"Are any bosses of massive companies nice people in practice?" This question was just one among the outpouring of words that followed the departure of former WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell.
Its flippancy underlines the disconnection between certain sections of adland and society at large. As if being a decent human being is the very anathema to good business as opposed to the lynchpin of leadership.
It is akin to BBC presenter John Humphrys’ comment that "I can imagine a lot of young mothers hating her", which he made after Kate Middleton was wheeled out in front of the press, glossed and groomed just hours after giving birth.
It’s a narrative that underestimates the compassion we have for each other, just as the casual dismissal of the notion that a chief executive should adhere to the basic principles of humanity cheapens the industry as a whole.
Cindy Gallop recently declared that our industry is looking for creativity in all the wrong places, and perhaps we are also guilty of looking for progress in the wrong places too. A case in point is the lack of scrutiny given to the declaration that Sorrell is to build a "next generation" agency network, without any reference to what exactly makes it so.
At the same time, when WPP joint chief operating officer Mark Read laid out five key aims to get the group growing again, the fact that one of his central pillars was an "inclusive culture" went almost unnoticed. An inclusive culture, by its nature, demands that people are not treated as expendable – that their right to be heard and respected is not dependent on their job title, tenure or relationship with the CEO.
But such inclusive cultures cannot be built in the margins. Just as advertisers are guilty of taking the mainstream and mass market for granted, the advertising industry must recognise that building a truly inclusive culture requires investment and rigour.
Diversity cannot forever be the ad industry’s much elevated but poorly funded side hustle. We may be in the era of AI, blockchain and "cagencies" – but being "out of touch" with the needs, attitudes and outlooks of consumers remains the most damning indictment of marketers and agencies alike. Building diverse teams, hiring diverse talent and holding on to that talent remains vital to reflecting the true diversity of society.
While the industry faces huge challenges as individuals and businesses, we also have the opportunity to do better. The cultural significance and the power of the media to provide a shared experience and bring people together cannot be underestimated. Massmarket brands, mainstream media channels, the world’s biggest agency networks; all three can deliver change at scale.
Yet none of this change requires mercenary behaviour or the celebration of a narrative in which people are routinely diminished, dehumanised and treated as an expendable "resource". It is time to put building an inclusive culture in the mainstream. It is not just the right thing to do, it is the only way to build a meaningful legacy.