OPINION: Why agencies should seek diversity in the workplace

By ALISON HARDY, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 30 August 1996 12:00AM

Agencies will reach their target markets more often if employees reflect society at large, not just the youthful, white, middle-class section of it, Alison Hardy argues

Agencies will reach their target markets more often if employees reflect

society at large, not just the youthful, white, middle-class section of

it, Alison Hardy argues

Look around the account management and planning departments of any large

agency and what do you see?

Probably a lot of people who look like yourself. White, middle-class

people, under the age of 40, who grew up in the south and were educated

at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol or Durham universities. What’s the


Well, ask yourself what proportion of the UK population answers to this

description, or even how many times you’ve seen it on the target

audience selection of a creative brief.

Hardly any. Hardly ever. ‘People like us’ is so minute a proportion of

the population as to be insignificant anywhere outside the ad


The population - the people for whom we make the ads - are, in reality,

nothing like us. They are younger, older and more ethnically diverse.

They didn’t go to university and can’t imagine why anyone would want to

live in Clapham.

I wouldn’t contend that they are happier because of these things. They

don’t understand us. And yet we claim to be able to understand them.

Why is there so little diversity in agencies? According to the Central

Statistical Office, five-and-a-half million people now describe

themselves as belonging to ethnic minorities. Where are they?

Come to think of it, where are all the people over 40? (a question I

find myself asking more and more as I approach the dread date). And

where are the fat people?

Our clients don’t have this problem - they are more diverse than us.

But are we confident that they like being surrounded by people who are

younger and thinner (‘hipper than thou’ as one client described it) than


The industry’s first problem is the way we go about graduate

recruitment. We’re lazy. Sending a couple of people to Oxford to take a

suite at the Randolph for a couple of days and conduct some interviews

is hardly ‘spreading the net wide’, yet this is still how most agencies

go about it.

Secondly, every interviewer’s natural tendency is to incline towards

people with whom they feel comfortable. This is a huge mistake.

But, you might ask, isn’t this what groups are for? We don’t have to be

the target market. We can go out and research it. Another mistake.

Too often in research, we focus on the core of the target market and

don’t include other groups which may exercise a big influence on our


Look at the youth market. The population is 90 per cent white, but

nobody would suggest that the culture, music, language and clothing of

teenagers is created exclusively by white kids; in fact, it’s rather the

reverse. If this is true of today’s teenagers, won’t it be true of

tomorrow’s adults?

And what about the times we don’t do research? The decisions that are

made every day based on the gut feeling of people in the agencies.

Decisions that might be reversed by someone saying: ‘Hey, there’s a

whole world out there you haven’t thought about.’

You might argue that we want to hire people from more diverse

backgrounds but there aren’t the qualified candidates. This sounds

suspiciously like the excuse used by male managers 20 years ago (‘we’d

like to hire more women but there aren’t enough qualified women around’)

and is equally redundant. We’re a medium-sized agency and we managed to

find some. So can you.

We do ads for a living. We have to ask ourselves: do we want to do ads

for other advertising professionals or do we want to do ads for people?

If the answer is the latter, we need to change the composition of the

people we hire - and fast.

Alison Hardy is the planning director of Leagas Shafron Davis

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk


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