Zaid Al-Zaidy: The diversity prize is a great one but are you ready for it?

The lack of diversity in our industry is a little like global warming, says the former chief executive of McCann London.

The lack of Diversity in our Industry is a little like global warming. Some deny it’s happening, some say that we’re not responsible, some of us of don’t really care and those of us that do, find it bloody hard to do anything about it.

It’s a complex issue but we can’t ignore it. Thanks to the IPA’s diversity survey we now know what we instinctively felt: from a diversity point of view, our industry is in poor condition.

At 87 per cent white, our industry roughly reflects the UK’s general population but it’s wildly out-of-sync with London (like it or not, the country’s creative hub) with its white-Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) split of 60:40, and with Generation Y, which is 25 per cent BAME.

It’s strange for an industry whose currency is being in tune with consumers and culture and being down with the kids.

Alarmingly, the IPA report shows many of London’s most famous agencies have almost zero ethnic diversity at a senior level. What’s worse, I’ve heard that some senior industry figures believe advertising is less diverse than it was in the mid-80s.

Agency leaders will be feeling uncomfortable with the IPA’s plans to record and publish diversity data every year, like another gargantuan task has been added to their to-do list. But I would encourage them to be excited about the future, because diversity breeds opportunity and makes total business sense.

I’m convinced that when Generation Y is in power and we’ve all worked out what technology, data and programmatic means for marketing, we’ll realise again that ideas are still vital and powerful vehicles for brand distinctiveness and business growth. Diversity in our agencies will help fight brand commoditisation, avoid groupthink and be the source of those surprising and different ideas.

A diverse workforce is a pre-requisite for the creation of relevant and effective global ideas and campaigns. We’ve passed the arrogant 70s era of wholesale cultural imperialism and in today’s borderless world; ideas have to be global and local at the same time. London agencies in particular, as often the most important global hubs for client creativity, must have diversity at their core. Judging by a few recent RFIs that I’ve been privy to, clients are beginning to expect it.

There’s more money to be made in diversity. At the recent #IPA44Club debate on diversity, Debarshi Pandit from OMG Ethnic stated, "When I tell my clients that [when you take into account all the religious festivities there are] in the UK, it’s Christmas all year round, their eyes light up. Last year, the UK Ramadan market was worth an incremental £100 million in retail sales."

Furthermore, as programmatic takes off, it will enable a hyper-targeted fast-content world and will need teams of people who can understand the nuances of differing ethnic audiences and cultural calendars in the UK. Incremental fees we can bill clients for; every penny counts.

Personally, I place great value on my own ethnicity that has given me important work and life skills. It has helped me learn how to engage with a wide range of people and, as a strategist, it has helped me navigate and appreciate the different colours of international markets.

No doubt the concept of diversity is wonderful and we can sing its praises all day long, but the practise of diversity is complex and hard, with many barriers that need overcoming. To succeed we must:

1) Ignore the cynics, the procrastinators, the charmers and change resistors

Some of those resistant to change will think that we don’t have a problem, but there's a lot of unconscious bias out there. This is different to racism, which I really don’t think is rife in London. But if agencies such as Grey are removing names from the top of CVs, it would suggest some acknowledgement that bias does exist. And I think it’s ok, it’s human nature; perhaps a re-read of Camus’, L’Etranger is called for. If we accept it, we can do something about it.

We will also hear about the meritocracy vs. quota debate. But this is a non-debate: it has been proven that the former will leave us waiting 200 years for gender equality.

So, the argument for diversity is not going away. Syrian refugees or not, our national BAME index is and will remain on the up and the gulf between where we are and where we need to be is only going to leave agencies more and more exposed.

2) Encourage our leaders to take responsibility for the nurturing and championing of the long-term health of our industry

All good agency leaders want to build the right culture for their agency, one that can deliver sustainable growth. But day-to-day pre-occupations are focused on short-term financial goals, satisfying immediate client needs and surviving in an oversupplied market.

Diversity can’t be on the chief executive to-do list, it has to be on the do-or-die list if we’re to see any true change.

3) Prove the commercial and creative case for diversity

Has anyone really built the fool-proof commercial case for diversity, one powerful enough to convince the accountants? Most are familiar with McKinsey’s analysis, showing ethnically diverse businesses perform 35 per cent better than non-diverse businesses. But I fear that these arguments are post-rationalised and border on hypothetical – the case for diversity needs to be a power-punch calling for immediate action.

4) Inspire and enable people with different ethnic background to join our industry

So let’s say we agree that diversity is a good idea, is there even the talent out there from a BAME background who actually want to join our industry?

The IPA’s new-found chartered status is a coup and will help young people feel good about a career in advertising. Also, the IPA’s new commitment to help the industry recruit 25 per cent of new joiners from BAME backgrounds by 2020, is a great funnel feeder.

But we know that advertising is no longer a talent magnet for young adults. We need to pay undergraduates higher starting salaries. The average graduate starting salary in our industry is £19,000, compared with the national average of £30,000… and £42,000 at Aldi.

Advertising is a non-starter for students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, ladened with university debt. Little wonder it’s predominantly privileged kids who can afford a career in our industry.

Then, what do we need to do to retain diverse talent? What is the ethnic minority equivalent of a flexible working culture for mums? What is the alternative to getting pissed in the pub when it comes to getting to know your colleagues and schmoozing your boss?

5) When in advertising, do as the Americans do

We have much to learn from the United States on diversity. It took legislative intervention there to shift fair ethnic representation in corporations and it has shown that change requires a mandate from the highest organisational level. As far back as 2005, already 20 per cent of Fortune 500 companies had an executive committee-level chief diversity officer and today the role is widespread and there’s even a US publication called Diversity Officer Magazine.

If you’ve had the stomach to read this article, you may be inspired by the need to act but daunted by the true scale of the task. Such is life. But it is doable. The question is, do you really want it and are you ready for this?

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