UK ad bosses pledge to support black talent in open letter amid George Floyd outrage


By Rebecca Stewart, Trends Editor

June 3, 2020 | 21 min read

Advertising trade bodies and bosses from some of the UK’s largest agencies have signed an open letter pledging solidarity with the black community, promising to take action on inequality and “maintain inclusive cultures that are sensitive to the enduring injustice and pain of racism”.

George Floyd's death in police custody has prompted UK bosses to pledge action on inequality

George Floyd's death in US police custody has prompted UK bosses to pledge action on inequality / Natalie Narh: creative and vice-chair of Ogilvy Roots @latch_prod on Instagram; Amie Snow: creative & co-founder of Ogilvy Roots @amiesnow on Instagram

Chief executives at some of the UK’s biggest advertising agencies, platforms and trade bodies — including WPP, Publicis, Facebook, ITV and the IPA — have pledged to tackle the “systemic inequality” within the industry and support black talent.

Lending their signatures to an open letter coordinated by Creative Equals, a body dedicated to promoting diversity in the workplace, the promise from 200 UK industry bosses comes against the backdrop of continued protests in the US and beyond following the death of George Floyd in police custody.

A video showing a white police officer in Minneapolis continuing to kneel on Floyd's neck even after he pleaded that he could not breathe has reignited deep-seated anger over police brutality against black Americans.

“While the brutality has brought widespread shock, the direct effect of this injustice and violence on people of colour in our industry cannot be underestimated,” explains the letter from UK ad executives, which work with and represent clients like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Unilever.

The letter continues: "It is not the sole responsibility of our black colleagues to address this imbalance, nor to educate us on the inequities that racism in our industry creates.

"As inequality is so ingrained within the fabric of society and our sector, this is a problem we need to take action on together to affect change. We can all self-educate. We can all challenge our prejudices and those of others. We are all able to prioritise diversity, equity and inclusion at this critical time."

The initiative asks all industry leaders to be intentional in their support for black talent at this time, with signatories promising to hold themselves accountable in 10 ways.

These include: making representation a core part of their remit with clear KPIs and objectives; speaking out on racism and using company channels to share links and resources to combat it; enabling employees to understand white privilege; checking in with black employees at this traumatic time and giving them safe spaces for open discussion; ensuring their advertising isn't funding white supremacy or racist content; and implementing incident management plans for reports of racism.

“Today, we say George Floyd’s name and stand with all black talent in our industry,” ends the letter.

A pledge from an industry that's 'going backwards'

The pledge comes from an industry that has long fallen short when it comes to workforce diversity and historically been “male, pale, and stale” in makeup.

Just last month, fresh data from the IPA revealed that the number of employees from an ethnic minority background at UK ad agencies dropped over the past 12 months.

The trade body’s annual Agency Census found that – as well as making up a smaller proportion of the UK agency workforce – staff from black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) backgrounds had seen C-suite representation drop too.

The study, conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold of the UK, paints a picture of the make-up of IPA member agencies in 2019.

Of the 24,866 employees recorded as working in agency land in 2019, the number of employees from a BAME background was found to have dropped from 13.8% to 13.7% year-on-year.

Though diversity at junior levels was up slightly at 17.7% (up from 16.9% in 2018), just 4.7% of C-suite roles were held by employees from an ethnic minority background – marking a drop of 0.8% since 2018.

There was, however, an uptick in the number of BAME chairpeople, chief executives and managing directors, up from 2.9% to 4.1%.

Nonetheless, the figures revealed agencies to be falling behind in meeting the IPA’s diversity targets, which are set at 15% BAME representation in leadership roles and 25% among new starters by 2020.

Today's open letter addressees these numbers, saying: "We have gone backwards at a leadership level... It has never been more important to show up as an industry and face up to our own challenges as leaders. We need to drive equity in our organisations, the people we hire, the work we produce and how we engage with clients."

Though some including Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and Netflix have lent their support to the Black Lives Matter movement and taken a stand against racial injustice and police brutality online, members of of the black advertising and creative community tell The Drum that they’d like to see this solidarity translate to action.

Cephas Williams, founder of 56 Black Men, acknowledges that brands hold global influence on many levels, and so have the power to enact change.

”Now is not the time to be silent, neither is it the time to jump on a bandwagon," he said.

"It’s a time for real reflection and care with regards to how a brand and its leaders stand by the black community at this time and move forward with real steps to end racism and injustice globally and not only on the streets but in their organisations too.

“Organisations cannot promise that their staff are not racist, but they can promise that they will not tolerate it.”

You can read Creative Equals' open letter to the industry, and complete list of signatories, in full below.

#SayHisName: George Floyd

Advertising leaders commit to actions not words

Against a backdrop of uncertainty and struggle created by the pandemic, the past few months have seen a global explosion of hate crimes targeting black people. We have witnessed horrific images of African communities in China being subject to exclusion and violence; black key workers in the UK exposed to high-risk situations and even the physical assault of Belly Mujinga; in the US we have seen the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the violent death of George Floyd. This comes in the same week as a white woman made a ‘weaponised’ call to the police falsely accusing Christian Cooper of threatening her life in Central Park after he asked her to leash her dog.

While the brutality has brought widespread shock, the direct effect of this injustice and violence on black people cannot be overestimated. The UK Home Office reports that hate crimes have been steadily increasing over the last seven years. In 2018/19, there were 103,379 hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales. The majority of these hate crimes were race hate crimes, accounting for around three-quarters of offences (76%; 78,991 offences). This marks an increase of 11 per cent from 2017/18. These were only the reported and recorded crimes: thousands more go unreported. As workers are increasingly expected to operate and have a presence online it is imperative that leaders of industry are aware of the dangers both online and offline.

As a creative sector, what we do and who we represent has a profound impact on culture, yet systemic inequality continues in our industry. UK IPA industry census data, published in April 2020, confirmed minimal gains have been made in diversifying the ethnic make-up of leadership. We have gone backwards at a leadership level, with 4.7% of executives being recorded as BAME in 2019, compared to 5.5% in 2018. It has never been more important to show up as an industry and face up to our own challenges as leaders. We need to drive equity in our organisations, the people we hire, the work we produce and how we engage with clients.

The advertising industry needs to create and maintain inclusive cultures sensitive to inequity and the pain of racism. We ask people across the industry to be conscious of the trauma that many black colleagues and their peers may be experiencing, as they process the news and fallout of the killing of George Floyd and other acts of violence. We call on those in positions of influence to harness the cultural power of advertising to bring authentic prominence to the crisis of racial injustice.

It is not the sole responsibility of our black colleagues to address this imbalance, nor to educate us on the inequities that racism in our industry creates. As inequality is so ingrained within the fabric of society and our sector, this is a problem we need to take action on together to affect change. We can all self-educate. We can all challenge our prejudices and those of others. We are all able to prioritise diversity, equity and inclusion at this critical time.

As Heide Gardner, senior-vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer of Interpublic Group, states: "The ultimate test of belonging is not when we support each other on issues we can personally identify with, or what we have in common. The ultimate test of belonging happens when we support each other when our experiences, needs, feelings, and even new ideas are different from the majority of our colleagues, and especially when we differ from those who have power over our careers. Only then will we achieve cultures of genuine belonging where people of colour don’t have to endure the daily calculus of how or if to disclose their feelings, respond to situations or feel implicitly responsible for the comfort of others over their own."

We ask all industry leaders to be intentional in their support for black talent at this time. We ask our industry to take action and hold ourselves accountable in the following 10 ways:

  1. Empower leaders and boards to drive representation and inclusivity by being a core part of the leadership team’s strategic priorities with clear KPIs, actions and objectives, transparently communicated. Deeply understand and monitor the data of your company and understand what goes on within it.
  2. Senior leaders must step up, speak out and take action. All leaders need to acknowledge the escalating racism of the last few months in town halls and company wide gatherings, in order to open this conversation in their organisations. Leaders should use their company channels to share links, information, resources and black-driven research.
  3. Enable employees to understand their own privileges (and what white privilege means) and their biases to help them become accountable allies and activists.
  4. Call out racism whenever it is encountered. Everyone is responsible for this, from the CEO to all staff across your organisation. Implement an incident management plan or refer to your equality policy for guidance. Building trust creates solidarity in the workforce and provides a psychologically safe space to work. This can allow for issues such as micro-aggressions (subtle acts of discrimination) to be addressed.
  5. Create safe and inclusive spaces to have open and frank conversations about racism with everyone in attendance. Use these to promote active advocacy and open dialogue for both black talent and allies.
  6. Use existing employee resource groups, such as WPP’s Roots, Publicis Group’s Embrace or for those without networks, assemble ad-hoc forums now such as Publicis Sapient’s ‘Brave Spaces’.
  7. ‘Check the make-up of your own circle and seek out different points of view,’ as recommended by WPP U.K. Country Manager & CEO GroupM UK, Karen Blackett OBE.
  8. Check-in with black employees - particularly if you are a leader or line manager.
  9. Represent at every level and most importantly, on your leadership team: welcome, promote, champion, and celebrate black employees. Commit to amplifying and elevating black talent, working with black-owned businesses and supply chains.
  10. Examine your preferred supplier’s list. Ensure your advertising isn’t funding white supremacy or racist content.

We, the signatories of this letter, commit to taking deep, lasting action. Today, we say George Floyd’s name and stand with all black talent in our industry.


If you are an industry leader and would like to add your signature and support this open letter to our industry, email

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  • Channel 4 – Alex Mahon, CEO
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