Why does ad industry lack minorities?

In sharp contrast to the supercharged pace of change in Britain's ethnic make-up, progress in boosting the number of staff from ethnic minorities in UK agencies has been snail-like.

Even though those numbers are gradually edging towards the national average of almost 13 per cent, they are well short of the 25 per cent figure in London, which is where most agencies are based.

An IPA study called The New Britain points out that, not only is the UK’s ethnic population now eight million and rising, but it is changing dramatically as Poles, Romanians, Lithuanians, Arabs, Chinese and Filipinos augment a settled Afro-Caribbean and Asian population. The changing nature of multicultural Britain only underlines the need for agencies to mirror it more accurately. Even now, 77 per cent of British Asians surveyed say mainstream advertising has no relevance to them.

The question is whether all the rhetoric about getting more of the most talented young people from ethnic minorities into agencies is being translated into action. Or will these communities – and the increasingly dynamic media that serves them – spurn adland’s messages?

Trade body

Paul Bainsfair, director-general, IPA

"If the industry was being given a school report on its diversity, the verdict would be: ‘OK, but could do better.’ Although the ethnic make-up of agencies isn’t far off the national average, it is nowhere near the average of around 25 per cent in London. That slow progress isn’t entirely the industry’s fault. A lot of parents from ethnic minorities cleave to the traditional professions. Their children are much more likely to be encouraged to become doctors or lawyers rather than try for an advertising career. We have to improve our communication with young people, whatever their backgrounds."

Agency head

Chris Hirst, chief executive, Grey London

"My agency, along with almost every other in the country, has a relatively narrow representation. That’s changing, but we still have a long way to go before we’re as diverse as the country as a whole. Ethnic minorities are underrepresented in every agency department. The result is that we don’t communicate as effectively with those minorities as we should. One problem is that most people in our industry have never worked anywhere else and we all recruit mostly from other agencies. If we can throw more people together from different backgrounds, we’re bound to get more interesting creative solutions."

Agency head

Sanjay Shabi, director, CultureCom

"I’ve no doubt that the pace of change in the number of people from ethnic minorities working in agencies will accelerate. Not only is the IPA putting in a significant amount of effort but there are more ethnic role models. Magnus Djaba, Zaid Al-Zaidy and Karen Blackett, the chief executives of Saatchi & Saatchi, McCann London and MediaCom respectively, are among them. They show how those from ethnic minorities can flourish and progress in this business. Also, as ethnic-minority families reach their third or fourth generations, there’s less pressure on young people to go for careers in accountancy or medicine."

Agency head

Shelina Janmohamed, vice-president, Ogilvy Noor

"The industry is still at an early stage in learning how to communicate with ethnic minorities. It has to recognise that some communities have needs nobody has previously considered. The most important thing is that people within agencies get engaged in the conversation about diversity. That’s what happened when Ogilvy Noor, the world’s first service offering advice on building brands that appeal to Muslim consumers on a global basis, was set up. The real challenge is finding people with the right professional skills. You need to have an innate sense of what’s right and what isn’t. That can be difficult."