In search of Neverland: How the ad industry is faring in its quest for greater diversity

The 'My name is Amy' poster

“All children, except one, grow up.”

Those are the first words of J.M. Barrie’s famous novel about Peter Pan – the boy who never grew up. Many years ago, another child first got me interested in advertising. Her name was Amy and she appeared on a bus shelter poster that I spotted in Brixton with the simple message: "My name is Amy I like slugs and snails."

Months later she reappeared on the same poster site. This time the words surrounding her simply read: “My name is Amy. Remember me?” Underneath was a message stating that Adshel ads work.

I was awestruck by the simple brilliance of the idea and gained a new respect for the power of advertising.

This passion was kindled further when a friend of mine got a job in the subscriptions department of Creative Review. Knowing I had an interest in art and design, he surreptitiously added me to their subscriber list. For the next couple of years, a copy of the magazine would land on my doorstep without fail – that is until he was found out and promptly sacked.

But for all my interest in advertising, adland itself seemed like a distant country that I could never visit – a Neverland where the wildest ideas came to life. As young man of fairly modest means growing up in South London, I did what I knew best and hustled. No, that doesn’t mean I turned to crime. It means I did my best to make money from the things I loved, DJing, illustrating, and designing campaigns and services to engage ‘hard-to-reach’ young people. It was like being in a perpetual start up, bootstrapping all the way. But make no mistake, it was fun.

I got to teach Prince Charles how to scratch and mix records (yes, really); launched an urban record label run by young people, supported by Vice; and got Irvine Welsh to write an intro for a set of creative drug advice posters that were exhibited in Proud Galleries.

It wasn’t until over 10 years later that I got my first taste of working in the advertising industry proper, helping out at Fallon on the BBC 1Xtra account. It was there that I saw firsthand what a different world advertising really was. I was shocked by the lack of diversity, but nonetheless energised by the experience and my boyhood passion came alive again.

Fast forward to today and it feels as though diversity has gone mainstream. From the stellar success of Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’, to Pot Noodle’s gender twisting ‘You Can Make It’ campaign, it seems advertising has come to recognise the power of breaking stereotypes.

Better still, the industry is waking up to the reality that if we don’t open our doors to a more diverse pool of talent, we will lose out in the global creative arms race.

That’s why I’m proud to chair The Ideas Foundation, which following on from a successful event at no. 11 Downing Street last year, saw several brands including Barclays, Sony, Unilever, B&Q, 20th Century Fox and IBM commit to engaging young people from diverse backgrounds with creative briefs.

Having worked with over 1,000 young people last year, in February we will be back at the chancellor’s house inviting more brands to do it again, this time in conjunction with the Evening Standard and D&AD.

I’m also pleased to be involved with The Great British Diversity Experiment, an idea born out of a discussion over breakfast, which aims to prove that more diversity leads to better creative ideas. We’ve been overwhelmed by the support from the likes of Mediacom, BBH, Google, and a plethora of agencies, associations and individuals.

Of course these are just two initiatives among many that attempt to address the diversity issue, but the statistics revealed in The Drum’s Diversity Census illustrate the extent of the problem. Almost a third (30 per cent) of marketers report that they have experienced discrimination in the workplace during their career in marketing.

Speaking at the launch of The Great British Diversity Experiment on Monday, Eileen Naughton, managing director of Google UK & Ireland, reflected that the tech industry faces similar diversity challenges. She acknowledged that the company is currently about 30 per cent female and is still working to improve its racial diversity. However, she recounted that when she set up Women@Google with Sheryl Sandberg back in 2006, there was only a handful of members. Now the group has over 4,000 female Googlers in 27 countries. As she described it, "change is slow but steady".

Scott Knox, managing director of the MAA, also shared his personal experiences at Monday’s event. He recalled attending a meeting where the LGBT community were described as ‘freaks’ by a respected figure within the industry. However, Knox encouraged the audience to refuse to be constrained by other people’s perceptions, arguing passionately that the closer we are to becoming our ‘authentic self’, the better our creative output will be.

I guess that’s why I’m thrilled to be joining the DigitasLBi family to lead Lost Boys, a swashbuckling agency that wants to take brands on an adventure of a lifetime. I plan to create a refuge for all the lost boys and girls (and everyone in between), who feel like outsiders in traditional adland.

After all these years of searching, it feels like I’ve finally found Neverland.

Jonathan Akwue is the chief executive of Lost Boys. You can find him on Twitter @jonakwue

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