Industry 'unicorn' Karen Blackett is tired of being everyone's 'one black friend'

Advertising companies that ignore diversity are failing to futureproof their business, WPP UK boss warns.

Karen Blackett was speaking at Media360
Karen Blackett was speaking at Media360

The UK ad industry is at risk of losing relevance with modern Britain and "won't survive" if it fails to tackle systemic racism and racial inequality, Group M’s UK chief executive Karen Blackett warned as this year’s Media360 conference began today.

In an interview with Campaign’s UK editor-in-chief, Gideon Spanier, Blackett lamented that she struggles to see why people in the advertising industry are apparently failing to recognise that diversity is necessary to futureproof their business, as well as being a moral imperative.

While Blackett was pleased with the industry’s response via a Creative Equals petition and manifesto, created in the wake of the George Floyd police killing in the US, she asserted the need to ensure this action continues “not just in words, but deeds as well”.

Blackett added: "We won't survive as an industry unless we really do take action to remove those systemic inequalities and those barriers that do exist and it's about equity, not just equality."

She explained: “I struggle to see why people can’t see this is about futureproofing your business and growth. Britain is a beautiful fruit salad of people. If you think about where your growth and audience are coming from, it’s understanding that fruit salad, your current and future consumers… If we create content that does not have authentic stories, we’re just not engaging, they’re not going to buy that product and have an affinity with that brand.”

Blackett revealed her frustration at being such a rare sight in the industry – a black chief executive. “I am tired of being everybody’s one black friend. I’m like a unicorn in the industry. All the questions [about diversity] can’t be directed at me.” 

Asked by Spanier whether people in the industry need to “step up”, she replied: “It can’t be left to the minority groups to make the change… When you see something happening that isn't right, you need to step in as an ally. I am absolutely seeing that, whether it’s people that sign up to the Creative Equals pledge, that people are committing and stepping forward. It’s just making sure that it continues and we hold each other accountable for that change.”

Blackett also insisted that she meant encouraging diversity is a much wider project than improving black and minority ethnic representation in casting actors for ads. “I get really frustrated about tick boxes in the final hour to ‘put in some diversity’. That’s not the answer. It starts from understanding authentic stories being in the content.”

Just before the pandemic took hold and lockdown was imposed in the UK in March, WPP had carried out its first “UK Belonging” survey, in which 61% of its 11,000 UK employees answered questions that Blackett said would inform initiatives around addressing systemic pay gaps and barriers to access to senior roles within agencies. WPP chief executive Mark Read has said the company will publish data in its next annual sustainability report.

Blackett was appointed UK chief executive of Group M at the beginning of 2020, on the eve of the coronavirus pandemic, and performs the role in tandem with her position as UK country manager of WPP. 

Although she admitted that the pandemic has been “horrific” in terms of the economic damage to the industry (WPP reported a 23% nosedive in revenue in the second quarter of 2020), Blackett insisted she has learned “more about the business by getting us through this crisis than ever”.

She explained: “I learned more about myself and leadership in that period of time. It sounds weird but I think I got to know my team better working remotely, because I got a window into their homes and their lives... It helps you spark conversation as well as running the business.”

Blackett sees a blend of offline and online continuing for most businesses going forward, where traditional retailers will transform their ecommerce offerings as consumer behaviour continues to demand more online presence. For WPP and Group M, the business strategy will involve “making some big bets in a number of different areas and being flexible”.

Citing WPP research published last year on new models for growth, Blackett warned against focusing too much on short-term growth as a reaction to the current crisis.

“When you cut adspend during a difficult time, you reduce sales income by as much as 20-30% in two years,” Blackett said. “Because of what we’ve gone through, the normal customer has disappeared… but what’s so important is balancing long term, not just immediate term, and that we spring into 2021 rather than crawl into it. If we just cut costs, we’re just managing a slow decline.”

Media360 is part of Campaign360, Campaign's week-long event for the UK’s leading media and marketing professionals. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is taking place online as the UK continues to practise social distancing. 

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