Jonathan Mildenhall found creative departments 'were not comfortable creating great characters who are black'
Jonathan Mildenhall found creative departments 'were not comfortable creating great characters who are black'
A view from Ian Darby

Claire Beale: Ads are failing to reflect ethnic diversity in UK

Another week, another hot potato for the advertising business.

Recently, advertisers have been burnt by accusations that they are encouraging everything that's unhealthy in society, from excessive boozing to the sexualisation of childhood. And now clients and agencies face criticism for failing to reflect the realities of ethnic diversity in British society in their TV ads.

IPA and Clearcast data shows that of the commercials cleared to air last year, just 5.3 per cent contain actors from black, Asian or other ethnic minority groups. This, when official statistics show that around 13 per cent of the UK population is made up of people from ethnic minorities.

Saad Saraf, the founder of the ethnic marketing specialist agency Media Reach and the chair of the IPA's Ethnic Diversity Group, argues that brands are suffering because "drastically" under-representing these groups in TV ads amounts to "missing out on an important and rapidly growing revenue stream". He calls on marketers and their agencies to do more to address the issue.

Clients especially need to look long and hard at marketing strategies that omit representation of minorities, and the Clearcast figures show that major sectors, including motors, food and retail, are among those that are failing to reflect diversity. But could agencies and their creative departments do more to reflect the reality of the UK today?

In 2003, I interviewed Jonathan Mildenhall, then the co-chair of the Ethnic Diversity Group. Mildenhall, now ruling the world as a client at Coca-Cola, said that one of the issues he found with UK creative departments was that they were "not comfortable creating great characters who are black". He could only cite Howard from the Halifax ads. Today, little has changed. Saraf points out that agencies seem happy to feature black and Asian characters in the background of ads but reluctant to cast black or Asian actors as main characters.

The situation may have improved in agencies. Partly through hard work from the IPA, there is greater diversity among the workforce. The latest IPA Census revealed 10 per cent of those employed in agencies are from an ethnic minority (compared with just 4 per cent when I interviewed Mildenhall and 8.9 per cent in 2009). Yet take a stroll round many creative departments and they can seem, to steal Greg Dyke's phrase, hideously white.

So what can be done? Most importantly, brave marketers need to start throwing their weight around and urge their peers to be more reflective in their advertising. Almost as crucially, agencies need to provide role models from ethnic minorities in senior management and creative positions. Only then will the situation change.

Claire Beale is away