JWT became the lightning rod for advertising’s diversity discomfort earlier this year and for the agency’s chief executive Tamara Ingram the fallout has amplified what was a quiet attempt to make it one of the core drivers of the business.
“We’ve been brilliant for women, and we have been female-focused long before the current circumstances have thrust the agency to the forefront of the gender equality conversation,” she explains. Speaking to The Drum prior to Publicis Groupe's Kevin Roberts' much-criticised claim that the diversity debate is over, Ingram stresses it is anything but.
While the industry is awash with similar declarations right now, JWT's efforts are years in the making rather than a delusive jump on the diversity bandwagon.
Three years the business spent studying how advertising fails women before the resignation of Ingram’s predecessor Gustavo Martinez in March following claims of sexism undermined those efforts. But old habits can – and indeed need to – die hard, and Ingram has already set an agenda for diversity that promises to push JWT further from its comfort zone than ever before.
That’s not to say JWT will become a female-focused agency. “Diversity of people leads to diversity of thinking that leads to diversity of ideas. That’s what I want our agency to be known for,” confirms Ingram, who has already formed a diversity committee she will lead to prove this isn’t just meaningless rhetoric. Public actions like this will undoubtedly tease a wry smirk from those who see a ‘diversity committee’ as hastily-crafted PR spin, and yet Ingram believes you have to invite that pressure on in order to change. It’s why she’s not against the controversial idea of mandatory diversity quotas despite some of her peers questioning the point of tackling discrimination with more discrimination.
“I think you have to set quotas and you have to be public about them because you have to force change and you have to force yourself to change,” said the WPP executive on an IPA panel in Cannes. Consequently, there’s now no recruitment process at the agency that doesn’t involve women. “It’s our own responsibility and it’s sometimes hard to change and that’s why the briefs [to recruitment consultants] have to be forced that way,” she continues. “I’ve always been pro quotas and I know it’s not very fashionable”.
On top of that, the agency has started using 'blind recruitment' – JWT Pioneers – for entry-level hires. Applicants are still required to submit a CV but it won’t be referred to until much later in the recruitment process. Instead, their success in the early stages is dependent on how well they answer six questions, a tactic already employed by fellow WPP agency Grey.
One area at JWT that either quotas or blind CVs could – and arguably need to – have an impact in is the creative department. Often viewed as a bastion of male personalities, creative teams across adland can sometimes be slightly hostile and boisterous places. At JWT the problem isn’t so much the balance of male and female creatives, which is “as good as it can be”, it’s more the issues that arise as women move through the ranks.
Unlike account management or planning, there’s no clear career path for a creative coming in at the bottom. That lack of structure can be damaging for all concerned regardless of gender or skin colour and yet one of the major impacts it’s had is on women only working on briefs because of their gender. “Unfortunately, I believe that agencies do sometimes treat them [women] differently,” rues Ingram. “There is sometimes an unconscious expectation that female products need female creative or that a beer campaign needs to be laddish. And it feels that female brands can only succeed if they portray women as their expected roles.”
To help remove this bias, Celia Berk, the former Y&R talent officer, joined JWT in May in as its first chief employee engagement officer to weed out the barriers suffocating a person’s development. Other agencies are amidst similar overhauls, with BBDO on a year-long mission to double its female creative leadership team by next April, which paved the way for its first female chief creative officer, Robin Fitzgerald, in the US earlier this month.
Beyond HR, poor planning and the genderisation of briefs are also to blame for advertising’s lack of diversity. While there’s something powerful about women writing for women, some senior creatives such as Lauren Connolly, executive vice president and executive creative director at BBDO New York, and Becky McOwen-Banks, creative director at FCB Inferno and co-founder of Creative Equals, bemoan the danger it can have on a female creative’s work becoming very gender specific. As long as there is really strong planning that factors in real insights (and stereotypes) then anyone should be able to work on a brief, they argue.
Ingram agrees but doesn’t feel “enough push coming from clients” at the moment to disrupt this reality. Marketers may want to see a diverse team in chemistry meetings and yet many still sign off briefs for the “troubled, hard-working woman” or the “busy mum on the go” that threatens to torpedo the culture change happening behind the scenes.
Much then rests on the agency’s own insights to turn the tide with clients. Led by JWT’s global board planning director Rachel Pashley (see below) and over three years in the making, it has the ‘Female Tribes’ global study of 4,300 women that is being shared with some of the world’s top marketers. Unilever will no doubt be among those eyeing the research in its bid to scrub out female stereotypes from its ads, a move its agency JWT has been among the first to back.
“My experience [of the study] every day is that the questions we’re asked is – how can we make this bigger, what else can we do? I’m never hearing ‘that’s enough now, put it away’,” shares Pashley. “And we’re using it to shape not just communication but more fundamentally products and services, or internal training and development for clients which I think means that it’s a more fundamental approach to doing business, we’re looking at everything through a female lens, and a much broader female lens at that.”
Consumers, more than ever, want responsible brands. Yes, it must be at parity price, but the fundamental insight holds true – consumers want to see themselves reflected in advertising and advertisers should in turn respond by making their ads more inclusive and progressive. Despite that clarity, discussing the cultural prejudices at the root of the industry’s diversity problem is a sore point for people on both sides of the issue, as Ingram alludes to.
“I think we have to work very hard with the planners and from other parts of the business to reject work that doesn’t do its best to stop stereotyping all people and really be intentional about the diversity of people we show. We shouldn’t underestimate culture that comes from the top of the department that changes the chances for everyone to flourish.”
Faced with such deep-rooted hang-ups, Ingram and her team are casting their net as far as they can to understand the wide range of demographic and psychographic criteria that underpin a diverse business. From other agencies within WPP to clients and even the introduction of a schools programme, JWT is plucking learnings from everywhere. This extends to headhunters, who Ingram fears are still fishing in the same talent pools they’ve done for years, a concern that’s got her wondering whether she needs a different kind of specialist to help shape her dream team.
Culture comes up time and time again as Ingram shares her views on the scale of the challenges ahead for JWT. There’s no denying her commitment to the cause, though there’s a sense that she’s quickly realising the enormity of the situation. None is this more evident than when she talks about changing work culture to get the best out of all talent.
It can’t just be about tackling female issues. Ingram knows the human ones must come first, with the WPP executive aiming for a future where people feel much more mobile at work and consequently empowered. That might result in better parity between men and women for parenting absences or even changing the way ideas are communicated within teams; so much has to change if the agency is to disrupt homogenous groups of people across its workforce.
“We need to see work experiences not just through parenting eyes but also getting the best out of all talent,” explains Ingram. “A lot of people have dual aspirations these days; they like to be entrepreneurs and be at work; or they like to pursue certain dreams…. there are many questions that we [the industry] need to open ourselves to. If our industry is really going to attract the most exciting talent then we need to make it the most exciting experience to be in our business.”
In 1908, JWT hired Helen Lansdowne as a copywriter who became the advertising industry’s first female creative director. More than 100 years later Ingram is its first chief executive. While advertising has made various advancements in that period, the sorry state of diversity isn’t among them. Diversity is one of the industry’s most pervasive and current issues and Ingram knows it's about time it had an immediate and material response.