How to embrace socioeconomic diversity

The advertising industry has a long way to go to properly address its lack of social diversity.

How to embrace socioeconomic diversity

Helen McRae, CEO of Mindshare UK and chair of Western Europe, vividly remembers where she was on the eve of the Brexit vote. She was having dinner with the editor of The Sun newspaper, Tony Gallagher:

"He said: ‘Don’t discount people outside the M25.’ Up until that point I had not considered that Brexit would happen. Like everyone else in the industry, I was gobsmacked when I heard the news. That was the wake-up call for me to ask: are we, as an industry, looking at things in the right way? Are we really in touch? The answer is no. It opened my eyes. We weren’t as diverse as we pretended to be. We need to look at ourselves. We’re making profound changes."

With similar wake-up calls happening around the world, personified by Donald Trump’s victory in the US and Marine Le Pen garnering 11 million votes in the French election, this re-evaluation is necessary on a global scale. 

Macroeconomic factors, from the democratisation of media to cuts to creative arts training, are combining to make adland even less accessible as a career, particularly to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In addition, as McRae points out, it’s not as if advertising rates highly as a career consideration for talent worldwide as it is, compared with more traditional professions and the tech sector. 

Check your privilege

The culture of "privilege" is a global challenge, too, McRae believes, born, in part, out of unconscious bias. Diversity in recruitment wasn’t such a pressing concern in the past; there were more than enough bright sparks already knocking down the door to get in – so what if many of them were the Mini-Mes of existing employees and clients? Now, however, it is. Why?  

"Only now do I feel confident to say ‘that was my background, and that’s OK’" Reeha Alder-Shah Dare

Research continues to prove that diverse teams perform better. Nevertheless, it’s gen-erally agreed that a narrow, privileged pool dominates agencies worldwide, despite the acknowledged detrimental effect, particularly on creativity and groupthink. "Yes, there’s a bloody big problem," Leo Rayman, chief executive of Valenstein & Fatt, says. "Yes, it’s an industry too remote from the daily realities of those it hopes to connect with. The problem is deep and systemic."

Jonathan Akwue, managing partner at DigitasLBi, co-founder of the Great British Diversity Experiment (GBDE) and chair of the Ideas Foundation, says: "The saying ‘You don’t need to be rich to work in advertising, but it helps’ is undeniably true. Any area in the world where that is not the case is the exception rather the rule." 

Latin America is cited by some, such as Alain Groenendaal, Valenstein & Fatt president and chief executive, Europe, as such an exception.

Akwue is worried about the "monochrome, middle-of-the-road, homogenising" effect on output. Through his observation of diverse teams working on the GBDE brief, he believes adland needs to "loosen up, get back to our roots, to something that’s a bit more scrappy" – and to stop fixating on speed and ease. "Given how our industry is structured, that is a real challenge."

In the journey to professionalism, he  believes we have lost something – the something that gave rise to Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and Trevor Beattie, among other ad-industry greats, many of whom didn’t come from affluent backgrounds.

Background checks

Yet the extent of the socioeconomic problem is not clear; neither is it prioritised on the diversity agenda. Networks shout about their gender and BAME KPIs and achievements, but even the most progressive agencies and trade bodies don’t collect data about the socioeconomic background of their employees. Admittedly, asking how rich someone’s parents are is awkward, especially when you consider the other cliché that "advertising is a nice career if your dad can afford it".

What is clear, however, is that with the world changing so rapidly, the industry can’t risk not making its wares more attractive to socially diverse recruits. Its content must resonate with the population, especially influencers, because it can no longer rely on interruptive, blanket messaging. Today, marketing is about being in touch with niches, which takes a much deeper understanding of the consumer.

Embracing grass-roots activism

The only way to cultivate a fresh talent pool is from the grass roots, which is why savvy agencies are focusing their efforts on schools. In the opinion of Reeha Alder-Shah, man-aging partner at Dare, advertising is not on the radar of children in disadvantaged areas, which is why the priority has to be working with local communities, partnering schools and mentoring.

"I grew up in Edmonton, North London, with a single mum," she says. "We lived on top of a greengrocers that all my family worked in. The only industries I could see that were even an option were retail and high-street roles."

Alder-Shah got into advertising because she joined a graduate scheme at Barclays, a role that led her to work with Dare for four years before jumping ship to work there. She chose the finance sector because, even now, her Asian family believes that banking, law and medicine are the most credible career choices. Despite the fact that she sits on the board and earns more than her husband, her family deems him more successful because he has a more traditional "salaryman" position. 

Rich kids of advertising

This status afforded to traditional sectors such as banking is particularly acute across Asian markets. Yet, according to Debbie Klein, chief executive of Engine Europe and Asia Pacific, this has a knock-on effect of making the ad industry more socially diverse. "The more affluent and [socially] mobile see careers like finance as more attractive than creative industries… meaning [advertising] is much less of a rich kids’ industry." Typically, at junior level, you have a broader mix, but "at the most senior levels in the big agency networks it seems there is still a strong old boys’ network in place". 

There is much work to be done to improve advertising’s image in young minds, particularly with regard to its financial viability in these uncertain times. Media has the added challenge of letting young people know first that it exists and second what it actually does. 

As a speaker for education charity Speakers For Schools, Klein gives talks to educate, encourage and reassure pupils about advertising as a career. The 0industry, she says, should do more outreach to a broader community. 

Klein applauds radical moves such as the creation of the Ideas Foundation, which aims to increase diversity in the creative industries, identify and nurture creatively gifted 13- to 19-year-olds from all backgrounds and give them skills to gain employment. And Livity’s Digify UK (also in South Africa) gives BAME 18- to 25-year-olds two months of "immersive" training before a six-month paid placement at an agency. The industry could also take inspiration from Global Radio, she says, which has set up its own academy to give young talent hands-on skills.  

Livity: partnered Google and the MAA to create diversity programme Digify UK

Embracing the whole self

These opportunities could lead recruits straight into a job after leaving school, bypassing increasingly expensive universities. Then you increase social diversity and bring new voices to the table. But getting talent from less- privileged backgrounds through the door is one thing; keeping them is another.

As Alder-Shah attests, entering adland from a less-affluent background is "intimidating". "Keeping your own identity is the hardest thing," she says. "I thought the way to do that was to never talk about my background and the fact my family worked in a greengrocer. It was so embarrassing. I never talked about having a single mum, either. Only now do I feel confident to say ‘That was my background, and that’s OK.’"

She implores others in her situation to be proud of who they are, as their "gift" of difference "will change our industry and is much more representative of our consumers". At the same time, she urges the industry to do more to support these recruits in developing their confidence through extra support and training. 

Diverse voices

Humans are tribal animals and the danger is that when someone "different" enters a team, office or career, they can feel ill at ease, with one coping strategy being to try to "fit in", losing their unique voice in the process. This is the phenomenon that led Dentsu to launch agency fortysix in April 2016, staffed by people from diverse disadvantaged backgrounds. While some commentators have suggested it’s a PR stunt that goes against the ethos of inclusivity and integration, Dentsu Aegis Network chief executive Tracy De Groose says it’s a "new kind of agency, built for the digital economy".

Fortysix: managing director Lewie Allen (left) with Dentsu Aegis Network UK chief executive Tracy De Groose

"Fortysix was set up as a standalone agency because we wanted to give the team the freedom to shape the business and define their own ways of working and not be influenced [by] or try to fit into ours. My first piece of advice to the team was ‘don’t let us change you, you change us.’"

And they have. Fortysix has had a "positively disruptive" impact on the network, she says, making others look at themselves and how they operate. For instance, its hiring approach is now the standard for entry-level recruitment across the board: a fast-track day of digital learning, then video interviews, group-based briefs/presentations and speed interviews (traditional CVs and interviews have been ditched). The process is even being used by client Camelot now. This year Dentsu is looking at adding gamification to the process.

Of course, the fortysix concept is not entirely new. Livity has operated in the UK and Africa for 15 years. It has run successful campaigns for clients including Google, Sony, Cancer Research UK and Dyson, winning numerous awards.

"Consistent and valuable mentorship" has been a "core factor" in the agency’s success, says chief executive Alex Goat. Livity works hard to build talent’s resilience, particularly in creative roles where "you have to have the confidence to defend your ideas and work in what can be intimidating environments, especially if you feel different to everyone else in the room". 

She points to a key finding from the GBDE, of which she’s also a co-founder: "Too often when someone feels like they are the only ‘diverse’ person in the room, they have to play to type.  People feel they have to represent the whole of that group rather than be themselves. It’s only when you can build truly diverse teams that diversity itself comes off the table. That is when each person can be their authentic and very best selves and fulfil their creative potential."    

How to do it: how to embrace socioeconomic diversity

Grass roots

  • Outreach into schools and communities in disadvantaged areas; workshops, mentoring, talks, partnerships.
  • Apprenticeships. Paid, of course. If you don’t currently pay, shame on you. You’re part of the problem. Take advantage of the Apprenticeship Levy. For inspiration, look at MediaCom London’s award-winning apprenticeship programme and Ogilvy & Mather’s The Pipe. If you’re in a developing market, check out JWT Vietnam’s programme.
  • Stamp out nepotism in internships by insisting that everyone – including the chairman’s and your biggest client’s children – go through the same application process as everyone else.
  • Blind CVs.
  • Don’t insist on a degree – instead, offer opportunities to train on the job.
  • Offer bursaries to help new recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Collect data on employees’ socioeconomic background so you know the extent of your problem and can set targets to tackle it. 
  • Don’t set a one-size-fits-all policy, but tailor your solution to the individual.

Changing your existing culture

  • Get on the train. Go to a council estate in Rochdale, or anywhere else outside your norm. Rochdale is where Klein went to "get out [of] the Pret A Manger bubble" and spend time with someone living just above the breadline. "It was very sobering and informative," she says. Ogilvy & Mather Group do similar trips for its Get Out There initiative, launched last year.
  • Unconscious-bias training.
  • Encourage your people to travel as this promotes a bigger perspective and better understanding of working effectively with difference. 
  • In the UK, you can get involved in the industry taskforce being set up by Valenstein & Fatt, led by Leo Rayman, who says adland needs to stop talking and start doing. "At best there is a lot of chat. Even worse, agencies are starting to fudge the numbers. That’s not cool. That’s not acceptable," he says. The first meeting took place on 3 May, with 18 agency CEO/executive-level attendees and five experts/expert organisations, from D&AD Foundation through to Channel 4 and Mars.