ETHNIC DIVERSITY: BLACK LIKE ME

If the ad industry is to reflect the true ethnic diversity of the UK, it will have to take some positive action, according to Jonathan Mildenhall.

The lack of ethnic diversity in the advertising industry is not something that I have campaigned about until now. This is in part due to the fact that I didn't want to get labelled as someone with an axe to grind, as it could have limited my career. Earlier this year, Stephen Woodford asked me to become the co-chair of the IPA's Ethnic Diversity Committee. Having met the team, researched the issue and accepted the position, I am now totally committed to challenging our industry. In so doing, I hope to be part of a catalyst that will change the advertising landscape in the UK for the good.

Looking back at my journey into advertising it was against all odds that I was able to get a graduate trainee place at a top multinational agency.

My first official line of enquiry about the advertising industry was the careers officer at Manchester Polytechnic. I remember what she told me as if it were only yesterday. "Jonathan, you'll only be wasting your time applying to London ad agencies. They only recruit from Oxbridge. Besides, it's a terribly white, middle-class industry.

You should consider retail management." Retail management? Whatever gave her that idea? True, I liked spending time in shops but working in them was not my idea of a creative, challenging, fast-moving career. But still she spoke as she thought, my paternal, academic and social background stood in the way of me and my dream job. Indeed, initially she was right.

I only applied to five London agencies, my criteria being investment at graduate trainee level. I received a letter of rejection from Ogilvy & Mather (they only recruited from universities), no response from Still Price and three interviews. The first interview I had was at J. Walter Thompson. I can't remember the name of the bloke that interviewed me but it was a disaster from the moment we met. He was typical of what thankfully is a dying breed of adman: treble-barrelled name, pinky rings, stripey shirt, red braces, portly. An ill-focused blatherer. He was as shocked with my physical image as I was with his. I wanted to talk about my interest in ads (at the time JWT was riding high on British Telecom and National Westminster) and my enthusiasm for the business. He wanted to talk about my parentage and schooling. Seriously. Still, at the end of the session he was brutally honest. "Well, Jonathan, it has been interesting meeting you, but you are not what we would call a JWT person. We won't be taking your application any further." Bummer - my careers adviser was right. Still, I had other interviews scheduled.

My first and second interviews at McCann-Erickson and Leo Burnett were fantastic. The agencies couldn't have done more to make me feel welcome. They were both honest with me in terms of my difference: "We don't usually recruit from polytechnics but we really like the character of your application form." "Culturally, you are very different from our usual intake but we like that." "We expect you'd be quite a cultural asset if you were to be offered a job." All brilliant feedback, simply because it opened the debate and put both parties at ease. Interestingly, the snobbery I experienced came not from the agencies but from fellow undergraduates. Most of those at second interview were from Oxbridge and whereas they immediately bonded with one another, it took time for them to open up to me. I don't really think they saw me as a serious threat. More fool them.

One of the happiest moments in my life was getting that call from McCann offering me one of four jobs. Since joining the industry, I have experienced very little concern over my ethnicity and I really don't think it has held my career back at all. That said, I am aware people have taken risks in terms of my client "fit". I ran Audi at Bartle Bogle Hegarty thanks to Simon Sherwood, I ran Vauxhall at Lowe thanks to Tim Lindsay, and I run The Sun and News of the World accounts here at TBWA thanks to Garry Lace. All of these accounts come from traditional sectors where black faces are rarely seen in the client marketing departments let alone on the bloke who runs their ad account. The unspoken deal for me has always been you take the risk and I'll never let you down. This is a philosophy that I find myself using now in terms of giving people space and opportunity beyond their normal scope. I now take risks and in return I don't expect to be let down.

As far as the IPA initiative goes, the goal has to be that the ethnic diversity of employment in advertising should represent more closely the ethnic diversity in the population of Britain as a whole. Many people we consulted during the development of this project expressed frustration that, although the problem of under-representation has long been recognised and discussed, very little has been done. What is clear is that we need to introduce a number of tangible positive actions that will draw greater levels of diversity to the industry as a whole.

Some of the positive actions the IPA and I would like the industry to take are: ethnic minority open days, role modelling of talent, sensitising recruitment consultants, online marketing and graduate tips for getting a job. Also, the IPA will launch a Leadership Challenge. This is designed to ensure that ethnic diversity in advertising is an agenda item for all those who will lead the industry over the next decade.

As I have said, the lack of ethnic diversity within our industry is not something I have campaigned for up until now. Now I don't care if I get labelled as someone with an axe to grind. I intend to use my profile, my position of influence, my genuine interest in talent development to ensure this campaign succeeds.

All I want to see is that this industry remains as dynamic, as colourful and as creative as the country we live in. Surely that's not much to ask?

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