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The Token Man: Tribal Worldwide's Allan Blair talks to Bridget Beale, MD of Bima about overcoming 'old school sexist pigs'

In Token Man, a new initiative from Creative Social founder Daniele Fiandaca, a series of prominent women from across the marketing industry interview male figures about their views on gender imbalance and diversity in the industry.

In the fourth interview in the gender diversity series, Bridget Beale, managing director of Bima, catches up with Allan Blair, head of strategy at Tribal Worldwide London.

Bridget Beale: Perhaps a good place to start is for you to tell me what you understand about the Token Man initiative and why you wanted to be involved?

Allan Blair: Out of any industry I’ve worked in, advertising seems to be the one with the least diversity – across gender, ethnicity and class. I think we do a pretty good job at Tribal but we could do better. I think it’s time that people start talking about it and actively change the way the industry hires.

BB: So you’re pinning it directly on hiring practices?

AB: It starts with hiring. But also well before, in schools and the way we teach people. It’s ultimately about culture within organisations and about empowering people to make change.

BB: In terms of that flow of candidates, what steps is Tribal taking to try and improve the flow of female candidates into your creative and tech roles?

AB: It’s quite difficult to find new places to hire from. We’re trying to hire from more diverse backgrounds – so not just taking people from agencies but taking people from client side, consultancies, larger tech organisations – to try and increase that diversity pool.

We’re also trying to hire people younger and train them. We have an apprenticeship programme and a grad programme that we’ve just started. It seems to be a stronger way to bring people in, to attract people who don’t necessarily have the skills but have an interest and then train them into the job.

BB: So am I hearing correctly that apprenticeships are a powerful tool for you in tackling diversity?

AB: They’re really important. Agencies tend to be very white and middle class, as well as having a gender diversity issue. Apprenticeships allow us to bring people into, say UX or strategy or social media, who wouldn’t ever usually have had that opportunity. I think we’ve had nine apprentices over the past two years and we’ve hired six.

Two or three years in they’re now doing the level of job that someone with three or four years university would just be starting. We’re bringing people into the industry and they’re getting a head start.

BB: Why do you think it’s important to be doing this, for the agency and the industry?

AB: We work globally and we help brands sell their products or make their products and services better. The people who use them come from all different backgrounds and having just white, middle-class men come up with the ideas makes the work quite narrow. Having broader diversity makes our work better. It’s a more modern way of working and – for the type of work we make – it definitely means we make better work.

BB: Coming back to leadership within the agency, what do you think the biggest challenge is for women when they are in the minority in those senior leadership roles?

AB: Whether explicit or inherent, prejudice towards working mothers exists in the workplace. If it’s ability or even just presence/time – you can’t always work a full week. Working mothers often put pressure on themselves to perform or they feel there’s a perception that they’re not pulling their weight, when in fact they’re actually doing two jobs.

I also think that agency culture can be pretty macho; quite combative and confrontational. Quite often women find that hard because they relate to circumstances in different ways. We talk about equality a lot when we talk about gender diversity, but equality should be about opportunity, not about treating everyone the same – as that tends to mean ‘treat everyone like a man’ when it should be about treating people they way they want to be treated in different circumstances.

I think those are the two main challenges: issues for working mothers; and the behaviour that is engendered in agencies that makes it difficult or challenging for women to be in a management position. There are probably others, around skills and training and so forth but I think those are the main ones.

BB: Taking the first one – what it means to be a parent in a leadership role and the different pressures for mothers and fathers – do you know what Tribal’s policies are around parenthood and whether the agency is actively trying to make itself a positive place for a working mother?

AB: We have very flexible working policies. Two of the women on our management team are mothers and have flexible working arrangements, whether that’s working three days a week or working 10am until 4pm. We also have a lot of fathers – single fathers or fathers with an equal split of childcare – and they come in late or leave early, so it’s not just for women.

BB: Is this commitment to making the agency a positive place for parents overtly stated? For example, in peoples’ contracts and in your employment policies?

AB: Definitely. It’s not just for parenthood either – people have flexible hours if they live far away or have health issues as well. It’s not something hidden or just between that person and their boss. It’s very open and if we see someone in that position we actively offer it to them. It makes our staff more loyal and makes them a better member of staff and it’s just the right thing to do.

BB: In your tech and creative teams, do you feel parenthood is a barrier to increasing the gender diversity of those teams – for example, if you’re expected to stay late to work on a pitch but you have to get home to your kids?

AB: I don’t think it is. Our creative director who is a working mother, she’s probably one of the hardest working and most respected members of the team. It definitely hasn’t held her back in any way.

But I guess there is a challenge working on pitches, working late. Also, I think for women there is definitely a challenge around creative feedback and the way feedback is given and the way creative teams are expected to be so competitive with each other.

We mix our teams up and try to make people more collaborative and get them to work and think in a different way.

BB: You’ve said that another reason diversity is important is in reaching diverse audiences and in the quality of the work you’re putting out there – what responsibility do you think the industry has for positive gender portrayals? How does advertising influences culture and peoples’ opinions?

AB: I think advertising people like to think they affect culture but I don’t necessarily think that is true. I do think the representations of culture need to be more diverse though, as advertising sets expectations with people about the things they can have and the things they want. If you portray the same aspirations all the time it skews the aspirations you set for your audience.

Does advertising have a responsibility to make the world more diverse? I don’t know. I think we have a responsibility to make our industry more diverse – but you can argue that advertising reflects society as it is.

I don’t think we have a responsibility to make society more diverse – our responsibility is to sell more products for our clients. We should do that in an ethical and responsible way but we’re about reflecting society not creating it.

BB: In a business setting, have you had an experience of being “other”, being the odd one out? For example, being the only man in a board room.

AB: My career started in PR which is much more female heavy than advertising and I used to work for tech companies that are much more female too. I don’t think I realised at the start of my career but I’ve become more aware of it as I’ve got older.

BB: Would you worry about losing a pitch, having female clients walk into a room of all-male agency representatives?

AB: Definitely. I think a lot of agency men peg themselves as Guardian-reading liberals but the way they act is completely different. If I was a female client, selling a female-focused product and I walked into a room with all men I would question whether they were the right agency. Any product in fact. Although I think it becomes apparent anyway in the work, your viewpoint on the world.

BB: You talk about coming across people who pay lip service to these issues but display sexism; can you share a horror story?

AB: I’ve worked with some old school sexist pigs in my time. The kind of behaviours I see a lot of are things like people saying ‘oh yes, I’m liberal, I believe in gender diversity’ but then a lot of incredibly sexist comments, whether it’s things like how short a girl’s skirt is or whatever – you see a lot of that.

You also see a lot of people who probably are liberal-minded and believe in diversity and try their hardest to do it but if there’s someone senior who is an unreconstructed, traditional man who makes a comment like – and this is a real comment I’ve heard – ‘I don’t understand how someone can be on the management of an agency and only work part time’, talking about a working mother. And you’ll say to your boss, ‘oh X made that comment and I don’t think it’s right’ and your liberally minded boss will say ‘oh he’s just an old school type of person, there’s no changing him’.

And I don’t think that’s right. That, to me, is really shocking because one of the most important things a workplace can do is empower people to say ‘this behaviour isn’t acceptable and I’m not going to accept it’.

BB: If you could do one thing differently in your career to support diversity further, what would that be?

AB: It would be about bringing more young women into the industry and encouraging them to stay in the industry. I definitely see a lot of women come into the industry quite young but leave it quite quickly too because it’s not for them; or they come into the industry and stay at a certain level because it’s quite difficult to rise if you’re not aggressive.

BB: And helping women rise through the ranks, what are the three things that you think the industry, or the agency or yourself could do better?

An equal hiring policy would be good; creating a culture to help people work they way they want to work – not just doing things the way they’ve always been done; the third one would probably be helping and encouraging people to reach their potential and not give up easily.

BB: When you say hiring policy do you mean parental leave policy and flexible working or are you specifically talking about hiring?

AB: We should be actively trying to hire more women and trying to make it more equal.

BB: Positive discrimination?

AB: Yes, positive discrimination at a hiring level, I think is important. I think once people start then I think it’s about changing the way we work to make the workplace more equal. As opposed to trying to achieve equality by making everyone work in a certain type of way, which usually means like a man.

BB: I’m just interested because hiring practices is the first thing you mentioned that the industry, Tribal and yourself could be doing to improve diversity – but when we were talking about hiring earlier you said lack of female talent was the reason why your team and your hires aren’t more diverse at the moment.

AB: It’s lack of talent in general. There’s definitely a lack of female candidates coming through. I don’t know what the solution is, certainly in getting senior people. I’d like to see some.

BB: So when you’re hiring – certainly around disability I think that in the public sector you can be guaranteed an interview if you meet certain diversity indicators and then the organisation will mentor you and develop you into the role, to positively try and influence their diversity – is that something you would actually consider?

AB: We do it with our graduate and apprenticeship scheme, which is about bringing more diverse people into the agency world and training them up. Which is great but we do need senior people too.

BB: I think what you’re saying, and correct me if I’m putting words in your mouth, is that the solution is long term and it’s about doing things with our young people and our hiring of young people now to improve things over the long term?

I think that’s fair. Bringing a more diverse pool of people into the industry is the right thing to do. I think it will change the industry longer term. And also what I’m seeing is a lot of younger people – by which I mean people in their early twenties – coming into the industry who have a very different approach to the world to people even in their late twenties.

They’re a lot more entrepreneurial and they have a less fixed view of their role within an organisation. They believe they can work a strategy one minute, do creative the next, do a bit of tech – and I think that will change the industry in a good way long term and how we relate to each other.

BB: OK penultimate question – what would be the one thing if any that you’ll commit to doing differently off the back of this interview? Has there been anything we’ve talked about that has made you think ‘actually I (or we) could do that differently or better’?

Yes, actively looking at our hiring policy and thinking how can we address diversity. I think we implicitly address it but it should be explicit. I can’t tell you how many women are in the agency and what that ratio is and I should be able to – well it should be 50:50 – but I should know, and I should be actively trying to address that.

More information on The Token Man initiative can be found at the dedicated website.

The Drum has launched a piece of research on marketing industry diversity. Find more and complete the survey here.