A view from Maisie McCabe

Adland can't be complacent on diversity

At a bank-holiday barbecue last weekend, I was treated to the views of a friend of a friend.

He recounted his experience running a small digital consultancy staffed completely by men on account of women being at constant risk of pregnancy. This view, he claimed, was not sexist – simply an economic necessity for a fledgling business. I shouldn’t need to add that he’s no longer in the role.

Supporting the growth of female talent in the business was the subject of Wacl’s much-lauded Gather conference last week. In its 20th year, the event is held under the Chatham House Rule so executives are able to "speak up" without worrying about how comments might look written down and out of context. Thinkbox chair Tess Alps regales us with 20 things she has learned from Gather alongside a round-up of this year’s event from Kate Magee.

The role of women featured in a wider diversity discussion at Media360 last week. Karen Blackett, chairwoman of MediaCom UK, said businesses that fail to reflect ethnic diversity are missing out on an expanding portion of the population and its corresponding purchasing power. It might be more difficult to get to an answer if you’re working with people with different backgrounds or cultural references but when you arrive there, it’ll be all the better for it. 

Ruth Hunt, chief executive of Stonewall, was particularly punchy. If sectors such as finance, banking and law could get their act together on LGBT representation, then advertising, marketing and media – supposedly more liberal professions – can too. She said the industry is complacent: "There is an assumption that creative is meritocratic and [there is] an absolute instinct to only work with your friends."

Gender, ethnic background and sexuality are only part of it, of course. Simon Redican, chief executive of audience measurement company Pamco, asked the panel whether they believed the proportion of people in advertising who went to private schools should reflect the wider population. Diversity in terms of social background appears to be going backwards among the lower ranks of the industry – although a number of worthy initiatives have sprung up.

If the advertising executives among you recognise yourself in any of that, there’s a shock coming. Stonewall is recommending that its partners such as big banks insist their suppliers – including agencies – adhere to the same diversity standards they do. Blackett endorsed that idea, suggesting marketers should demand the teams working on their business properly reflect the society at large. 

Even if you think you’re clean, it might be an idea to take another look. It’d be a sad day if it takes the scandal-ridden finance world to get adland to institute proper change.