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Is The Advertising Industry Doing Enough To Attract And Develop Diverse Talent?


The advertising industry prides itself on being forward-thinking and in touch with the changing values, expectations and cultural reference points of its target consumers. But although scoring well on some measures, the industry struggles to recruit and develop talent from diverse backgrounds. So, what can brands and agencies do to widen their talent pools?

On the face of it, the advertising industry isn't doing badly when it comes to employing staff that reflect society as a whole. Witness figures published earlier this year by the UK'sAdvertising Association. According to the All-In census, black employees make up three per cent of the industry while 7 per cent of staff identify as Asian -numbers that only slightly undershoot the ethnic mix of the wider working-age population in Britain.

But that wasn't the complete story. The Association also found that 32 per cent of black staff and 27 per cent of Asians were planning to leave their careers due to a lack of inclusivity opportunities to progress. What's more, in terms of senior management positions, ethnic groups were very poorly represented. If the UK is typical, the industry is not as diverse or inclusive as it could be.

This is not a situation the advertising sector is comfortable with. When I approached the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) in the UK, Associate Director for Diversity, Leila Siddiqi set out the case for drawing talent from a wider pool.

"The business case is clear. As examined by McKinsey and Kantar, diversity is good for brand ROI," she said. "Being representative in an authentic way, both in terms of our composition and our creative work, is no longer optional. It is a fundamental tool that some of the best brands and agencies in the world use to drive profits, sales, performance, goodwill and of course to attract and retain the best talent."

That's fine in theory but the creation of an advertising industry that reflects society as a whole is still a work in progress and one that requires organisations to consider recruitment not only in terms of ethnicity, religion, sexuality and gender but also socio-economic background, education, geography and disability.

So the question is, what can be done to break down barriers and encourage the industry as a whole to become more diverse?

The Pipeline Problem
As Ben Murphy, UK General Manager of advertising solutions company Quantcast sees it,part of the problem is a disconnect between those who do the hiring for agencies on one hand and potential employees from backgrounds that have not traditionally been a source of recruitment on the other. "The creative industries face a pipeline challenge," he says. "The industry is not really on the map for people from challenging backgrounds."

But what does that actually mean? The Brixton Finishing School is an organisation established to provide training and support to people from under-represented groups who are interested in creative industry careers. As founder Ally Owen sees it, advertising and the wider creative industries can seem opaque, inaccessible or even invisible. "There is an awareness problem," she says. "People know our industry exists but don't know about all the backroom jobs. And if they do know about them, they don't know how to get in."

Owen also points to a lack of awareness on the industry side. "If you run an agency, you probably don't have an outreach team," she adds. There are solutions. For its part, the Brixton Finishing School proactively raises awareness of opportunities in the creative industries by going into schools and engaging students through its Ad Venture programme. Following on from that, the organisation offers places on its Ad Cademy Scheme, with training delivered by a wide range of partners and sponsors that include the likes ofWPP and Wolff Olins.

Industry Demand
Training and awareness-raising targeted at underrepresented groups is clearly a good thing. But on the demand side, is there a real appetite on the part of the industry to cast its recruitment net wider? Simone Johnson is Youth Engagement Programme Leader at Media Trust, an organisation that runs a number of programmes for young people in partnership with major media and advertising sector organisations, such as BBC, Channel 4, WPP and Omnicom..

"All our partners have a genuine will to see change," says Johnson. "You can see this in the effort they put into our programmes." By working with brands to deliver training and mentoring, both Brixton School and Media Trust have a good record in helping their alumni to take up jobs in the industry. But as Johnson stresses, a commitment to diversity that extends beyond box-ticking, is not yet universal."A lot of companies still have a lot of work to do to build diversity," she says.

Employers who are keen to diversify their workforces - both staff and freelance - face their own challenges. Kevin Tewis-Allen is managing director of a group of production companies - Preen, Nest Post and Cherryduck Studios - working for ad agencies and media companies. His company is keen to diversify its talent base while also ensuring that roles are matched to the best people available. "When it comes to the question of are we ticking boxes, our approach is to employ the best person for the job," he says. There is a danger that the phrase "best person for the job" simply disguises a conservative hiring policy. To avoid that, Tewis-Allen and his team work with organisations such as Media Trust and Shiny Awards to connect with talent from underrepresented communities. In addition, Head of Marketing, Kim French, runs a community of female post-production professionals called Edit Girl and plays an active part in Bloom, an organisation for women in communications. By sourcing talent from diverse backgrounds the company aims to employ the most appropriate people but, crucially, from a bigger and more diverse pool.

Why Change?
But what about those agencies and brands that don't care about the issue, perhaps feeling they don't have to. After all,advertising output is already reasonably diverse in terms of putting - for example - people of colour, single parents and men and women in same-sex relationships on the screen or in magazines. Aside from the social justice issue, some brands and agencies might argue they are doing just fine with the workforce they know and trust.

But the danger is that some advertising will miss the mark if it doesn't address the cultural nuances of a target audience. Ben Murphy recalls a previous job working as a planner when he was one of the few working-class people at the agency. "I was as the planner who would work on campaigns designed to target the masses," he says. And as he sees it, in an increasingly diverse society, the ad industry needs to apply the same principle more widely. Employ people who understand their audience.

And as Ally Own observes. "As a white woman, would I be the best person to oversee a campaign aimed at raising awareness of prostate cancer among black men?" she asks. In addition to being more authentic in terms of Output, Tewis-Allen sees an equally pressing reason for addressing diversity proactively - clients expect it. "If you want to work with an organisation such as the BBC they will ask how much of your team is diverse," he says. Greater diversity is essential but it can also seem difficult to achieve. How - an agency boss might ask - can I open up my company to new talent while also ensuring that I have the best in the industry working for me? The key might be to look at the recruitment funnel. All those people producing music, Youtube Videos, street art or more quietly developing skills in scripting or video editing while being disconnected from pathways into the industry. By proactively engaging with a wider cross-section of society, the industry has an opportunity to identify the movers and shakers of tomorrow.  

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