'The middle-class diversity debate the industry loves to engage in is about as relevant as Morris Dancing'

Opinion
Matthew Charlton

Matthew Charlton is the CEO of Brothers and Sisters. He was a founder of BETC London, has run agencies in London, Amsterdam and the US and has worked on brands including Johnnie Walker, PlayStation and Sony Ericsson.

Lack of diversity is going to become a bigger and bigger business problem in advertising. The audiences we need to influence have become more ethically and gender diverse and if we struggle to talk to any important audience with real insight and tone then we’re not doing our jobs. I can’t see much debate here, it’s common sense.

As the UK gets more global, as it surely will, then this is only going to increase. What to do about it though?

Firstly, agencies are not as diverse as they need to be, but the reason is not because they don’t want to be. Business culture is now ultra-short-term and the ultra-short-term business imperative is not urgent enough. If you look at the US, the moment the Hispanic community reached significant commercial scale and opportunity clients realised they weren’t connecting with this audience and specialist Hispanic agencies started to launch and since then have hit significant scale. I can see a similar thing happening here.

Secondly, all too often the route to management in UK agencies is through the village of Soho. Few chief executives or managing directors of UK agencies have run agencies in other countries or done business extensively in other cultures. So there is a real lack of exposure to marketing in radically different cultures.

Thirdly, we are still in an extremely tough economic cycle and it looks like we will be for the next few years, perhaps longer. Agency leaders are under huge pressure to make their businesses profitable in an over supplied market and rampant downward pressure on hourly rates. Agencies have no choice but to hire they very, very best people they can get their hands on, regardless of diversity. ‘Are you great?’ is rightly the most important question.

Fourthly, the above point really doesn’t help agencies revolutionise working practice to become more flexible, especially to accommodate the period in most of our lives when we desire families. It affects women but also men, but probably more women right now. It is nothing short of heart breaking seeing incredibly talented women who you have poured your energy into training and mentoring – and who appear to enjoy what they do – feeling like they have to drop out of the industry in their 30s to pursue families and their belief that the intensity and ferocity of agency life won’t accommodate them.

Finally, has anyone really properly examined why there is such a lack of diverse people coming into the industry? I think, building on a previous blog I wrote, advertising is a hobby for the independently wealthy, what about kids from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds as well? Add that to ethnic and gender diversity.

Do we really have a grasp of this? So many of the answers to these questions and debates feel like wealthy white people sitting guessing. And enjoying the debate terribly as well. I don’t want to be one of those. I don’t know the questions, let alone the answers to a lot of this.

I don’t know the root of why whenever we put out a brief for a hire we effectively get the exact same type of people regardless of the brief. We can change the brief as much as we like but can’t change the solution right now.

The lovely middle-class debate about diversity the industry loves to engage in feels worrying like it has the relevance of Morris Dancing. Worse it reminds me of the blundering giant assumptions that led us into the monumental disaster that was the Bush/Blair Iraq War. We just turn up, overlay our own values and beliefs on top of other people’s an expect them to work versus going in and really spending time to understand the problem.

There will be good and clear reasons why we are not attracting the diversity of talent we need. But I’ve not seen any good and insightful articulation of them from anyone who has really looked hard and the issues. And I mean really looked hard.

What I can do is look at it the other way up. I think, like the music business has always experienced, revolution will naturally come from grass roots, not top down. Hip hop didn’t come straight outta Stamford, it came out of a bunch of people with something to say that the establishment didn’t value.

The smartest thing agencies can do now is look for a new generation of clever entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and back them. I don’t see the establishment aspect of our industry working it out but I can see people getting together outside of the establishment, blowing some stuff up, and making a lot of people look very obsolete very quickly.

I think history says that’s how change actually happens.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @MJCharltonesq