'Closed' and 'exclusive': how can we open up adland's job market?

Galvanised by recent BLM activism, agencies have begun to take a closer look at how they attract and retain BAME talent. So, can the notoriously 'closed' ad industry job market be prised open, or are recruiters causing a deadlock?

'Closed' and 'exclusive': how can we open up adland's job market?

Diverse creative thinking equals diverse creative output, right? And to produce the best work, agencies need to hire the best talent because, of course, agencies are only as good as their people.

These truisms are key to the success of adland itself. But with targets for BAME diversity being missed, and percentages even going into reverse at some levels, the industry must now take decisive action to effect change if it is to reap the benefits that come from employing people from a broad range of backgrounds.

“Frankly, we have institutionalised bias, prejudice and racism,” Shanice Mears, head of talent at The Elephant Room, says. “Traditional thinking only gets you so far. People have to want to challenge the status quo; to want to take a risk on different types of people and potential. You have to be OK with different: there are going to be some people that aren’t coming from middle-class backgrounds, or some people that maybe didn’t go to uni or maybe did an apprenticeship.”

Mears, from Birmingham and with a background in arts and dance, credits her internship (via Livity) with her entry to adland, but says that unless more people start to “take those types of risks or take chances on different types of potential”, change will not happen.

Apprenticeship and internship programmes have provided a key boost to entry-level diversity recruitment, according to Leila Siddiqi, associate director, diversity at the IPA. Since 2012, the IPA’s Creative Pioneers programme has helped more than 750 young people, 85% of whom stayed in adland after completing their 15- to 18-month programme. Now, the IPA and a group of 26 agencies, including Creature, Rapp, M&C Saatchi and MullenLowe, have launched an official scheme, the Level 3 Junior Creative Apprenticeship Standard, which begins this month.

Yet there’s a long way to go for adland, which was described privately by several interviewees for this article as “closed”, “exclusive” and “a network of networks”. April’s UK IPA Agency Census data revealed only 4.7% of C-suite executives being recorded as BAME in 2019, compared with 5.5% in 2018. Overall, BAME representation in agencies stood at just under 14% for 2019, compared with about 13% in 2015.

With hiring bias often held accountable for slow progress, many ad agencies are cognisant of the need to change recruitment process and practices at all levels, and have introduced a range of measures, including anonymised profiles (rather than full CVs), using ethnic minority specialist job boards, adding recruitment agencies specialising in diversity to their roster of partners and funding travel for interviews for entry-level jobs.

“As an industry, we’re going to be judged on our actions, not our words,” Siddiqi says. “There’s no room for small, incremental changes any more. People want equality, fairness and advancement. It needs to be tied into bonuses, at the very top level. And that’s the only way actual change is going to happen.”

Dismantle the system

Indeed, nothing will change until agencies are made to increase ethnic diversity, and put pressure on suppliers, such as recruitment agencies, to revolutionise the way they source, and present, candidates, Ally Owen, founder of Brixton Finishing School, argues.

The school, which spends nine months a year doing community outreach, delivers training programmes for diverse individuals before helping them find placements. It has recorded a massive rise in interest since the recent BLM activity. And, in the face of the systemic industry issue that very little has been done historically to engage or attract people from communities that do not represent the traditional white, middle-class homogeny, its outreach is a way to widen the talent pool.

Recruiters, Owen says, are not doing enough to dismantle a system that is stopping certain types of talent succeeding. Instead, they should be more proactive by standing up to clients who continually request CV criteria that is “outdated and systemically racist, such as asking for a degree from a Russell Group university, or asking for ‘cultural fit’, when we all know that means wanting someone like Charles who plays rugby”. She suggests a code of conduct, perhaps an agreement between recruitment agencies, on certain things they won’t do for clients, such as deliver all-white shortlists.

"There's no room for small, incremental changes any more. People want equality, fairness and advancement. It needs to be tied into bonuses, at the very top level"
Leila Siddiqi, IPA

“We’re finally saying: ‘I want you to stop being racist in the way you present candidates to me, which is essentially what you’re doing if you present all-white shortlists.’ For too long, a large number of recruitment agencies has been fishing in the same pond, but doing nothing to widen it,” Owen adds.

The prospect of ad agencies demanding better practices from recruiters around the sourcing of multicultural candidates is a pressure welcomed by Amanda Fone, founder and CEO of F1 Recruitment, which has always tracked BAME diversity in its candidate pool and currently counts 35% of its contractor base and 22% of its permanent job-seekers as non-white.

Fone has long lobbied the industry for change, and launched BAME 2020 in 2016 with Brands With Values, backed by 25 ambassadors including Karen Blackett, country manager at WPP. A fresh initiative “No Turning Back” was unveiled in July, calling for businesses to make sure their recruitment agencies change the face of their candidate portfolio, across the age range, to a minimum of 15% BAME.

“The talent is out there”

“Companies need to put pressure on their recruiters to ensure a diverse pipeline of talent in the sector,” Fone says. “When we pitch for work it’s rare that we’re questioned about what we’re actively doing to attract more diverse talent into the sector. And worse than that, when we’ve talked about BAME 2020, eyes have glazed over. Only in the past eight weeks [since recent BLM activism] have we seen a complete turnaround on this subject from organisations.”

For too long, Fone explains, headhunting firms have been saying the lack of diversity coming through the system is not their problem, yet they continue to rely on auto-tools such as LinkedIn Recruiter, which perpetuate the industry’s closed-loop-network.

“Changes in recruitment practice have to begin at the top, inside organisations and the search firms they choose to work with when hiring their board,” she says. “If these companies never develop an inclusive culture, diverse communities never make it up the food chain.”

Owen and Fone concur that rewriting the blueprint for what talent looks like will help agencies garner a more diverse range of employees. Both encourage recruiters to challenge their clients on what skills are actually important and whether talent could arrive with experience from different industries.

Mears advises putting work in to find out where people are communicating. She’s part of a WhatsApp group of more than 250 non-white, creative industry professionals.

“The talent is out there,” she says. While not against setting percentage targets, Mears thinks that they can be arbitrary in a world where agencies should be seeing a diverse set of people on a regular basis anyway.

A lack of real commitment to change

Part of a new breed of recruiter, Hidden, which works with agencies including MRM McCann, VaynerMedia, BBH and Mirum, helps bypass issues of bias, using an approach relying on recruiters becoming embedded in organisations, consulting as an extension of the talent acquisition team, rather than charging on a per-hire basis.

Founder Richard Bloom explains that, whereas in traditional recruitment methods up to 60% of applications are pre-judged on name, age, race, gender and education, Hidden’s approach, along with its app, which strips out those details from CVs, puts the focus on skills and experience. Where the candidate is entry level, they’re asked to undertake a task-based assessment. “It’s about what people can bring, not where they studied,” Bloom says.

However, as Rosa Rolo, commercial director of Major Players, explains: “Ultimately, we’re at the mercy of our clients’ briefs. While we train our staff to realise that we’re often the first barrier of unconscious bias and to push back on briefs, we continue to be up against tight deadlines, stereotypical briefings and a lack of real commitment to change. It’s about everybody committing to change; every recruiter, every company and every line manager. And it’s brands demanding it of their ad agencies.”

Rolo’s advice to ad agency leadership is to bring in BAME representation at a senior level: “Maybe it’s about finding somebody to sit on your board who doesn’t necessarily have advertising experience, but has business and diversity experience.”

Dr Joanna Abeyie, founder of Blue Moon, a diversity and inclusion recruitment business and a member of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Expert Advisory Panel for Covid-19 recovery plans for arts, cultural and creative sectors, has been providing such insight for Major Players.

“First, agencies need to stop ‘othering’ talent that isn’t from white, middle classes,” says Abeyie, awarded an MBE in the 2020 Honours List for services to diversity in the media and creative industries. “Do they need to have this specialist diversity recruiter; or do they just need to change the lens through which they look, so that all recruitment becomes more diverse?”

If they look in the places they’ve always looked, which might be LinkedIn, Abeyie adds, they will find only the same kind of people they always have. There are so many groups to interact with, she says; if recruiters find an online group of designers, they will organically get access to a pool of talent from a broad range of backgrounds, “whether that’s a designer in a wheelchair, a black designer or a gay designer”.

It’s often hard to see why anyone from a minority community would want to join adland, Abeyie contends, especially with the added pressure of being a trailblazer or flag-waver for ethnic minority talent. Many individuals are choosing to collect experience in the industry before setting up on their own, preferring to avoid the “arrogance and elitism that thinks we should be really grateful to be there”.

The onus is now on ad agencies not only to demonstrate that they can attract top talent from the different BAME communities, but also to prove they can be inclusive places to work, which celebrate cultural differences – and retain that talent. It’s time to transform quick, performative actions into a real-world shift that’s measurable and sustainable.

How to hire better

Campaign spoke to four people who have completed apprenticeship programmes and internships designed to achieve more BAME diversity about their experiences, and how they think recruitment needs to evolve.

"The ad industry should engage and work with state schools as much as with private schools"

Dennis Gyamfi, assistant producer, Kudos Film and TV

In 2008, at the age of 18, Gyamfi was one of the first to participate in Quiet Storm’s Create Not Hate programme, producing an anti-gun-crime film, before going on to work in various roles, including as an account executive at OMD and assistant producer at Green Door/Sprout Films for In the Long Run, starring Idris Elba.

“Create Not Hate prepared me to break into the creative industry. At times, I feel people see me and make a judgment based on the outside but not what’s within. Discrimination is very real to me, and others that look like me, but I continue to knock on doors and push forward.

“The ad industry should engage and work with state schools as much as with private schools. The culture of managers, recruiters and HRs only hiring people they can see themselves in has to change, so we can all have an opportunity to thrive. To be turned away due to the colour of your skin or your race is one of the most painful experiences in life.

“To improve BAME diversity, agencies and companies should work with recruitment agencies who have balanced workforces themselves, and also give opportunities based on skills and ability to deliver. They could also work with young people in lower-class communities, as Trevor Robinson at Quiet Storm has done with Create Not Hate, by giving people opportunities to grow.”

"I'm at Global, but will I ever be more than what I am if I can never see people in senior positions that look like me?"

Kianna Joseph, brand marketer, Global

Joseph completed the Brixton Finishing School programme in 2019, before beginning a 15-month apprenticeship at commercial radio and outdoor media owner Global.

“I came to expect there wouldn’t be a lot of people that look like me in the workplace. Most people in senior positions aren’t black. I’ve been lucky enough to get here: I’m at Global, but will I ever be more than what I am if I can never see people in senior positions that look like me? This is especially true of apprentices: we bring a lot of diversity to companies, but sometimes there isn’t support beyond the apprenticeship, so we’ve made the company look good for a while, and then when our time’s up, we’re let go.

“The small percentage of BAME people in agencies makes me worry we’re here to tick a box. It’s hard to believe a company is genuinely interested in having a more diverse workforce. Ad agencies need to put pressure on recruitment companies. With Adland’s Open Letter, so many companies that weren’t actively thinking about diversity and inclusion put their names down, so that’s a start. But my worry is: are we actually going to see real change?

“The BLM movement has brought out a culture of accountability; people from the BAME community now feel more comfortable asking companies bigger questions. When I go for my next job I will ask: ‘What did you do once the BLM movement came around? What do you have in place for people like me?’ When I was going into the Global interview, I didn’t dare ask anything about diversity and inclusion.”

"My personal experience is typically being one of the only people of colour in meetings – being told I'm sassy or sound 'urban'"

Hannah Owens, freelance senior account manager, Livity; project lead, Digify

After graduating in Communications & Media Studies, Owens completed the Digify programme with Livity in 2016. Following a six-month work placement at Engine, she was offered a permanent role. After a brand manager contract role at ASOS, Owens is now working with Livity on brands such as Nike, while leading the Digify programme.

“Black people are often looked down on, labelled and pitied, to an extent, in the traditional adland workplace – ironic, as the best creative outputs have often come from, or been appropriated from, people of colour. Percentage targets alone aren’t going to get the best talent because they focus on numbers over people.

"Agencies need to look at culture, otherwise once they have the talent, they won’t be able to keep it. My personal experience is typically being one of the only people of colour in meetings – being told I’m sassy or sound ‘urban’ – and seeing talent attracted, not retained, which is sad.

“I went to a recruitment agency and described the kind of place I want to work: they sent me three jobs in agencies with all-white leadership teams displayed on their ‘people’ page. I don’t want to work somewhere that positively advertises its leadership team like that. For years there has been a wall around the creative industry; people of colour don’t see themselves, or feel like they can fully be themselves.”

"Agencies need diverse recruitment teams who are well equipped in the search for diverse talent"

Michael Makinde, managing director, Kinde Group

After graduating in Advertising & Marketing, Makinde completed Digify UK, the diversity internship collaboration between youth marketing agency Livity, the Marketing Agencies Association and Google, which involves two months training, plus a six-month work placement.

“At Livity there was a speed-dating session with agency leaders for work placements. It was funny that myself and another young black man weren’t a popular choice. We stayed at Livity for our placements as no other agency took any interest in us, no matter how talented we were. Finding an agency that would welcome a young black man like me seemed very distant. I currently run my own entertainment and marketing agency, with clients including Paramount Pictures and Uber.

“The ad industry should place job ads on more diverse platforms and with organisations such as Social Fixt. Personal details should be eliminated from early stages to remove bias. This should be executed by an external person who would pass on the incognito applications to be shortlisted. There should be more ad agency recruitment fairs or open days dedicated to BAME candidates.

“Agencies need diverse recruitment teams who are well equipped in the search for diverse talent and the ‘onboarding’ process. It’s all good recruiting black talent, but how can we retain them? How can we ensure the office is welcoming for various races? Can we recreate company cultures to be a level playing field for all races?”

What YOU could be doing

1 “Realise that it’s business critical: if we do not get more diversity, it will have a negative impact on our business. Make an intentional plan to fix the problem and follow through.”
Rania Robinson, partner and managing director, Quiet Storm

2 “People think they have to be black themselves or diverse themselves in order to raise their voice and support this cause, but they need to be told that we need allyship.”
Leila Siddiqi, associate director, diversity, IPA

3 “There are so many platforms and networks that hold amazing talent; Instagram is a great place to headhunt. Supporting these networks and platforms is key to agencies adding value and learning.”
Hannah Owens, freelance senior account manager, Livity; project lead, Digify

4 “Hiring managers need to be trained to understand their unconscious biases and evaluate talent pools through a different lens. A diverse shortlist in the wrong, untrained hands is worth nothing, because people will revert to the default way they’ve always recruited.”
Richard Bloom, founder, Hidden

5 “Create a culture where there isn’t pressure to trailblaze and be the example of what it’s like to hire a black person. Go out and find talent through fair and open competition. Deal with microaggressions, where every time there’s a black issue you ask the black person, work through white fragility and white privilege, so the person comes into an environment where they’re allowed to do their job.”
Dr Joanna Abeyie, founder, Blue Moon