The class ceiling must be shattered
A view from Sarah Jenkins

The class ceiling must be shattered

The Advertising Diversity Taskforce research underlines why social mobility is vital for better representation in the industry.

You don’t have to go to public school to work in advertising, but it certainly seems to help. If you can swap morning chapel and loitering in the quads for the free breakfast bar and hanging out in the breakout zones, you’re probably one for us.

While the ad industry has been rightly concerning itself over gender and ethnic representation, and with initiatives such as the Ideas Foundation and Wieden & Kennedy’s brilliant Forever Curious programme achieving some success in taking steps to create rebalance, another equally pernicious bias has existed quietly in the background, seemingly tolerated by all.

It’s staggering (and shaming) to think that one in five people who work in advertising went to public school, rising to nearly one in three for those in leadership positions, according to the Who Are We? report. This compares with a national average of one in 14 – showing how over-indexing the ad business is.

If only it was such jolly japes for those who might want – and whom we need – to get into the industry but were perhaps not brought up knowing the subtle signs of privilege that prevail within the media. This "class ceiling" must surely put off the talent we’re crying out for.

Let’s be clear how hard some parents work to ensure their children can be privately educated and how hard some kids work to earn their scholarships and bursaries. However, let’s be equally clear of the scale of inherent advantage – and not just socially – a private education is in both entering our business and thriving within it. And the industry is poorer for it. 

While supreme confidence has yet to make it onto the curriculum of most state schools, it is still too often a prerequisite for a successful career in the ad business. Maybe it’s no wonder that the transition from prep school to public school to Russell Group university to advertising is such an effortless one.

For those without these advantages, a social carapace is required to ensure survival, but we also need to make sure we’re taking significant steps to ensure we’re not just open for the elite.

There’s a real danger that the industry believes that through our work to reach black, Asian and minority-ethnic talent, we’re also tackling the social mobility problem. However, the Who Are We? report also found that BAME employees are twice as likely to have been to private school than the national average. This problem underpins other diversity issues.

Making change happen 

More intense surgery is required to effect real change and this needs to start from the top. Smart and progressive chief executives can release budgets and take big steps to change the make-up of a company if they really want to.

Set clear policy for your hiring processes – re-engineer entry level so there is never the option to give the job to someone because it’s the godson of someone from the C-suite, and ensure referral schemes are hardwired to incentivise staff to do their bit to get their agency fully representative. Ensure you and your leadership team understand the endemic problem; spend time in local schools and experience the burning talent that is so often being squashed as a result of shredded education budgets and a curriculum crazily devoid of creativity. 

Finally, sign up to take part in next year’s Who Are We? report. It’s a unique way to get the data on your agency so you can benchmark progress.

And then we’ll stop giving priority to the already privileged and help those with the fresh ideas, talent and perspective that our bruised but glorious industry really needs.

Sarah Jenkins is chief marketing officer at Grey London and co-founder of the Advertising Diversity Taskforce