Get out of London if you want to tackle adland's misconceptions
A view from Simon Gwynn

Get out of London if you want to tackle adland's misconceptions

Putting more boots on the ground in other parts of the UK would go some way towards changing the industry's misunderstanding of mainstream aspirations.

I was as stunned as you might have been by the figures in last week’s report from Reach Solutions, The Aspiration Window, which found that advertising and marketing professionals in the UK are significantly misinformed about the factors that motivate average people.

It’s not news that people in our industries aren’t as well-connected to audiences as they like to think – another report from Reach released a year ago found that the majority of them lacked empathy. But the size of the gulf between perception and reality in these new numbers had me asking whether there were other explanations for the findings.

The great majority of the public told researchers that they did not aspire to own many expensive possessions, achieve fame or stand out from the crowd. But were they telling the truth? I put this to Andrew Tenzer, author of the report, who said that the methodology used is designed to check for "social desirability bias" (the same factor that has historically seen the Conservative Party under-represented in opinion polls). Broadly, he told me, people are honest about their own aspirations and "reaching for making a negative assumption about people" – suggesting they’re not being sincere – should be seen as an attempt to let marketers off the hook for a genuine failing.

The fact that so few people are motivated by "extrinsic" goals – those related to money and  status – does on the surface seem to pose a problem for an industry that’s concerned with encouraging people to buy things. But Tenzer argued that there’s no reason "intrinsic" motivators can’t work just as effectively in marketing. For example, car ads often feature a solo driver winding through a deserted landscape, perhaps appealing to the desire "to be unique and stand out from the crowd" – despite only 28% of the mainstream saying this was an aspiration.

A campaign that was more in tune with the mainstream, he suggested, might depict someone showing off a newly bought upmarket car to their mum – reflecting an aspiration for family approval. Another factor often overlooked in marketing is people’s desire not to stand out, but to fit in. "People overwhelmingly feel good about owning the same thing as their friends," Tenzer said.

As Tenzer wrote for Campaign last week, you don’t have to look far to find the source of advertising and marketing’s misconceptions about mainstream aspirations. It is an industry in which 70% of people grew up in AB households, meaning those with professional or managerial jobs. There’s a very straightforward way in which this failure of social diversity is letting the industry down: many smart people with exactly the qualities any brand or agency should want simply never apply or don’t make it through. But the negative impact is also compounded. In an award-winning essay published in May, Wavemaker North planning director Lisa Thompson argued that the situation limited the potential for "creative abrasion", the process by which ideas from different perspectives clash, become stronger and absorb each other’s best bits. 

Since the start of the global wave of Black Lives Matter protests, diversity has moved back up the industry agenda (although, as Amina Folarin wrote in Campaign last week, it should not be used to avoid talking about more challenging manifestations of racism). So far, the industry’s diversity drive has failed, and not just because overall black, Asian and minority-ethnic representation at UK agencies is stagnant or falling. According to Thompson’s essay, a colossal 69% of people from BAME backgrounds in the industry were privately educated. That compares with 27% of all people in the industry and just 7% of the population as a whole. This stat comes from YouGov profiles; the lack of other available data on this issue means it should be treated with caution. But it does suggest the industry’s ability to attract people who aren’t white and didn’t go to private school is an embarrassment. 

Geography is a related factor – the location of almost all creative agencies in London, and the majority of leading brands in the south east, means that London is the default when it comes to representing the experience of people from minority-ethnic groups. Since the start of lockdown, I’ve been living in Glasgow, in a neighbourhood with a large Pakistani community. My sense is that people from this group are about as under-represented in UK marketing as it gets. (If anyone reading this is from Glasgow’s Asian community, incidentally – or any other demographic group you believe is under-represented in the industry – I’d love to hear from you.)

So perspectives aren’t being brought to the table and, as a result, businesses are relying on mistaken assumptions about the consumers they’re trying to reach. There is, however, a way forward that also addresses another of the report’s findings, on the use of "purpose" in marketing. In short, Reach found, when it comes to purpose-led marketing, consumers don’t care and industry professionals don’t think they care either. 

But contrast this to research from community engagement consultancy Connect 2, which polled 1,000 people and found that the vast majority – 93% – identified themselves as a member of their local community, ahead of identities based on their family, work and interests. Meanwhile, 77% said they would welcome brands engaging via their community.

Tenzer acknowledged that there was a distinction between the use by brands of purpose-based messaging and actually having a business strategy in which some form of social or environmental activity was a core part. I’d suggest that purpose-led marketing is most effective if people perceive it to have a tangible impact on their own lives and communities. To do this effectively, though, brands and their agencies need to employ people who understand these communities because that’s where they come from. So it was great to hear about a small but valuable step from Publicis Groupe, which is providing subsidised accomodation in London for 10 apprentices from BAME communities – following a similar move this year by Lucky Generals.

However, your people will be more effective still if they are located on the ground in different types of places. Every time I visit my home city of Sheffield, I become aware of how little I know about the issues on people's minds there and the conversations they are having. Sure, you can set up focus groups, but the only way to fully understand it is to be part of it, day in, day out.

The lockdown has forced companies to throw away assumptions about where their staff need to be to do their jobs; the rebuilding should prompt new thinking about the best geographical structure for understanding the market you’re trying to serve. I’m not suggesting you start making plans to open an office in Sunderland, Swansea (pictured, top) or Stoke-on-Trent. The reality, though, is that there are people in those places who would make invaluable additions to your team – but who have never considered a career in marketing, don’t believe it’s possible or just don’t want to move away from home. So the question is: what are you doing to access that talent?

Simon Gwynn is deputy news editor at Campaign