A couple of weeks ago, I went to a strategy event hosted by a global company whose name you would know. When I got there, I found the presentation interesting. But what I found transfixing was the audience.
The ethnic origin in the room was about 70% African, Indian, Chinese, West Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Singaporean, Malaysian or some other combination of not-actually-white. How did that happen?
There had been no clues in the invitation to signal such an ethnic mix: it didn’t say: "Caucasian-first strategy is taking the night off from 200 years of thinking about white people: YOU have won a golden ticket." And it didn’t say: "Code word: Gilead. The Dark-Skinned Underground is now uniting against Anglo-Saxon hegemony."
Nope: it was an ordinary industry event to discuss ordinary industry things such as "What is the future of biosecurity?", "Are robots eating our jobs?" and "Why does Twitter keep sending me those stupid ads?"
But that was still enough to make it extraordinary. And I wondered, "How did we all get here?"
It was a question I asked the organiser, who laughed. "Well, to build the guest list I asked non-white people to invite people they thought should come to an event like this. What you see is the result of starting off with non-white people. Interesting, isn’t it?" "Yes." I thought. "It really is."
It turns out that when people get to make choices, the choices they make look a lot like themselves. The propensity of human beings to put their faith in people who look like them is probably the biggest reason we have a diversity challenge in the first place.
"It’s actually hard to hire someone who doesn’t look like you," mused an agency CEO friend, even though he has plenty of chops doing just that. My friend is not alone in finding choosing "different" a challenge.
A study of one million eHarmony dating matches carried out by FiveThirtyEight.com concluded that, on both linear and quirky criteria, people selected partners based on how similar they were. "In the end," FiveThirtyEight concluded, "people really just want to date themselves."
Instead of fighting a reflex that comes straight from our reptile brain, perhaps we should box clever about how we use that reflex for good. If we want to hire someone who looks different from we do, let’s not delude ourselves that we will pick them automatically. The data, as we all know, tells a very different story.
Number of non-white speakers at Cannes Lions? Er, not that many. Number of non-white women at the BBC earning more than £250,000? Zero. Percentage of members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies who feel agencies are mediocre or worse when it comes to diversity? 74%
Campaign’s own annual School Reports make for similarly bleak reading. Top ten media agencies with zero BAME execs in their senior management teams? 30%. Top ten UK media agencies with 80% or more white execs in their senior management team? You guessed it: 100%.
If we are genuinely looking for a solution, we have to try something new. By accepting that we are not naturally open-minded, it becomes much more logical to seek advice. Why not seek recommendations from people who already look like the people we want to hire?
The creative industries have a veritable flock of BAME high fliers. I’m going out on a limb here, having consulted with none of them first. But if someone approached Jonathan Mildenhall (Airbnb), Nishma Robb (Google), Jonathan Akwue (DigitasLBi), Karen Blackett (MediaCom), Jonathan Badyal (Universal Music) Arian Kalantari (The LAD Bible), Steve Bartlett (Social Chain), Naren Patel (Primesight) or Misan Harriman (WhatWeSee) with the question "Who do you think would be good for a job like X?", I’m going to bet that they would have good suggestions.
And they won’t be the same suggestions that would come from Mirror Image Recruitment, the talent arm of Caucasian First.
I’d recommend to the generation of BAME or LGBTQ+ kids starting out or entering the industry to find people who look like you and introduce yourself. Ask to be listened to. Tell them why you want a shot. Make sure they know you, so when they get asked the question, you are the answer.
I am not claiming that this is a scientific approach. But it is certainly an improvement on hand-wringing, which seems to be the strategy currently employed. And it might go some way to stem the flow of headlines that – like the worst kind of diarrhea – embarrass the industry in unpredictable spurts.
As the Daily Telegraph's Arts & Entertainment editor Anita Singh pointed out when she Tweeted a picture of the all-white BBC executive board alongside the broadcaster’s annual commitment to ethnic diversity: "I do the same diversity Tweet every year. Nothing changes."
It’s doubtful that the good people of the BBC are bent on purging every molecule of non-Viking blood from the executive ranks. But the problem is that its top team would look just the same if they were. (And if the top team looked a little different, they might have more viewers and listeners.)
Hoping that white people are going to hire non-white people doesn’t seem to work very well. People don’t shed their biases just because they are in charge, whatever their colour.
But people in charge do have the opportunity to think about how they can subvert biases. They do have the chance to make the environment better for everyone. And they have a weighty obligation to grow customers, sell more stuff and deliver a strengthened P&L.
Props to Google’s new head of diversity and integrity for slapping down the ultimate "man-splaining" memo "Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber," which has gone viral.
But to my mind, diversity isn’t an integrity issue or an ideological one, it is a balance sheet issue. It’s time to stop banging our heads against a brick wall on hiring. Solutions are simpler than we think.
Mimi Turner is founder of strategy consultancy Mimi Turner Associates. She looks just like the boss.