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Tracy De Groose Tom Knox MullenLowe

How agencies can tackle diversity by revolutionising recruitment processes

By Nicola K Smith, freelancer

October 13, 2016 | 7 min read

When it comes to tackling diversity, the one thing agencies can do to create positive change in their make-up is to revolutionise their recruitment processes. And a few of them have been doing just that as, if they don’t, they risk becoming permanently closed shops.

McKinsey’s research has shown that ethnically diverse companies are 35 per cent more likely to achieve above average financial returns, while gender diverse companies are 15 per cent more likely to outperform. It is an area that the marketing industry is taking seriously, and it is something brands increasingly expect.

“Clients are demanding it of their agencies and we simply could not have won the pitches or created the work we’ve produced without the diversity we have in our agency,” says Tom Knox, chairman of MullenLowe and president of the IPA. But what practical approaches are agencies taking to tackle the issue of diversity and inclusion?

“Ethnicity in the media and advertising market is a challenge,” says Tracy De Groose, UK chief executive of Dentsu Aegis Network. She cites London, home of the company’s headquarters, as an example. London’s population (8.6 million people) is currently made up of 44 per cent black and ethnic minorities, compared to only 28.9 per cent in 2001 according to the Greater London Authority. “We have a fairly decent representation [of the demographic] in our business, but it certainly doesn’t look like London, and neither do our peers.”

In April 2016, Dentsu Aegis launched Fortysix, an agency staffed by digital native talent from diverse backgrounds. De Groose says the new agency, which currently numbers 10 employees, acts as a microcosm of how the wider organisation wants to operate. “We recognise that to get the diversity we are looking for we need to radically overhaul how we attract and recruit people, and we had to do that very differently [for Fortysix]. The knock on effect is that it allows us to re-examine our broader recruitment processes and practices through a critical lens, which is a really positive thing.”

A key part of the new agency’s approach to recruitment involved partnering with Freeformers, a digital skills organisation that trains unemployed 16 to 25 year-olds to work in the digital economy. Dentsu Aegis staged an informal digital skills day for young people without qualifications to learn skills such as coding and app building. Targeted ads ran on Facebook and in the Metro to reach a wide audience, and the day attracted in the region of 150 people.

“We asked them to work on a live digital brief and we gave them the tools we expected them to be creative with,” says De Groose.

“It was a very free range process. We were assessing for potential value and behaviours as opposed to educational background.”

Over 100 attendees submitted applications expressing an interest in working with the new agency. “The day was more visibly representative of London than ‘agency land’ as a whole, and if you look at how it has translated into Fortysix, it is very diverse.”

Addressing the talent pipeline is a key focus for a number of agencies, and some are taking it a step further, engaging with schoolchildren in order to sow the seeds early on. As Knox says, it is about breaking the cycle of “backdoor work experience CVs” from – predominantly – white middle class talent. “Work with inner city schools or organisations who champion diversity: that will help your talent pool.”

J Walter Thompson has spotted a similar opportunity to educate at an early age, creating JWTeach, an initiative that sees the agency visit schools to introduce pupils to careers in advertising. “We know that the industry historically has been something of a closed shop to anyone who does not have family or friends working in the business, so JWTeach is key in opening up the industry to a broader, more diverse talent pool,” says James Whitehead, joint chief executive of J Walter Thompson London. By the end of this year, JWTeach will have worked with more than 600 schoolchildren.

JWTeach also uses the agency’s proprietary research, Female Tribes (which explores women’s influence on the world), to inspire Year 10s about strong female role models. It picks up on another key issue in the industry, namely opportunities for women – something Dentsu Aegis has also been addressing.

Dentsu Aegis has been running a Women in Leadership programme for just over a year, designed to identify top female talent who, De Groose says, “we would be very sorry to lose”. The programme prepares candidates for their next big role, and was prompted, in part, by the need to counter unconscious bias.

“Our general development programme, Route 500, was a self-nomination driven programme and that in itself is open to bias,” says De Groose.

“We saw investing specifically in a group of high potential women as a really sensible investment and it is really paying off for us. We have women on the programme who are moving on to bigger roles, including managing director positions, and that is a direct result of that initiative.”

MullenLowe has also boldly invested in opportunities for women, and two out of three of its executive creative directors are female, which Knox says has provided strong inspirational role models. “This has in turn inspired our female creatives to champion female creativity in inspiring young female creatives wanting to break into the industry.”

Of course, inclusivity is not just about opportunities to enter the industry and move up the ladder, but to thrive on a day-to-day basis, which means addressing the (relatively) mundane details too. As Knox points out, lots of agencies are fuelled by after-work drinks.

“Make sure you are considering the timings of your events so parents are able to participate,” he advises.

In a bid to address a similar issue and promote a manageable work/life balance, JWT has created the JWT Family, an internal parent-employee focus group-led programme.

“[It was] created for our employees by our employees and, most importantly, unlike other industry parent initiatives which often focus only on ‘mum’, is designed for both mum and dad,” says Whitehead.

The concept has certainly engaged its staff, with more than half of the parents in the agency having contributed to creating JWT Family.

There is still work to do when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Knox, who is also president of the IPA, urges agencies to benchmark themselves against the ambitious IPA diversity targets that were announced in January this year. Goals include the IPA’s biggest agencies having at least 15 per cent of people from a non-white background in leadership positions by 2020 and women holding 40 per cent of senior positions within all agencies, and at each stage of the career ladder, by 2020.

“The industry will have reached success when diversity is no longer on the agenda,” says Knox.

De Groose certainly believes the sector is at a turning point. “It is a really live topic and I think any agency or agency group that isn’t taking it seriously by this stage will fall behind.”

This feature first appeared in the 12 October issue of The Drum magazine

Read a first-hand perspective on the diversity issue from Derek Walker: The advertising industry needs to face its diversity problems, and stop blaming others

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