Editorial: Perhaps adland will now take diversity seriously

Times may be tough for Britain's agencies, but it could be worse. Just look at what's happening across the Atlantic, where Madison Avenue stands accused of being institutionally racist.

With the world economy in freefall, this is a charge the US ad industry could well do without. But there will never be an ideal time or place for it to face its accusers. The fact is that it has been in the crosshairs of the racial activists for some years. And with an African-American in the White House, there seems little prospect that the industry's record on diversity will not remain under perpetual scrutiny.

Even if the charges of racism are set to one side, there is no doubt that the racial mix within agencies in the US and the UK leaves much to be desired. The number of non-white staff in IPA member agencies increased slightly from 6.1 per cent to 8.4 per cent over the past year. But most are in back-office roles, while those from ethnic minorities occupying senior account management or creative department roles are almost impossible to find.

The reasons for this are familiar - a paucity of black role-models, the failure of industry qualifications to match the status of those offered by other professions and a social networking recruiting system that favours white, middle-class applicants. The danger is that the painfully slow progress being made to improve the situation starts to look like feet-dragging. The experience of the US industry shows what can happen when pent-up frustrations get released.

Proving institutional racism exists in US agencies is almost impossible. Yet what those agencies do has huge influence on US society. The pressure groups seem to have concluded that if they can force change within such a high-profile industry, victories elsewhere will surely follow.

How long before ethnic activists in the UK conclude that similar pressures should be applied to British agencies? That threat alone ought to ensure there is no let-up in the diversity drive.

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