The Great British Diversity Experiment: Proving dynamic teams make better creative

Photography by Julian Hanford

A team of creative directors with one shared goal: to convince creative agencies that they need to change their hiring policies and become more diverse. Their method? The Great British Diversity Experiment.

In 2011, when the last UK Census was taken, one in five people identified with an ethnic group other than ‘White British’, while women outnumbered men. Yet the advertising, tech and communications industries remain mostly white, male and middle class.

As industries that look to communicate with consumers of all backgrounds, cultivating diverse workforces is essential, but, according to Nadya Powell, managing director at creative agency Sunshine, those at the top remain blinkered, continually hiring people who mirror their own skills.

Inspired by The 3% Conference, which was established to highlight the lack of female creative directors and celebrate creative work by women, Powell has set out to do something about the lack of diversity plaguing advertising, tech and communications and has brought together champions of the industries to create ‘The Great British Diversity Experiment’. They are hopeful that it will provide concrete evidence once and for all of the benefits diverse teams bring, and encourage agencies to change their hiring policies.

“We stupidly call ourselves the Carluccio Five,” laughs Powell as she introduces the group: Laura Jordan Bambach, creative partner at Mr President; Engine global integrated business partner Jonathan Akwue; Creative Social co-founder Daniele Fiandaca; and Alex Goat, deputy managing director at Livity.

Meeting as a group for the first time over breakfast at Carluccio’s, Powell says they each shared a common feeling that they were doing a lot to encourage diversity and yet not much was happening in the wider industry.

Recalling an anecdote from IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn founder Cindy Gallop at The 3% Conference this year (“if a group of six people all have the same background and education, five of them are pointless”), Powell tells us the very personal motivation for ‘The Great British Diversity Experiment’ is her own non-typical background.

“I don’t want to be part of an industry where you have to be a certain way to belong to it,” she says. “I refer to myself as white trash and I’m very lucky that I went to university at a time when there were still grants.

“All too often you’ll sit in a creative review and everyone has the same terms of reference; because of that, ideas are immediately something everyone feels comfortable with because they understand it. The reality, however, is the ideas are never particularly earth shattering.”

IPA study ‘The New Britain’, published in April 2014, confronted the diversity issue head-on, arguing that as the UK’s population becomes more diverse, agencies have a responsibility to mirror our multicultural society. For example, over three-quarters (77 per cent) of British Asians currently don’t feel mainstream advertising is relevant to them. According to Bambach, co-founder of SheSays, an organisation that educates, promotes and inspires women to take up digital careers, this shows that somewhere along the line the work agencies are producing isn’t connecting. She claims the advertising industry is at risk of becoming incredibly dull.

“It’s difficult within a competitive industry like advertising to hire people you might have to spend a bit more time with or make concessions for,” she admits. “As long as we only have a small section of our society involved in creating the work, we’ll never break out from the same ideas, the same kinds of work and the same ways of talking to people.”

For the experiment – the findings of which the group hope to present at next year’s SXSW – all five founders will be tapping resources from SheSays, Creative Social, Hackney Community College and beyond to recruit diverse teams consisting of different races, sexes, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. They will then be challenged to work together on solving a creative brief.

“It’s not about attracting new people, or different kinds of people, to these industries,” explains Fiandaca, who is currently involved in Token Man, an initiative aiming to give men a better understanding of the challenges faced by women in the creative industries. “It’s to get the existing people in the industry to appreciate the value of diversity so that they work harder to find people who don’t conform to stereotypes.”

“We’re not dissing the people in the industry and saying they’re shit and everyone else is good,” stresses Bambach. “We just need more voices to get richer ideas, otherwise it is going to continue to be a slightly boring place, producing boring work, that doesn’t connect with the people it’s talking to.”

At the moment the group is on the lookout for a brand partner to help set what Powell calls “a meaty brief for a product or service that can do something for the greater good”. On top of that they are on the hunt for volunteers to fill out the proposed 30 teams. Once in place the teams will be briefed in January and set a deadline of the end of February. How and when they work is entirely up to them.

“For some of the teams this will be a really difficult journey. It’s going to be hard for them from the beginning because they won’t have any common terms of reference and I imagine the process will be stormier and there will be more arguments and disagreements,” says Powell.

“If we have 30 teams, we expect 10 of them will fail, but the other 20 might just come up with some absolute gold. It’s going to be something real, rather than just a panel about why diversity is important where everyone has to say yes or they’re called racist or sexist bastards.”

What’s more interesting than getting hung up on the experiment’s failures is to focus on how the others made it work, according to Fiandaca. How a team with members from five different decades, for example, came together.

“It genuinely is an experiment, but what we do know is we’ll get some really interesting stories,” he says. “Where we’re going to succeed is if people from all organisations work together without any of the politics that exist. That’s what I’m excited about, the energy we can create though true collaboration.”

“We have a responsibility to do this,” says Powell, adding that it will provide the evidence that putting together diverse teams is less intimidating than agencies think.

“This will show agencies you don’t need to hire ‘like me’; you need the opposite of you. We want to be able to say to agencies at the end of this, ‘we were right all along, now change your hiring policy’.”

The Drum has launched its own research into diversity in the industry to cast a spotlight on how the sector can become more diverse. The Diversity Census is open now – find out more and complete the survey.

Photography by Julian Hanford

Gillian West

Gillian West manages the Creative Works section of The Drum covering weekly round-ups, Ad of the Day, Creative Work of the Week and Creative Work of the Month.

All by Gillian