Why it’s time to stop talking and solve the social class challenge
A view from Lisa Thompson

Why it’s time to stop talking and solve the social class challenge

Wavemaker North's Lisa Thompson outlines five steps the industry should take to attract talent from diverse class backgrounds.

Lots of people read papers on diversity, nod and agree they want to do something, but they don’t often get much done. Now, months after I wrote my IPA Excellence Diploma essay – “Killing the elephant in the diversity room: social class” – I believe our industry could be at a crossroads in tackling this issue. 

Despite the proliferation of diversity initiatives, the most recent IPA Census showed a decline in gender and ethnic representation at agencies. This drop is also true of social class. Research shows that the percentage of employees in our industry from privileged backgrounds has increased from 52% in 2014 to 55% in 2019, while the percentage of those from working-class backgrounds has decreased from 19% to 15%. 

I am technically a “diverse” hire: a woman from a working-class background who is five times less likely than a white middle-class man to work in a creative industry. I’m a Yorkshire-born girl from a town called Wakefield, and the first generation to attend and graduate from university. Unlike many of my university friends, I worked at a bookie’s to pay for rent and bills. This may be exactly what you picture when you think “working class”. 

However, I also have four A Levels (all As) and went to a Russell Group university. I grew up going on holidays abroad and having everything I needed. Put all of this together and it may not quite fit the working-class stereotype. 

At some point I decided advertising was for me, which was likely down to seeing Mad Men on TV. It is telling that I may not have even found our industry without the show. I didn’t know much about advertising, where to start or anyone in the industry. But I had access to a university careers advisor who helped me land a graduate job in media planning and buying after many failed applications. Without my degree, I may not have stood a chance.

I worry that in the current climate, amid the recent A-Levels debacle and rising university fees, many working-class teenagers will feel let down by the establishment and never consider joining the advertising industry. We need to show that we want people from diverse class backgrounds.

In May, Andrew Tenzer and Ian Murray published research demonstrating that the industry is out of touch. They asserted that one way we differ is in our analytical thinking style, meaning we tend to take a very binary approach to issues. Perhaps, being too absolute in our thinking has stopped us getting under the skin of the diversity problem. 

First, we often talk about recruiting more diverse creatives, while forgetting that the roles in our industry are varied. Great creatives are critical, but so are great account handlers, strategists, planners and people who are brilliant at maths and data. When we design initiatives, we should also think holistically about the roles we open up to people.  

Second, we default to stereotypes. We talk about people from working-class backgrounds as plumbers, tradesmen and so on. Being working class doesn’t just put you into a manual role. There are people who would flourish in our industry with backgrounds in retail, beauty, admin or hospitality. By defaulting to stereotypes, we limit our own view of who we can employ. 

Lastly, we can be like The X Factor by looking for an emotional or extreme story. We often talk about diversity initiatives as if we are a saviour. People from working-class backgrounds haven’t always had a terrible life and don’t need saving. In reality, all the evidence suggests we need those from other backgrounds to save us from our bubble of ineffective work. 

We must stop being too simplistic and break down the real barriers to making our industry more accessible. In his book People Like Us, Hashi Mohamed writes: “Social mobility executions can often be misguided or cack-handed – and can often do more harm than good.” How do we ensure this doesn’t happen? My framework is based on the five Ps we need to address: pathways, pals, polish, pay and proximity.

Pathways

We need to look at how we engage people with our industry, and this means starting earlier and away from our usual recruitment locations. We cannot just advertise to students from Russell Group universities – we need to get teens wanting to join our industry from school age. There are already some brilliant initiatives, such as Creative Equals and the IPA Advertising Unlocked programme, but these are not enough. 

Since completing the IPA diploma, I’ve learned of a charity called the Ideas Foundation, which is working to get advertising projects into the English Curriculum so that every kid can see that being creative isn’t just knowing how to draw. Partnering charities such as this could help engage future generations.  

At Wavemaker, we no longer aim for only graduates when advertising entry-level roles, and our job descriptions don’t include any language to suggest you need a degree. Despite this, when we last recruited for a trainee in the planning team, the only people who applied were graduates. This showed me that just changing naming conventions isn’t enough. 

Pals

A lot of people in our industry got in because they “knew someone”, but we must limit this behaviour to attract people from diverse class backgrounds. Every time we revert to just helping someone we know, we stop those from diverse class backgrounds getting a look in – and these kids know it. Research from Brixton Finishing School found that 78% of this year’s student intake felt not having a network was limiting their ability to get a job in a creative industry. 

What if we re-framed this? How about instead of hiring schemes that reward employees who recommend a friend, we reward those who secure someone from a diverse class background? 

We should be measuring this in every diversity census in companies. And if we’re passionate about the future of our industry and young talent, let’s dedicate our time to mentoring those who wouldn’t usually have access to it.  

Polish

Part of the challenge is that all of us have some unconscious biases that affect how we recruit. At interviews we tend to talk about desirable attributes such as “polish”, but this creates a barrier. In his documentary Breaking into the Elite, the BBC's Amol Rajan spoke to a student who struggled at interviews and acknowledged that he didn’t learn how to demonstrate confidence. He felt hindered before he even made it into the room. 

We tend to favour those who know more about the industry because they could afford to do work experience. We favour those who seem to have more “life experience” because they could afford a gap year in Thailand, while someone working at a bar or bookie’s might actually gain more real-life consumer insight. We need to stop telling a young person who can’t afford to work for free that they must “hustle” and get a portfolio – it makes our industry even more inaccessible. When we interview, we must ask better questions and remember our biases. 

Pay

We need a pay structure that doesn’t penalise those from low-income backgrounds, and pay all employees a fair, living wage. What if we also redistributed our wages? What if chief executives, managing directors and directors took a small percentage of a pay cut and that money went directly into paying proper salaries that would allow young people independence? That money might not affect the life of a CEO much, but doing so could make a huge difference to those starting out, and make our industry more accessible to those from low-income families. 

Proximity

Some people might love working in our industry but don’t want to or can’t afford to live in London full time. But there are significantly fewer industry jobs outside of London. The “UK Advertising in a Digital Age” report highlights that 50% of the advertising industry is based in London, compared with 21% of the UK population living in the capital – a massive over-index. To join our industry, it should not be a prerequisite that you are London-based. 

In his Campaign article on social mobility, Simon Gwynn makes a case for getting out of London. He says, “I’m not suggesting you start making plans to open an office in Sunderland, Swansea or Stoke-on-Trent'' – but why can’t we? Great creative work doesn’t just happen in London. There are brilliant creative scenes out of London, but let’s make more, and show that a creative career doesn’t just have to involve the Tube and unaffordable housing. As Gwynn asserts, the Covid-19 crisis has taught us that we don’t all have to be in the same place all the time to be creative. Let’s use this pandemic to change our working practices and attract more talent. 

These are my five Ps, but these are only starting points. We can’t just keep proclaiming there’s a problem; we must turn words into action. We must take a long, hard look at our industry and be honest with ourselves about the barriers we create. We cannot afford to ignore this problem any longer. 

Lisa Thompson is planning director at Wavemaker North. Her essay about social mobility in adland won the IPA’s John Bartle Award in May.

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