Some people call it the "golden ticket" to a successful ad career: a three-year WPP marketing fellowship that's harder to get into than Harvard. Actually, that's not a fair comparison. Only nine applicants out of 2,000 made WPP's annual cut last month. That's an acceptance rate around 0.5%, compared to Harvard's 5.8%.
The multitalented fellows include an Olympic silver medalist in fencing and a former professional bagpipe player. Some have industry experience, while for others the fellowship is a first job or a career change. A quantum physicist and a biochemist were just turned away.
Fellows from around the world spend three years at WPP agencies in three disciplines, from media buying to planning to branding and beyond, sometimes on three continents. All are paired with influential mentors, sometimes even WPP CEO Martin Sorrell.
They might do a year as a planner in Myanmar, newly opened to Western brands, or go to Washington D.C. for Blue State Digital, the agency that helped President Obama win office twice. One young hire is doing both.
Then there's the past fellow who wrote speeches for Prince William and David Beckham when WPP loaned him to England's 2018 World Cup bid committee.
"In three years you can achieve what would take most people ten," said Jon Steel, the fellowship's director.
The program was founded 19 years ago to attract talented young people away from management consulting and investment banking. "We wanted a program that would make creatively minded individuals think twice about following that route, about following the dollar," said Mr. Steel, who is based in Australia. Fellows' salaries are above average for starter jobs in the industry.
Of the 163 fellows past and present, 60% to 65% have stayed within WPP, Mr. Steel said. Some have moved into top positions, such as Ben Kay, chief executive of RKCR/Y&R, and Will Galgey, global CEO of The Futures Co.
In an industry with high turnover, there are many training programs to attract and retain talent. Omnicom University and Publicis' Executive Development Program are an example of two that train top employees. Wieden & Kennedy's Portland headquarters hosts a one-year experimental advertising school called W + K 12. And Omnicom's DAS has a U.K.-based program called Accelerate, which sends recent graduates to five placements over 16 months. WPP has a separate rotation program for MBA graduates as well.
WPP's fellowship seeks candidates who want to see the world and can solve business problems in creative ways. "My ultimate test is, who would I prefer to spend six hours on a plane with?" Mr. Steel said.
The application process includes essays and first-round interviews in several locations worldwide, then a final round in London for 24 candidates. The number of fellows varies each year, depending on how many are must-haves.
Meeting other contenders in London can be intimidating. "I met a girl who spoke eight languages, and I saw people practicing their handshakes," said Georgia Lindsay, at JWT in Singapore for her second year of the program.
Interview questions are quirky and mind-bending. Ms. Lindsay, an Oxford graduate with journalism internship experience at the BBC and News of the World, was asked how she might rebrand Al Jazeera for the U.S. Deep South. (Ms. Lindsay and past WPP fellow Yewande Sokan won gold at Cannes' Media Young Lions contest last year.)
Afterward, the decision-makers "shut ourselves in a room like we're electing a new pope -- we lock the door and don't come out until we've made a decision," Mr. Steel said. They notify everybody the next day and offer feedback. "We want this to be friendly," he added.
What WPP gets out of it
Beyond recruiting talent, the program is a PR opportunity. "We're in contact with 2,000 people each year, and my aim is for all of them to go away with a good impression of WPP," Mr. Steel said.
In an industry where holding companies can seem like abstract financial entities, the fellows are also "a glue holding together very disparate disciplines within WPP Group," Mr. Steel said. "We're very good at creating teams from across a range of agencies and disciplines."
Past fellows sometimes get put together in crack teams for projects. Right now there's one at work on a climate change campaign for former Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore.