Feature

Behind the disappointing decline in adland's BAME representation

With agencies far off the IPA's targets for BAME diversity, many are overlooking issues such as retention and progression.

Behind the disappointing decline in adland's BAME representation

Five years ago, the IPA set a challenge to ad agencies to improve black, Asian and minority-ethnic diversity among their workforce. But as the deadline for hitting those targets approaches, the industry’s progress is stuttering, revealing a massive disconnect between its intentions and the realities for BAME staff in adland. 

The IPA’s latest Agency Census, released last week, found that the proportion of staff in UK agencies from BAME backgrounds has fallen at each of the three highest levels of seniority. Just 4.7% of C-suite executives were from a BAME background on 1 September 2019, down from 5.5% in 2018. People from BAME backgrounds also make up a slightly smaller proportion of the overall workforce, down 0.1 percentage points to 13.7%. The figure rose 0.8 point to 17.7% at junior level. 

These numbers are still a long way off the IPA’s targets. The organisation has said that agencies should achieve 15% BAME representation in leadership roles and 25% among new starters by 2020. The figures for this year will be revealed in the census in around 12 months from now. 

It raises the question: why is BAME representation dropping at agencies despite the increased focus on diversity in recent years? And what can adland be doing better? 

Answering these questions is even more pressing as the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to divert businesses’ attention away from diversity to surviving this crisis. Yet diversity should still be top of mind for leaders, especially as recent data shows that the coronavirus is having a disproportionate impact on BAME communities – a fact that has prompted an inquiry by Public Health England. The situation underlines a lack of deep understanding among government and other sectors of the challenges faced by BAME groups.

"This pandemic is revealing structural inequalities in society that advertising is not immune from," Asad Dhunna, founder of The Unmistakables, says. 

Those "structural inequalities" within advertising start early. The industry’s approach to recruitment still leans too heavily on what Ali Hanan, chief executive of Creative Equals, calls the "network-ocracy", with professionals tending to draw from their insular circles to find talent.  

To counter this, agencies should "make sure all your recruitment slates are balanced and interviewers are trained in unconscious bias," Hanan advises. 

While the IPA Census suggests that some progress has been made in recruiting junior employees from BAME backgrounds, there are still major challenges in keeping them for the long term and changing the face of industry leadership. 

"Agencies have taken huge strides to attract talent from BAME communities over the last few years, which is great to see. But we’re not seeing this effort translate into more BAME individuals making it into the industry and staying for the long term," Amina Folarin, international people director at Oliver, says. 

The figures "show there are problems with retention and progression, which signal a much deeper issue than a lack of intent", Rania Robinson, chief executive and partner at Quiet Storm, observes. "Somewhere along the line, people from BAME communities are being held back or choosing to opt out of the industry – potentially to an industry where they feel a greater sense of belonging or opportunity."

That word, "belonging", is key to how many leaders explain the drop recorded by the census. Breaking into adland is challenging enough, but new recruits may also struggle to find their place and see a clear path of progression in an industry where they are in the minority. 

"The lack of BAME representation in our industry, especially in leadership, makes it less attractive to BAME talent, which then affects talent acquisition. The situation perpetuates itself and you get ‘diversity churn’," Ete Davies, chief executive of Engine Creative, explains. 

While there are some schemes in place to attract diverse talent, more can be done within agencies to support those recruits and help them establish their careers after they get in, Leonie Annor-Owiredu, a cultural strategist and writer, suggests. 

"When entering the creative industries, there’s an expectation to be caught up in terminology and standards that are rarely made explicit for new talent," she says. "Establish a system which acknowledges the barriers BAME talent have to navigate and provides support and training, where they can give voice to concerns without repercussions."

Robinson suggests that more workplaces should introduce "progression programmes" to help those who "feel a lack of understanding and support within their organisations". Put simply, businesses need to "create more role models" for BAME staff – and this could start with elevating the voices of that talent within organisations, Robinson adds. 

BAME people may struggle to have their voices heard, Folarin says. She sums up the situation: "Imagine for a second being the only person of colour in your team, on your floor, perhaps in your entire place of work. This has been my reality throughout my career in TV and advertising. 

"Lucky for me, I could talk openly about it with my boss at Oliver. Most people don’t have that privilege; they feel at odds with adland and, to avoid being misunderstood, leave the business or the industry altogether." 

This is an industry where "confidence is everyone's secret weapon", Sarah Jenkins, managing director at Saatchi & Saatchi London, says. But if you are the minority in the room, that currency can be harder to come by and build. 

"Being different often makes being confident harder and BAME talent will almost certainly be the most visible ‘different’ in many of their agency cohorts," she explains. "The feeling of exposure, the weight of expectation and sense of representation can make confidence a horribly fragile commodity. And what hope is there to reach the boardroom without a bucketload of self-belief?" 

To understand these underlying issues within workplaces, Folarin proposes instituting "more cognitive, emotional and human needs-based training" for senior management – something that could then trickle down the ranks and foster greater inclusivity. 

"Management must be able to understand the unique experiences of people from BAME communities (or any under-represented group, for that matter), so that they can really support them as individuals and help them feel part of this picture whenever challenges arise," Folarin says. 

More broadly, Dhunna thinks agencies need to treat this issue as a business priority, rather than an add-on, and "take it out of HR". He advocates for making diversity one of the metrics for evaluating senior leadership performance, "so that there are real consequences to inaction".  

Davies, too, believes that "accountability should sit on the desks of chief execs, chairpeople and founders – not just HR teams", adding: "Nothing would lead to a faster realisation of change than making these targets part of every CEO's objectives and tied to their bonuses or remuneration." 

Clients should also hold their agency partners to account for their lack of progress in this area by pushing for greater representation in teams and in the work, he says. 

Ally Owen, founder of Brixton Finishing School, echoes this idea: "Brands should ask those tendering for their business what steps they are taking to make their workplaces more inclusive and give clarity on their statistics (including pay) in order to be awarded a contract. After all, why would you choose an agency partner that can’t represent your consumers?" 

Brixton Finishing School recently conducted a survey among entry-level talent on their views of future employment prospects in the ad industry. One respondent’s answer captured the heart of the issue, highlighting a common perception that the industry’s progress on diversity has so far only been skin-deep.  

"They talk a big game, but when you walk in it’s just a white wash," the student said. 

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