Opinion: Perspective - Why adland shouldn't remain middle class forever

There's a thread on the Brand Republic Forums that asks whether the IPA is right to attack the ad industry for its white, male, middle-class bias.

It's been up there for a while and has had a lot of attention. The whole debate was sparked by a speech made by the IPA director-general, Hamish Pringle, a couple of months ago.

In it, Pringle unveiled his theory that people who are good at advertising (across a range of industry disciplines) generally share a particular way of approaching the world. He calls it "diagonal thinking" and it's based on people's ability to think in a linear and lateral way.

The IPA is polishing a test to identify diagonal thinking among school-leavers and anyone who is considering taking up advertising as a career. The aim is to broaden the spread of people who want to work in advertising, diversifying the industry's intake beyond the usual white, middle classes. Pringle reckons it will "widen the gene pool and encourage creative talent and diversity".

Anyway, back to the forum thread. Some of the commentators blame the industry's low entry-level wages for exacerbating the problem: if you're from a middle- class background, with parents who can sub you for a while, you're more likely to be able to weather the peanuts salary issue (which is particularly excruciating in London). Others question whether the IPA is merely jumping on a populist bandwagon or is truly committed to the principle of a more representative industry demography. The IPA's Diversity Committee comes in for some criticism ("lukewarm and standoffish") and the IPA itself is described as "a serious part of the problem".

I'm writing this just before setting off for the IPA's annual President's lunch. It's always a grand affair, usually with a thought-provoking or agenda-setting speech and one of the best networking opportunities of the year. But I guarantee that the lunch will be a middle-class, middle-England stronghold.

Which is fair enough, considering the seniority of the invitees. But I wonder whether the President's lunch will look much different in 2022, unless the industry really pushes through change now.

Robin Wight has been pushing this case for a while now. His Ideas Foundation charity gives kids in deprived-area schools a taste of the advertising industry and offers creativity scholarships. Now the Ideas Foundation has launched a Mentor's Council to formalise support from agencies.

As well as signing up to help advise and mentor eager would-be creatives, agencies are being asked to contribute £5,000 to fund the Foundation's work. M&C Saatchi, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, McCann Erickson, WCRS and Leagas Delaney have all already signed up and the IPA is getting behind the scheme.

And Wight reckons it's a win, win: agencies will get access to a more diverse potential talent pool and also be able to tap into a new Research Panel of young people in the Creativity Scholarship Schools. So if an agency wants any feedback from the elusive 15- to 16- year-old age group, the Ideas Foundation can offer a band of young people motivated and willing to talk.

All of which is excellent - if small - progress.

The trouble is that advertising agencies are still serving a client base that is equally undiverse. I remember one agency chief revealing not too long ago that he'd had a call from a client demanding that the new, female, account director on his business be removed at once; the client didn't want a woman, he wanted a bloke, just like him, who would tour the clubs with him on his trips down to London.

While this sort of prejudice exists in client companies, it's challenging for agencies to push the diversity of their staff too far, though - of course - they absolutely must. Perhaps it's time that ISBA also took a serious look at the diversity issue. Then maybe the industry as a whole can really start moving forwards.

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