At last month’s Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister David Cameron sought to combat the claim that his Government is run as an Etonian old boys’ club by asserting that his aim was not to defend "privilege" but "spread it". This led to a PR stunt by the luxury retailer Fortnum & Mason, which created a limited-edition plum and claret "Privilege Spread", described as "a recipe that instantly solves Mr Cameron’s conundrum of how to spread privilege".
Joking aside, discussions surrounding class and privilege are often linked to the thorny topics of equality, diversity and discrimination. The ongoing debate about racism in football demonstrates that these issues are often contentious and controversial.
Within the advertising and communications industries, the discussion is generally more muted. While the casual sexism and racism portrayed in the TV series Mad Men may have been acceptable in the past, these days the overriding emotion seems to be guilt. Many of the advertising industry leaders I’ve spoken to are acutely aware that their agencies don’t reflect the diversity of modern Britain and they are embarrassed about it.
In some ways, the UK industry has pioneered equality issues. For example, Wacl has been in existence since 1923 and currently consists of 130 of the most senior women in the UK’s marketing communications industry.
In other areas, the industry has been slow to catch up. It wasn’t until 2003 that the IPA Ethnic Diversity Group published its first major collaborative work on the topic, examining the employment, portrayal and economic value of minority groups.
The IPA’s most recent report was published last month to coincide with the release of the first 2011 Office of National Statistics Census figures. This provided a more up-to-date picture of the ethnic media landscape, but also provoked headlines in this magazine such as "Adland neglects ethnic consumers". Cue more hand-wringing, introspection and guilt.
I wanted to take a different approach. Instead of focusing on where the industry is failing, I wanted to highlight examples that are starting to change things for the better. This is not because I believe the problem is insignificant – I just think that inspiration may be a better motivator than guilt.
Diversity as a creative challenge
I’ve often wondered how the advertising industry would tackle the diversity issue if a client posed the challenge as a creative brief. One agency that has adopted an innovative approach is Beattie McGuinness Bungay. In 2011, it launched the Ad Scheme as an attempt to broaden the pool of applicants to the agency. As BMB puts it: "For an industry that talks loud and reaches many, the net it casts to find the people to drive it on is narrow and predictable."
As part of its mission to address the issue, BMB set aside one day last year in which any applicant, be they "grad, non-grad, Martian or Womble", could have a seven-minute Skype chat with a randomly assigned BMB panel. More than 400 people played this game of interview roulette within a 16-hour period. The agency was so pleased with the response that it is doing it again on 22 November.
The power of ideas
In 2003, Robin Wight, the Engine president, established The Ideas Foundation. This helps identify and nurture creatively gifted young people from disadvantaged backgrounds through the award of creativity scholarships. I joined the board a year later and have remained on it since.
The charity is backed by many of the industry’s top agencies and, over the past decade, has worked with young people in schools across London and the North-West of England. More recently,
it developed an online platform called "I Am Creative". This enables brands such as BT, Barclaycard, E.ON and Aviva to sponsor briefs that young people respond to. A panel of professionals judge each brief, with the winner receiving a prize and a work-experience placement.
Moving forward, The Ideas Foundation is exploring the feasibility of setting up a new free school to teach creativity to young people who have been excluded from mainstream education.
An ideas meritocracy
I did hear a counterintuitive perspective when I spoke to Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland recently. He pointed out that, in his view, it wasn’t surprising advertising had taken a while to attract ethnic minorities because the industry is so flakey that no first-generation
immigrant in their right mind would want to join it. Instead, they would naturally veer towards more established professions such as accountancy or medicine, leaving it to the second or third generations to indulge their creative impulses. He may have a point.
As Sir John Hegarty points out, advertising should be a meritocracy where the people with the best ideas succeed. This seems to be reflected in some younger agencies. For example, the creative department at Engine’s social media
unit, Jam, looks like an ad for the United Colors of Benetton. Wayne Deakin, an affable Australian executive creative director, leads the team alongside Chris De Abreu, a Brazilian creative director. Jam’s creative output clearly benefits from their global perspective.
Getting the advantage
Few would deny that "social capital" goes a long way in this industry. Having the right connections, often gained by attending the "right" university, provides distinct advantages. The youth engagement agency Livity has partnered with Google to address this issue.
Over the past three years, they have developed the Advantage programme to give young people from less advantaged backgrounds eight weeks’ training and experience in digital campaign management. Completion of the free course leads to fully paid 12-month digital marketing apprenticeships at some top UK companies.
This year, for the first time, Advantage is running alongside Google’s own agency graduate scheme. This means both groups share industry-leading guest speakers and participants support each other and exchange ideas.
Diversity in advertising
BMB’s Ad Scheme, The Ideas Foundation and Livity’s Advantage are three examples of how the industry is proactively responding to the challenge. There are many others I could have drawn upon.
On 13 November, I will be debating these issues at the IPA with Hegarty, Wight and Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. The event will also launch the documentary Diversity In Advertising, made by Clever Peeps, Media Citizens and The Ideas Foundation.
One could argue that all of these developments are just drops in the ocean, but I see them more like stones. Stones create ripples. Ripples make waves.
Jonathan Akwue is the global client managing director at Engine