Jenny Shevlin
Jenny Shevlin
A view from Jenny Shevlin

For working class adlanders, this industry can still feel like a private members’ club

Being able to network with your peers is amazing, but how do you network if you find you have little or nothing in common?

Last week saw the launch of the Social Mobility Commission’s toolkit for the creative industries; guidance on how to identify and remove workplace barriers for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

For the advertising industry, the situation is pretty dire. New research has nailed the industry’s problem with class, namely that no matter how many working class people the industry “lets” in (and they aren’t letting in enough of those – only 23% of advertising and marketing comes from a working class background)  we still seem to expect these working class joiners to submit to the “dominant” middle class culture that rules the creative profession. 

I come from a working class family in Sheffield, and though I moved away 10 years ago, it still changes how I see myself and the world. Growing up, the world of media and advertising was largely unknown to me and I certainly didn’t think that it was somewhere that I could fit in – not a place for someone like me

Getting into this industry at all makes me a “success story” – the after picture to the before shot – but I can’t pretend I didn’t have to soften the working class edges to do it. 

My northern accent is (or at least was) quite strong and I’ve had colleagues imitate the way I speak and say certain words, with my long o’s and hard a’s. All a bit of banter, sure, but when you’re trying to make your way up the career ladder you’d rather have people listening to what you’re saying rather than the funny way you’re saying it.

There’s also the issue of money. When you’re starting out, waiting for payday has the extra sense of danger without a safety net  will you make rent, can you buy a new pair of shoes to replace the old scuffed ones, will you be able to afford the casual lunch your boss invites you to? 

Or even the after work drinks  a staple of most people’s intro to the working world but a source of anxiety for me. Do you skip out on the chance to network with your colleagues and senior staff or do you risk ridicule for tactically avoiding paying for a round you really couldn’t afford?

I (perhaps wisely) chose the latter and had to awkwardly brush off the jibes about sponging.

And as we approach awards season here in adland, there are posh do’s, charity galas and dinners. When your experience of a fancy night out is a table at a TGI Fridays in a retail park, to all of a sudden be sat in a hotel ballroom on Park Lane is pretty mind-boggling.

Being able to network with your peers is amazing, but how do you network when you feel you have nothing in common? When you are terrified of saying the wrong thing in response to their talk of ski holidays and second homes.

Nodding in agreement when someone complains about how awful the food is, when to you it feels like you’re eating something straight from Masterchef. Or having to fob off the person selling £50 charity raffle tickets saying you’ll get one later (reader, later never happens). 

I definitely don’t want to complain about attending these gorgeous events: pretending to be a posher version of myself for a night was (and still is) exciting – plus I love the phone call to my mum the next day, giving her a full debrief of what happened, always met with “oohs and ahhs”.

But these social experiences affect how you see yourself and your sense of belonging. Are we really being the fun, open-minded, creativity-driven industry we want to be if working class new starters feel like they have to pretend they’ve got £400 to splash out on a bid at a charity auction?

Now I’m aware this might all sound like I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. And maybe I do. But maybe that’s not surprising, as when I speak to colleagues with a similar upbringing the same word comes up time and time again: luck.

This learned attitude that you’ve made it thanks to a stroke of luck (lucky to have supportive parents or teachers, lucky to have met a mentor, lucky to have been given a chance). And with that feeling of luck comes the feeling of constantly having to prove yourself and to be grateful for getting where you are; so God help you if you don’t fit in. 

This all speaks to the kind of place most of us say we want to work in, but what about the work itself? There too, lies urgent reasons for change.

Making adland more inclusive for all

As Reach’s 2019 whitepaper (spearheaded by Andrew Tenzer) showed, the gulf between advertisers and the people we are talking to through our work is vast. And as others in the industry have pointed out, even perhaps well-intentioned attempts to reach out to the masses more often than not looks like obvious pandering. 

At Reach we’ve started the work to address this and I’m incredibly proud to be co-chair of our first ever social mobility network ReachPotential. We recognise that social mobility has to be a key part of our D&I strategy, especially as it intersects so often with other diverse characteristics like race, disability and gender.

We’ve been gathering data on our workforce and getting benchmarked – getting an honest picture of where we are now so we know where we need to go next. We’ve also just kicked off an outreach programme to show kids from less advantaged backgrounds that we exist, and that our doors are open to them  this week we’re opening up the Mirror’s editorial conference to over 100 students.

But there is so much more left to do. Outreach programmes only address half of the problem. What can we do within our workplaces to make advertising a career path for working class people to actually succeed in, or even lead, instead of hanging around the edges feeling lucky and agreeing with the people who really “belong” there?

We have to address and question the unwritten social rules head on, re-writing them where necessary. We need to foster environments where money isn’t a taboo topic, and put systems in place to provide better financial support, whether that’s overhauling expense systems, making career kickstarter bursaries more widespread or simply being more mindful of our interns and juniors. And for our colleagues in lower paid, "less sexy" roles, what mentorship and training can we provide? 

As I’ve been recently reminded of lately, honest conversations about social mobility aren’t just about the Cinderella stories (I went from TGI Fridays to Park Lane, and you can, too!). We need to make sure that the working class people right in front of us don’t have to put on an act, fall into payday loans, or blend into the background feeling “lucky.” We’re not all in charge of the big stuff but we can all afford small kindnesses  even if it’s just keeping quiet the next time that junior ducks out on the pub round. 

Jenny Shevlin is planning director, Invention/Reach Solutions at Reach, and co-chair of social mobility colleague network ReachPotential