Saying isn't doing: Meet the individuals walking the talk on diversity

Dissatisfied with such a slow pace of change in the industry, a growing band of individuals are taking matters into their own hands and walking the talk rather than just talking it when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

The industry has been talking a good game on diversity for years; agencies big and small all quick to chip in with their tuppence worth on issues such as how to get more women to board level and why the creative floor has historically been so white, male and middle-class. Countless conferences, columns and studies have all emerged to show that they are trying to move the dial. You need only look at last month’s Advertising Week Europe, where it was a recurring topic of conversation on many panels.

But all these efforts of late have come against a media frenzy surrounding the revelation of (now former) J Walter Thomson boss Gustavo Martinez’s alleged racist, anti-Semitic and sexist outbursts to colleagues – and how complaints about the chief were handled.

This has inevitably left many wondering if all the talk was really achieving anything and whether, behind closed doors, enough effort is actually being made. Some individuals have even taken matters into their own hands and, no longer happy with just talking, are forging ahead with action.

Perhaps surprisingly, JWT is one such agency housing a woman determined to make diversity a priority for both the agency and its clients; not to court good PR or to make sure its numbers stack up on a spreadsheet, but because she believes that a gender diverse business is commercially a rather savvy move.

Group planning head Rachel Pashley (pictured above) has sacrificed four years of lunch breaks and relaxing on flights to build Female Tribes – a breadth of research on why women are good for business and actionable ways the agency could create a structure to support this in the long-term, including a radical shake-up of its recruitment processes.

The admittedly unfortunate timing of revealing this body of work (the same time Martinez’s comments were picked up by media outlets worldwide) shouldn’t detract from its promise and indication that JWT realises change will not come because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the right thing for business.

Speaking about the impact of Martinez’s comments and the consequential resurgence of the debate, Pashley says: “It’s a watershed moment in terms of making it real and highlighting that we do need to take this stuff seriously.”

But bigger factors are at play, with Pashley saying women’s anger at inequality has reached fever pitch: “I’m not even sure we could have done what we have four years ago because I don’t think we’ve had such societal debate until now. Women are getting really angry about equal pay and political representation. It’s making us all think about how we treat women. It’s almost like everything came together at the right moment.

“The step change was landing on the idea of female capital and that this wasn’t an interesting set of insights but a consistent pattern, of economic, social and cultural value; that what women were delivering was different, and powerful. It felt like it could take us away from empowerment advertising and into something more important.”

Tamara Ingram, taking over from the disgraced Martinez as global chief executive, will inject an urgency into plans already in place as will the team of some 40 people in the agency all working on 'Female Tribes' in addition to their day jobs.

“We’re doing unconscious bias training and looking at quotas for creative recruitment which we’re starting to accelerate,” Pashley adds.

The time taken for JWT to reach this point and the journey it still has ahead is among the challenges facing many global legacy agencies.

Like Pashley, Ali Hanan felt not enough was being done within agencies and set up Creative Equals in an attempt to address one particular problem – women on the creative floor. “There’s a lot of talk right now about diversity in the industry, but no real action plan for change,” she says.

“In London, just 14 per cent of creative directors are female, and at executive creative director level you count the number of women on your fingers. To create real change takes time and commitment from all sides of the industry.”

Creative Equals is a programme which sees Hanan go into one agency, one recruitment firm or one industry organisation at a time to talk about why change is needed and, crucially, how to change. “This starts with embedding diversity into HR policy all the way through to the way we hire, train, mentor, champion and support women throughout their careers,” she explains.

The aim is for the Creative Equals logo to become the industry kitemark so that wherever anyone sees it they’ll know that organisation is committed to change.

“Also, when female creatives see the logo, they’ll know they’ll gain everything they need to make their careers successful, which becomes a way for agencies to attract and retain staff.”

AnalogFolk was the pilot agency, but Hanan says many digital agencies have also stepped up to the plate since, including R/GA, DigitasLBi and Mr President, and that one common thread to success has been early buy-in from the chief executive.

“Two of the agencies I’ve been to have had their chief executive present. In my experience, they have to be fully behind creating a diverse workforce – and when they are, they’ll walk the talk, like Mike Islip, chief executive of DigitasLBi. Looking wider and harder for talent takes time and resources – which has a cost to the business,” Hanan says.

For agencies which have had diversity baked into their DNA, the business case for diversity is evident. Take Livity, the 15 year-old self-described ‘youth agency’ which shares its Brixton space with 100 teenagers from all walks of life each month.

“Livity was set up to benefit the lives of young people and to show that business can have a good social impact,” explains Alexandra Goat, managing director and co-founder of the Great British Diversity Challenge.

Among its initiatives is a programme to train young people from different backgrounds within its agency before sending them out into the bigger shops that are struggling to diversify.

Over past four years Livity has partnered with Google for an apprenticeship in South Africa, “which as you can imagine is even more un-diverse than us,” explains Goat, to give them the digital skills they need to work in an agency environment.

Through this scheme Livity is flooding the industry with talent that would otherwise have gone untapped. As a result it’s created a 10 per cent shift in the diverse make up of South African agencies.

“If agencies are dying on their backs and they’re not doing the things they traditionally used to do, surely they should be looking much wider at the skills and experience needed to make truly innovative work,” urges Goat, who adds the scheme has now been brought to the UK.

“Maybe those of us that are further ahead have to make it easier for others.”

It’s a promising model and one which has likely been looked at by Dentsu Aegis which committed to change with the launch of Fortysix, a digital agency that will be staffed entirely by young people from diverse backgrounds. “It represents a new agency model created for the good of our clients, talent, the industry and society at large,” says Dentsu Aegis Network UK and Ireland chief executive Tracy De Groose.

So, how do you ensure you keep a diverse workforce once you’ve got it?

“We are proud of our diversity and we look after it every day, because it is always fragile,” says Mercedes Erra, founder of BETC. “It is not easy. You must make sure that it is the case from the bottom to the top and that men and women are equally represented everywhere. You must take into account maternity leave without considering it as an obstacle for careers evolution. You must encourage fathers to share more the family load and not to let women do the most of it. You must push paternity leave.

“You must take into account that women ask promotions less often, and are more anxious because they handle many things. They tend not to dare to be ambitious. You have to push them and maybe, sometimes, calm down the men who are more audacious and claim for more much more easily.”

But the pay-off for doing this is worth it. Today at BETC, women make up 63 per cent of the staff, 64 per cent of the executives, and 52 per cent of the Executive Committee and the wage gender gap is only three per cent.

It’s clear then that the future of agency land depends not only on individuals like Ali Hanan and Rachel Pashley taking charge to ensure the issue is on the agenda but in visionary leaders baking it into the very core in the first place. As many people The Drum speaks to point out, change is coming, but only if we continue to push hard every day for it to come sooner.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 4 May issue.

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Jennifer Faull

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