Creativity or conformity? The Drum's Diversity Census suggests marketing has a long way to go when it comes to inclusion

Respondents to The Drum's Diversity Census described experiencing unconscious bias and 'subtle discrimination' in the workplace

Every now and then, the advertising industry becomes fixated on a particular central theme that dominates all discourse. We’ve had the year of mobile (please, never again) and the rise of programmatic. For a few years now, attentions have rightly been turned to the industry’s talent, and the question of how best to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. And now, as we approach the end of 2017, the topic of diversity is in danger of hitting saturation point.

Yet despite the rate at which the issue is being mulled over with the same repeated assertions at industry conferences, our annual Diversity Census highlights that, in the experience of many individuals, a gap still persists between the ideal and the reality. Diversity and inclusion sadly remains an exception rather than the rule.

Here, we take a look at some of the top line findings presented by the Diversity Census, and hear from industry commentators about what more companies can do to address the pressing issues raised.

Stereotypes and subtle forms of discrimination

Perhaps the most significant finding from the survey is the statistic showing that over a third of respondents (34%) have experienced discrimination in the workplace during their careers. The qualitative findings suggest discrimination is often subtle and can present itself in a number of forms, including assumptions being made about an individual based on their gender, personal characteristics or background.

For instance, one respondent described her experience of gender stereotyping: "I was told I like certain things based on my sex, eg beauty magazines, certain low brow TV shows ‘for women’. Got the tampon gig."

Others found themselves being pigeonholed after returning from maternity leave.

Of those who have experienced discrimination in the workplace, half (49%) did not report the issue to their employer, perhaps because, as one respondent put it, it often takes the form of "a lot of unconscious biases that you can’t even prove".

Respondents also reported experiencing 'microaggressions’, 'favouritism' and ‘'harmless' instances of institutional sexism’ in the workplace.

Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder at JourneyHR which advises the marketing industry on inclusion, believes the industry has a significant problem with subtle discrimination.

“While 34% is too high a number for individuals that have experienced discrimination, this is not nearly high enough to be truly reflective of our experience in this industry. There are a group of people that aren’t captured within these responses, who may not be willing or confident enough to speak up about their experiences.

“There is a significant problem with subtle discrimination in the industry, wholly due to a lack of understanding about what it really is. While training is required, it is more important to create a culture where discrimination is rooted out, never showcased and clearly not tolerated.”

2016 has seen a number of agencies and clients introduce unconscious bias training programmes to tackle this issue, but it’s clear we are some way from truly inclusive workplaces.

Conformity stifling original thinking?

Marketing is a service industry that relies on the talent and creativity of its people to sustain itself and remain ahead of the curve, but the Diversity Census found that people are often being overlooked or being made to feel that they need to conform with or assimilate to a specific culture in order to succeed.

One explanation for this is a particular agency ‘culture’ that has been cultivated by those in positions of leadership.

Andrew Barratt, formerly of Unilever and Ogilvy & Mather where he set up the Ogilvy Pride network, says it starts at the top. “By having a chief executive or managing director that creates a culture of celebrating diversity and inclusion, this can prevent discrimination from happening in the first instance.”

One respondent to the Diversity Census described feeling out of place in a “a white middle-class industry which fails to step out of the bubble”, and highlighted the issue of having to conform to a particular style of behaviour and way of doing things – one that is ‘political’.

Tracy de Groose, chief executive of Dentsu Aegis, says the agency was conscious of trying to create conditions for people to bring their authentic selves to work when it launched its new agency, Fortysix, earlier this year. “Diversity drives innovation and creativity so it’s hugely important that we not only look to attract more diverse talent, but work even harder to create the conditions for people to be their true and best versions of themselves,” she says. “We didn’t want to find ourselves in a position where we worked hard to bring in people with different perspectives and then train them to be like us.”

Should agencies still be hiring on cultural fit?

Rather than hiring on ‘cultural fit’, which may make recruiters more likely to hire in their own image, should companies instead be assessing candidates based on individual traits?

Sarah Jenkins, chief marketing officer at Grey London, says ‘fit’ is imperative for the agency – “but it’s a nuanced descriptor”.

A great culture, she says, is one with shared attitudes and behaviours, rather than shared backgrounds, beliefs, interests or political beliefs. “We will continue to actively hire for cultural fit – people who are entrepreneurial, curious, tenacious, imaginative and outspoken. But we’ll also seek out diverse skills and diverse backgrounds, oddballs and outliers, because we know it makes us smarter as an agency.”

Meanwhile, Ravleen Beeston, UK head of sales at Bing Ads, says Microsoft reviews its job descriptions to attract a diverse candidate sample. “Understanding the impact language, for example, could have was a good starting point. In line with attracting diverse talent, it is also important to have a diverse set of interviewers, to ensure unconscious biases do not drive hiring decisions.”

Much of the industry’s focus on diversity has until this point focused heavily on gender equality, but the Census findings reinforce the need for brands and agencies to be thinking about how to address all aspects of diversity to ensure they’re bringing diversity of thought to everything they do.

One of the findings, for instance, raises the issue of socioeconomic diversity. With 33% of respondents attending a fee paying private school, the survey suggests an industry that is not reflective of society – mirrored by another of the key findings that the industry is predominantly white (85% of respondents).

All of these findings would suggest that the industry on the whole is still not doing enough to pull in talent from unexpected places.

Dino Myers Lamptey, head of strategy at The7stars, says in order to attract more diverse talent, the industry needs to raise its profile as a long-term career option compared to other industries like finance. “Our industry doesn’t get the right quotas applying because it only fishes in local ponds. Turn up to any graduate recruitment fair and you’ll see the industry is underrepresented. To change this you have to believe in the value of diversity and then make it a mission. How diverse is your set of recruiters? Are they prepared to move away from the carp in the pond and find the salmon in the rapids?”

Inflexibility and damaging long hours

Qualitative responses from the Census indicate that long hours – a mainstay of agency life – pose a significant barrier for working parents (largely mothers) while also burning out individuals. When it comes to stress, 27% described themselves as ‘stressed most of the time’. For those who are stressed, a third (33%) have not discussed this with their employer.

While long hours and stress may be an established, unquestioned fixture of this industry, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the damaging effect they can have on inclusion.

Grey’s Jenkins says this is the trickiest issue for agencies to address because it’s so rooted in agencies’ “fundamentally flawed and outdated time-based remuneration models”. With client and agency margins being squeezed, staff are putting in more hours and staying later to make up for it. But while there are no quick fixes to the culture of late nights, agencies can find ways to ease the pain.

“Control what you can control and give people time back,” says Jenkins. “Recovery sessions after pitches, bonus days off for the agency... But critically, and more fundamentally, we need to embrace flexible working. Have a junior suit still living at home in Reading and earning £21k? Shift their hours so they can avoid wallet-demolishing, commuter-rate tickets. Mum or dad with pick-up duties? Encourage them to leave work at 4pm and plug back in for an hour at 7pm.”

It’s ultimately all down to having a culture where trust is built in. Following research by Nabs on the subject of working parents, the industry charity recommended that organisations should adopt flexible working practices, but, crucially, it’s not just parents looking for this flexibility. “It is something the next generation of workers will demand,” says Lorraine Jennings, head of support at Nabs.

“If the advertising and media industry wants to continue to recruit and retain the brightest and best next generation of talent, then integrating flexibility in the workplace needs to be high on the agenda.”

This article was first published in The Drum's print magazine.

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Katie McQuater

As magazine editor at The Drum, I edit the monthly print edition of the magazine as well as commissioning and writing features for the publication.

Send feature pitches to katie.mcquater@thedrum.com

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