The Token Man: Outgoing IPA president Tom Knox on diversity - 'I am the establishment and the establishment’s the problem'

Token Man: Tom Knox and Lindsey Clay

Tom Knox, outgoing president at the IPA and chairman of MullenLowe, speaks to Lindsey Clay, chief executive at Thinkbox, in the latest of our Token Man series of gender diversity interviews conducted by prominent women from across the marketing industries.

Lindsey Clay: I think I’ve heard you describe yourself as a relatively unlikely champion of diversity and gender equality.

Tom Knox: Well, I suppose that comes from my awareness that I am a fairly stereotypical white, middle-class male from a very traditional background and I was at an all-male boarding school from the age of eight. But I think the thing that really helped was that I had a mother that worked at the Observer and three elder sisters.

She met my father at Oxford but she was of a generation that basically gave up her career to have her children. She was absolutely adamant that all of my sisters would not have the kind of life she had had. She was a brilliant woman, the intellectual equal of my father who had a very successful legal career, but she didn’t have that career, so I suppose it’s always there in the back of my mind that women haven’t necessarily had a fair crack of the whip.

LC: It is interesting that the IPA president who has had the strongest diversity agenda has been a man from a relatively traditional background. Any observations about that?

TK: I am the establishment and the establishment’s the problem. I’ve spoken now at several events where I’ve said, “Not only am I the problem, but this room is the problem.” At the president’s reception last January, we announced the results of the diversity census that we’d commissioned, showing 7.5% of the leadership of agencies was coming from the BAME communities, and about 30% of the senior management was from women, but it didn’t look like it in the room. I’m not saying that those findings were doctored, but I’m sure they are absolutely our best foot forward. Earlier this year, I talked at the Great British Diversity Experiment and that was great because I was actually talking to a room that was properly diverse.

LC: Is that diverse in every sense?

TK: In every way. Diversity isn’t just men and women. It’s ethnicity, it’s sexual orientation, it’s disability. Our business isn’t terrible compared to many other walks of life. But surprisingly, it’s not as good as it should be, given the predominant type of people who work in advertising, who, by and large, are quite liberal. We’re not the clichéd ruthless bastard naked capitalists that people might think we are.

LC: So why aren’t our diversity figures better?

TK: I think more through sins of omission than active malice. We just aren’t performing as well on some of these criteria as we should be. It’s massively in our interest. It’s nothing to do with being good people; it’s proven to be commercially successful. We need to find ways of actively demonstrating that better results, better creativity, better thinking, and better commercial success come from embracing diversity. I’m a bit worried that people nod along, and say, “More diverse teams perform better.” But, you know, show me the evidence.

LC: Is there a way of celebrating the best of what people can do in this area?

TK: A good example is the fantastic initiative that Channel 4 undertook, offering free airtime for the best ad featuring disability, which Maltesers won. They kindly asked me to be on the judging panel for it, and one of the really powerful things was that a key member of their presentation team was a woman in a wheelchair. They were very good at explaining how talking to her and her friendship group and peers had helped develop a really powerful bit of creativity.

LC: As IPA president, how important is the gender and diversity bit of that to Advertising for Good?

TK: I think it’s really important because there are three pillars to it. I’ve been saying we’re good for the economy, good for our clients, and good for people. It’s increasingly important that we get across the idea that advertising is a fulfilling and worthwhile thing to do. Employers all know that the bright young people that we want to get in, and retain, the so-called millennials, are pretty demanding on those directions.

There have been some quite worrying surveys commissioned, for instance, by the Advertising Association, that show that MPs have a higher opinion of advertising and advertising’s contribution than the young people working in the industry, who have just come in, which I was very worried about.

LC: Do you think lack of diversity within the industry and within industry content informs that view?

TK: Yes, and we very urgently need to reassert the good that advertising does but we also have to show that we are a progressive employer when it comes to diversity, and in terms of our output, as well.

LC: You’ve been considered very brave for publishing the diversity figures by agency and setting some ambitious targets for 2020. Why did you think that was so important?

TK: I was a little bit surprised that people thought that it was brave. I thought it was really important. It is only a first step, but it was important to establish some benchmarks, and say, “This is where we are, and this is where we want to go to” because that data didn’t exist as a sort of authoritative benchmark before.

LC: How honest do you think people were in filling out those forms?

TK: Obviously, I can only directly speak for our agency, and we were scrupulously honest. It’s always difficult collecting that data, because definitions of seniority are difficult, so I’m sure there is a degree of interpretation.

LC: Do you imagine people are telling the most positive version of the truth that they can tell?

TK: Yes, I think we should take that into account. What behavioural science will tell you, and that everybody knows, is that we’re all quite competitive. We were careful not to publish the data, in the first instance. But we all know that everybody is going to compare.

LC: So, the idea of this is that you manage what you measure?

TK: Yes. That was just about setting targets, and as you say, we have set some specific targets for 2020. I was up in Scotland doing an IPA event and I got heckled from the audience when I was announcing the goals. I was saying 40% of senior positions will be held by women by 2020 and a woman piped up and said, “Why not 50%?” It was a very good challenge, but there’s no point in setting goals that you aren’t going to reach, and in four years, you don’t go from account executive to managing director. And there is no problem with the pipeline. There are bright, talented women, and they are not emerging at the end of the pipe as leaders, and there are all kinds of reasons for that.

LC: What do you think are the obstacles to women’s success?

TK: The obstacles vary by department. We’ve got a particular issue in the creative department in my opinion – it’s where we have the biggest cultural problem. There still persists a certain kind of old-fashioned, laddy culture. You see it in the language – teams are slightly infantilised by being referred to as ‘the boys.’ It isn’t how good creative people will want to be treated, and doesn’t give you good results. Actually, I think our American colleagues are significantly ahead of us, in that they don’t really behave like that. And that’s what clients want. They want to be close to the talent, the people who are writing the ads. And I do think that is an area we really, really have to focus on. At the end of the day, it’s the most important department in any creative agency. I think, generally, the tone is set in creative agencies by the creative department, and if it’s a laddy men’s club, that is corrosive throughout the whole culture.

As far as other departments are concerned, the issue is much more about career management, mentoring, and the elephant in the room, which is families, and trying to create a culture where men are as much expected to be playing a part in childcare as women.

We’ve got a long way to go before we get to a kind of Swedish culture. And my perception is that a lot of incredibly talented women, right at the sort of apex of their career, earning capacity and value to agencies, don’t come back. My agency sponsored the She’s Back survey – Richard Warren talked about this in his previous Token Man interview. It showed that agencies are missing this massive opportunity, and wasting thousands of pounds on headhunters to recruit account directors, when there’s a whole load of account directors ready to come back.

LC: In 2015, John Hegarty claimed that taking time off means you lose momentum and makes you less creative? Do you agree? Or is this the type of mentality we are battling against?

TK: I don’t agree with that – he specifically compared creatives to sports people, saying you can’t take a year off because you lose the momentum – and Jessica Ennis-Hill pretty comprehensively debunked that idea. In fact, I have observed people becoming better, more rounded professionals having become parents, so yes, we do have to challenge this belief.

LC:How important do you think it is to encourage men in the industry to embrace their parental responsibilities?

TK: One of the things we found in our survey was that we had very low take-up of flexible working opportunities from men. I think that’s a huge cultural challenge for advertising and marketing services as a whole.

Change has to come from the top. You need to see very senior people leaving at 4:30pm because they’re going to pick up the kids. Collectively, we need to say: “Work is work. Home is home.” I’ve always enjoyed the slight blurring of those things, and advertising is a very social business. But there’s a danger in it, because it discriminates against people who are keen to be involved parents.

LC: How can you encourage agencies to hit the objectives you’ve set for 2020?

TK: The team here at the IPA are working on a diversity toolkit, which will include a whole load of very practical things that they can do. One of the things that is really great about Kat Gordon and The 3% Conference is she has her list of 50 steps you can do to improve things. We have been inspired by that. I would certainly support a kind of Rooney Rule on shortlists.

LC: That’s the rule originated in the NFL in the US that every shortlist for an NFL coaching position should have at least one black candidate on it.

TK: Yes. I personally don’t support very aggressive positive discrimination, but if the shortlist hasn’t got women on it, for a start, and ethnic diversity on it, then you’ve got to reject it. And you’ve got to go back to the headhunter and say, “No, try again”. I think blind CVs are an interesting move.

LC: You have done the Harvard unconscious bias test. What was your response to that?

TK: I have “moderate automatic association of male with career and female with family.” Obviously the whole point of the test is it makes you conscious of something you weren’t conscious of, so it was a wake-up call for me.

LC: Given all the work you have been doing around gender diversity, that does slightly surprise me. How did the result make you feel? And what are you actively doing to change it?

TK: Inevitably, the result made me feel like I had “failed” but I think it’s important for men not to be defensive in the face of evidence of their bias. It has made me much more aware and determined to improve.

LC: You may be relieved to hear that you are not alone. When I did the test, I was dismayed to see that even I had the same bias and I was consciously trying very hard not to. Which female business leader has inspired you the most, and why?

TK: MT Rainey. She was chief exec of the second agency I worked at. Obviously, she was brilliant. She was, shall we say, an unorthodox chief executive. She was a planner by background and was incredibly inspiring in terms of what advertising and really great planning can do. She was an incredibly powerful operator and I never got the sense that she was having to put on a work persona. It was absolutely pure MT. It was very feminine, and it was also incredibly effective. Not ‘but’ also. ‘And’ also.

LC: Is ‘diversity’ in danger of becoming a buzzword? How can we ensure it stays a priority in the industry?

TK: I get pretty irritated by that, actually, because that’s like saying ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ are buzzwords. Yes, they’re abstracts, but these things are important. It’s not a faddy thing. It’s not going to go away. You can see in a whole range of events in recent months that difference is a problem for a lot of people. And we are a long way from not having to talk about it. So, it’s not a buzzword. It’s a very important word.

LC: Have you ever found yourself in that reverse scenario where you are in a significant minority?

TK: I love it and I wish it happened more often. Whenever it does happen, the meetings are always so much nicer, so much more productive and collaborative. I think it’s terribly good for men to be put into those positions. The generosity of women and the natural support system is radically different to a lot of men’s modus operandi, and it is totally the future. You only have to look at every aspect of the way the world works. It’s all about collaboration.

LC: What’s the one thing you are going to do as a result of this interview?

TK: Get our people team to impose a Rooney rule on shortlists of candidates for job vacancies.

LC: Finally, who would you like to recommend as the next Token Man interviewee (either male or female)?

TK: Tracy de Groose, UK chief executive at Dentsu Aegis Network or Mark Howe, managing director, EMEA Agencies at Google.

Token Man is an initiative from the founder of Creative Social, Daniele Fiandaca. Previous interviews have included Profero's Wayne Arnold in conversations with Lizi Hamer, creative director at Octagon.

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