it was the pair's confidence at a panel interview with some of London's top agency creatives. "We shortlisted six teams," says the competition organiser, Chris Thompson. "But Sarah and Lena were the most self-assured. We see many graduates at D&AD, but not all are so champing at the bit."

The pair chose advertising relatively late in their student careers. Swedish-born Ohlsson met Sturgess, from Chigwell, during a foundation course at Central St Martins College of Art. Ohlsson had travelled before deciding "do something creative". For Sturgess, it was a choice between design or philosophy. Both then embarked on BAs at St Martin's and in the second year of that decided to join forces. "Teaming up was essential," Sturgess explains. "It's tough to leave college without a creative partner and look for work alone." The pair began applying for the unpaid placements in agency creative departments. After month-long stints at a number of smaller agencies, they arrived at Saatchis for a four-week placement in December and have been there ever since, producing work for advertisers such as Toyota and Ariel.

"It's certainly tough," Ohlsson says. "It's so incredibly competitive; there are always hundreds of people knocking at the door." Sturgess adds: "It can be extremely demoralising. Often you don't know where you will be from one week to the next. And most agencies only pay basic expenses. If you're lucky."

The placement system is seen as one reason why so few women make it into agency creative departments. Women tend to be less ready than men to work for free in the hope of getting a job. Another possible obstacle is a pervading macho culture. Sturgess and Ohlsson, if a little perturbed by this, are not put off. "If women want to be creatives, they should be ­ it's a brilliant job, and not a bloke thing," Sturgess says.

Meanwhile, in Cannes they will be pitched against 30 teams given 24 hours to create an ad from scratch. Daunting, but worth it for the chance to join advertising's creative elite.