Close-Up: Can industry diversity be improved?

Non-white employment has grown over the last year but could more be done, Alasdair Reid asks.

On the face of it, the IPA Census report, published last week, is right to highlight one particular aspect of its most recent headcounting exercise.

"In terms of ethnicity, 90 per cent of the employed base is from a white background, whilst 10 per cent are from a non-white background. This represents a further improvement in the ethnic diversity in the industry, up from 8.9 per cent in 2009," it states.

It provides a nice (and rather neat) headline figure - and there are those in the business who feel that the industry can feel justified in giving itself a good old pat on the back. After all, the first time the IPA explored this issue - back in 2005 - the diversity rating was 6.9 per cent.

Ten years ago, most of the more established agencies revelled in a structural diversity that stretched no further than a grungy creative talent pool (hip, urban, art school educated, with a keen taste for eclectic cultural reference points but probably, in the final analysis, from terribly predictable Anglo-Saxon backgrounds) topped off by an officer class recruited from the better sorts of university.

So the industry is clearly moving with the spirit of the times and, in fact, there are those who argue that it has effectively hit its "quota". The most recent reliable figures for instance, taken from the 2001 census, revealed that 92.1 per cent of the UK population describes itself ethnically as "white".

On the other hand, there are those who argue it can be doing a whole lot more. They might point out, for instance, that the industry is largely centred on London - and according to census figures, backed up by more recent estimates, around 30 per cent of the Greater London population is non-white, with Africans and Afro-Caribbeans alone accounting for more than 10 per cent of the total.

Which means that the industry is nowhere near reflecting the makeup of the community within which it works. And there are those who argue that, similar to the BBC, advertising should use its high profile and its glamorous status for social good by taking a far more positive lead in this area.

Interestingly, the very people you'd expect to echo this sentiment tend to urge caution. The Equality and Human Rights Commission argues that any form of "quota" thinking is counter-productive; and when it comes to recruitment issues it insists that, though increased workplace diversity is desirable, it can't be crudely engineered. Instead, it argues against positive discrimination, favouring the notion of "positive action".

The Commission could also argue that if the industry is tempted to become too smug it should ask how many of its ethnically diverse employees are actually in senior or high profile positions.

Whatever. The bottom line is that the advertising world has upped its diversity rating, and there's a general understanding that in a fair and morally healthy society employment profiles will pretty much match the demographic patterns of the country as a whole.

But could the industry do even better? Undoubtedly, says Saad Saraf, the founder of Media Reach, who this week has been appointed as the new chairman of the IPA's Ethnic Diversity Group. "The industry needs to quicken its pace to catch up with the changing face of the new society, or risk getting left behind," he says. "Not only do we need to accept it, we need to understand and embrace it."

INDUSTRY BODY HEAD - Hamish Pringle, director-general, IPA

"Agencies tend to employ white middle-class people - the people who have the background and the contacts in the first place. That's why we have been working on encouraging agencies to adopt different ways of assessing people's abilities. We shouldn't be sitting on our laurels though; we should recognise the fact that 400 languages are spoken in London, which gives us a fantastic competitive advantage.

"We could take a lead from the BBC - effectively it has been positively discriminating by putting non-white people on screen. Because that's one of the problems - if people don't feel they are represented in an organisation, they tend not to apply."

AGENCY HEAD - Magnus Djaba, managing director, Fallon

"The truth is I see myself as an agency man who happens to be from an ethnic minority. My ethnicity doesn't give me the tiniest bit of insecurity - if it comes up I find it disappointing. It has to be said that I have seen improvements in our industry - now if you go into an agency and see a black man or woman, they may not be a security guard.

"Our industry's challenge is even more diversity. In a world where we talk about the ever-increasing diversity of landscape, challenges and answers, how many agencies are full of very similar middle-class people?"

NEW-BUSINESS HEAD - Priya Patel, new-business director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"The ambition of every agency should be to encourage as much diversity as possible - to offer a range of experiences and understanding that in turn reflects the diversity of the people it wishes to engage and influence. The creative industries and advertising in particular are still seen as a 'rogue choice' in minority and traditional communities.

"My parents still believe the only credible professional careers are law, accountancy, medicine and pharmacy.

"Arguably, the role for agencies is to facilitate an attitudinal shift, create greater awareness and actively excite more diverse people to consider the merits and suitability of the industry."

AGENCY HEAD - Guy Hayward, UK group chief executive, JWT

"It's great that advertising reflects the national picture where ethnicity is concerned but I'd agree that we should be reflecting, at one level, the ethnicity of London, which is the most multicultural city in the world, and the ethnicity of the world as a whole.

"As far as JWT is concerned, we have a programme to go into schools with greater ethnic mixes to tell them about advertising and to offer internships. We'd love to see the industry become even less mono-cultural. From a creative point of view, you get better thinking where cultures collide - and it will make advertising an even more interesting industry to work in."

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