The industry wants wider diversity, so why is the entry point so narrow that I can't fit through?
A view from Adi Hussain

The industry wants wider diversity, so why is the entry point so narrow that I can't fit through?

My struggle to get to ad school reveals the barriers that still prevent many people from breaking into the industry. What are agencies prepared to do to help more creative talent from underprivileged backgrounds?

Yes, this is another article about diversity.

But rather than throw statistics at you, I’d prefer to tell you my story.

I’m a British Pakistani, born out of the benefits class, and a carer to my disabled mum, and this is my experience of being a “diverse talent” knocking at the door of adland and not being able to get in.

Growing up, my mum raised me and my two sisters single-handedly – taking the role of mum and dad. She had a creative spirit that she poured into dressmaking. I inherited that creative spirit and it’s largely responsible for my ambition to become an advertising creative.

Since then, my mum has needed mine and my sisters' care and attention, due to her mental and physical health, especially since starting dialysis in 2020. Like most mums she’d always had that hunch that I’d be successful in whatever I did.

That led me to apply to the School of Communication Arts 2.0, one of the world’s best and toughest ad schools, where I performed a monologue after having swallowed a spoonful of Dragon’s Blood – the hot sauce, not the reptile. I got in and realised that, for me, getting into the school wasn’t the hardest part – needing to raise £16,500-plus living costs to study for the year was. That’s enough to turn anyone away that isn’t from a “privileged background”.

And yet adland continues to scream for more people like me. People from diverse backgrounds, with different socioeconomic experiences and insights. People with different-coloured skin. Meanwhile, here’s me, tripping up at the first financial hurdle, as diversity committees and new schemes like BRiM are being liked, shared and retweeted.

So where does this leave me? I’ve set up a fundraiser, but I’m four months away from starting school and nowhere near where I need to be. The school has given me a partial scholarship, which cuts the tuition fees in half, but to make that initial step forward, I’ll need the help of many to get the rest of the funds.

Without that help, my chances of going to ad school will diminish and advertising will, as far as I see it, continue to be a private members club. Because any hurdle I meet will also likely be the same for those who come after me. Those with similar stories to mine are trying to bring their diverse breed of creativity to advertising. It seems ironic that the kinds of voices agencies are saying they’re desperate to celebrate are the same ones that need the most help getting in. So what are agencies prepared to do to avoid alienating and potentially driving out creatives from underprivileged backgrounds?

While getting a job is the end goal of portfolio school, being able to live and work in London is another concern. It may be that this isn't a concern of agencies, but if it means losing out on the kind of creative talent that's lacking in the industry, such a stance may prove to be destructive.

Fundraising is a full-time job, but what I'd love to do, and what I should be doing, is getting stuck into prepping for SCA. Instead, my time has been focused on trying to raise the funds for school, along with my other responsibilities at home. This has involved writing this article, designing a comic, crafting a fundraising video and trying to build a network of people in advertising so I have people to support me when I do get to adland. This has surely put me at a further disadvantage to my peers. To make sure I'm able to give SCA everything I've got, I'll be handing the caring responsibilities of my mum over to my sisters and moving out. This will place me in the perfect environment and headspace to become the creative I know I can be.

There's a reason agencies continue to ask for more diverse creatives from underprivileged backgrounds. It isn't because we possess some magic wand that'll turn briefs into game-changing ads. It isn't because they need to meet their diversity quota. It's because the world is changing and, to keep up, agencies need to change with it. I’m brimming with insights. It’s simply good business sense to tap into that.

Creativity can be born anywhere and, in my case, it was in a council house, in a rough neighbourhood, out of the benefits-class system and inside the skin of a British Pakistani. Such a background can shake things up. It can bring a fresh voice that speaks to a bigger audience.

Rather than inhabit a corner in an agency, I want to thrive and build a career that says a whole lot more than any choice of words on a page. I want to be the example for others like me that advertising can be their platform too. I want to be a creative force, the creative force my mum always knew I’d be. Sadly, it’s not up to me alone to make that happen. I need you too.

Thank you for reading.

Follow more of Adi’s story here.

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