Nepotism is an ugly word. It reeks of old school ties, cliques and clubs; daddy putting a word in with the boss, or mummy pulling a few strings.

In our new flexi-friendly, high-tech egalitarian corporate world it might seem that there is no place for nepotism any more; success is based on skills, creativity and a willingness to put in the hours.


But in some industries, the old adage it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, has never been truer – and it can become a stumbling block if you’re not well connected.

“I changed jobs recently from an assistant TV producer to a freelance photographer,” says Jo. “I could never have done it without all the contacts I’d made while working in TV. I don’t know how anyone could get work without knowing the right people – I just don’t think its possible.”

This kind of attitude is far from uncommon; people who have contacts and use them to get work think it must be impossible to get a foot in the door without them.

It can be easy to feel daunted by the nepotism and networking that exists in some industries, but it is perfectly possible to succeed without it.

Most managers and employers are constantly on the lookout for talent, and if you present yourself well enough there’s every chance you’ll get a break.

“I always wanted to write but I’d never done a journalism course,” says Alice, who works as a freelance journalist specialising in travel.

“I didn’t want to work on a regional paper, or spend a year at college, so I just started sending out ideas to every editor I could find. I gave myself six months; if I had had nothing published by then, I’ve give it up and get a ‘serious job’. Four months in, I got a commission from a women’s magazine – and I haven’t looked back since.”

Four years on, Alice admits it’s been a slow process – which would have been speeded up if she’d had some contacts in the industry.

“I started writing bits for women’s magazines, then gradually moved onto newspapers,” she says. “I would send ideas to the same people every couple of weeks, so they would start to recognise my name. I’m sure a couple of people commissioned me just because they were sick of seeing endless faxes from me – but once you’ve written one piece, then they’re happy to use you again.”

The key to succeeding if you don’t have contacts is determination. You may write thirty letters before you get a positive reply but, in the end, one is all you need.

It’s important to be realistic and realise that it may take people some time to reply. You may have to write to them several times before you hear anything back. Managers in all sections of the media – and other high profile industries – may receive up 20 or 30 on spec letters a week. To be the one that gets noticed, you have to be persistent and original.

It also helps to be realistic about the level of competition; managers may receive 30 on spec letters a week, but over half of them will probably go straight into the bin.

Equally, it’s easy to resent people who rely on nepotism – but having contacts doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get the job.

There’s no doubt that nepotism can speed up your career, but it inevitably makes it less rewarding.

“I work with people whose fathers are famous journalists, or whose siblings work in the industry,” says Alice, “and I love the fact that I’ve made it in spite of not knowing anyone. People say you can’t make it without contacts often because they’re scared they wouldn’t have succeeded on their own. The truth is that anyone can get any job. It’s just about how much you want it.”

Remember, it’s not what you know OR who you know. It’s how you go about it. Be determined, persistent, a little unconventional – and anything’s possible.

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