We need to call out adland's defensiveness about diversity

Justin Tindall was bored with diversity, Paul Burke is bored with the backlash, and all the while nothing really changes.

We need to call out adland's defensiveness about diversity

Have you heard the one about the creative director who lost his job because of sexual harassment allegations only to spring up at another agency to work on a gender equality campaign? Or the female leader publicly extolling the virtues of part-time and flexible working, while berating staff for wanting to get home a few times a week in time to see their children? Hypocrisy has long been at the heart of the criticism of adland’s long-running, but ineffective, diversity debate.

The gap between public show and private behaviour is one that fuels the defensiveness that surrounds the advertising industry’s approach to diversity. It is in the ecosystem that fuels the kind of "whataboutery" (when someone responds to a difficult issue or question with a counter issue or question that completely derails the question) evident in Paul Burke’s latest column.

The equality myth

The notion that the advertising industry is in the midst of W1A-levels of political correctness, which have effectively called a halt to decades of diversity, is without basis in statistical fact.

As Ali Hanan, the chief executive and founder of Creative Equals, explains eloquently: "Without a seat at the table and facing huge barriers to entry, diverse voices haven’t been heard or equally represented. Media, shaped by a community who are 88% white men, has – at best – type-cast and stereotyped and – at worst – neglected whole sections of society and objectified women."

Despite Burke’s argument, the advertising industry has never had a "random selection process, which always seemed to throw up a varied cast of unusual and original thinkers, who were then allowed the freedom to express their thoughts without fear of reprisals."

Cindy Gallop, the founder and chief executive of MakeLoveNotPorn, explains: "Our industry has had a gated selection process filtered through the approval lens of white men, who have historically been the only non-varied cast perceived to be 'unusual and original thinkers' and the only ones 'allowed the freedom to express their thoughts without fear of reprisals'. Ask any woman, person of colour, disabled person, anyone considered 'other' in our industry."

Therefore in place of this "Whataboutery", she says the gatekeepers of our industry need to actively welcome in not "other" opinions in general, but "other" ideas, input and creativity where it really matters – in the actual work. And to do that, they need not to concern themselves with political or life views, but with consciously admitting to themselves that "other" people are just as talented if not more so than I am. She explains: "They've got what it takes to do far better, more innovative and creative work than we're doing at the moment, and so I need to hire, promote and give as many of them as possible the opportunity to do the work and to shine doing it."

The paradox of tolerance

The notion that there is a "wrong" side of a political and cultural paradigm which effectively silences diversity of thought is also inherently problematic. Ete Davies, the managing director of AnalogFolk, says that while "diversity of thought" is vital to creativity, as an industry we should be creating environments whereby we're able to debate and interrogate differing views or opinions.

He adds: "I completely agree with Paul, that a more diverse workforce leads to greater creativity and more divergent thinking, through the mix of different life experiences, backgrounds, and personalities that diversity provides."

However, he argues, there must be a "'Paradox of tolerance' to managing 'diversity of thought', which is how it's balanced against views or behaviours that are genuinely socially unacceptable, demeaning or derogatory to others. Which is, of course, not an easy task; but a necessary one.

"Values do have an important role to play because it's through these values that we create inclusive environments that support and encourage 'diversity of thought' towards a shared end goal – better, more interesting ideas," Davies continues.

The defensiveness penalty

Defensiveness is the enemy of change, the very antithesis of progress. A stance evident when Burke states:  "How will you defend that much-lauded new Nike ad to an Asian kid from Tower Hamlets who sees his own community seemingly airbrushed out of it?" Now, I can’t speak for Wieden & Kennedy, but why assume the agency's knee-jerk response would be simply to default to defensiveness? All of us benefit from having our world view challenged, to reconsider our own output and be aware of our own privilege. When you start from a position of openness it is much harder to suffer from the affliction of believing you have nothing left to learn. 

The fact is defensiveness is part of being blind to, or at worst upholding, systems which have effectively excluded diverse talent from both the work itself and the industry at large.

Diversity of thought doesn’t work when you aren’t really listening. If one foot always remains in the past, defending the status quo, then moving forwards is impossible.