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Feet in the door: can training schemes dent adland’s diversity problem?

Often criticized for a lack of diversity within their walls and in their boardrooms, the last year has forced ad agencies to reflect on their diversity and inclusion policies. With many ad shops hoping to tackle the issue through education and training schemes aimed at funneling in a new school of talent, we explore whether the strategy is working.

“Like most agencies, we hadn’t been doing enough,“ admits Camilla Kemp, chief exec of M&C Saatchi. Spurred on to respond to concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement last July, her agency introduced Open House, an eight-week virtual training program made possible by lockdown and the industry's new remote way of working.

Open House is but one of a number of new industry training schemes that have cropped up, devised by agencies in a bid to funnel a more diverse range of recruits into their talent pools. Earlier this month, Huge decided to relaunch Huge XD School, a 10-week paid accelerator scheme that originally kicked off in 2011. This time, it has “removed traditional prerequisites, like formal design training, specific educational requirements, a design portfolio, and even a resume,“ says its president, Mark Manning.

Meanwhile, Publicis Groupe’s British wing announced a new apprenticeship scheme last month, devised under the umbrella of the Groupe’s wider Embrace Change plan. It has pledged to help up to 10,000 people from ethnic-minority and low social mobility backgrounds with training, mentorship and job opportunities.

An important piece of the puzzle, from training courses to full-on apprenticeships, these agency accelerator initiatives are no doubt a step in the right direction. But are they enough to make a real dent in adland’s wider diversity problem?

Feet in the door

It’s no secret that adland has a diversity and inclusion problem. This year, while efforts have been made to feature more diverse casts on-screen, efforts to ensure the same behind the camera and in the boardroom have been more muted. These initiatives are a vital starting place that enables agencies to address the lack of participation from underrepresented identities in the industry.

“Huge has made a commitment to increase the share of both women and BIPOC by 25% at the executive level within two years,“ insists Manning. “Huge XD School is focused on bringing fresh junior talent into the creative industry. The goal is to create a more diverse pipeline of future leaders from underrepresented groups.“

Between Huge, M&C Saatchi and Publicis, annually these schemes intend to offer over 10,600 people, whatever their educational background, an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of advertising.

And the initiatives do result in hires. Since launching in 2011, Huge has seen 58 out of its 105 alumni become full-time employees, with six still working there. After receiving 1,500 applications for its Open House program (35% registrants from BAME backgrounds) M&C Saatchi Group interviewed 40 of the course participants, issuing four offers of permanent roles. And while Publicis Open Apprenticeship (OA) is still in testing mode, the agency claims it will employ around 20 individuals this year, with an annual view to increase that intake.

On the radar

While not everyone who takes part in these initiatives will automatically secure a full-time job, it does place them on the recruitment radar. Historically, Kemp explains, the ad industry has been guilty of hiring from the same talent pool while favoring people who live in London.

“The pandemic has really highlighted how geography or financial situation shouldn’t be a barrier to entry,“ she claims. “It has enabled us to take the leap and create a purely digital program which is open to anyone, regardless of where or who they are,“ she says.

“While there might not be roles immediately available at M&C Saatchi Group for everyone who takes part, we are creating a pipeline of talent that we can call on at a later stage when a relevant position comes up,“ Kemp insists. They have also created a ’Talent Bench’ of people who will be considered for future freelance and project-based opportunities.

New blood

These initiatives also widen intake by attracting people who would otherwise not even considered advertising as a career. Annette King, chief exec at Publicis Groupe UK, admits: “Ours is an industry that is looking for new solutions and innovation yet is made up of people from similar backgrounds.“

Explaining that OA is part of Publicis’ commitment to open up its industry to everyone, not just those in-the-know, King insists: “before we can even get diverse talent from across the country into our industry, we must first make it known that our industry exists.“

Belinda Smith, WFA’s global diversity ambassador, says: “It is true that some non-white groups are not exposed to advertising as a career option early on, or not given access to training. Representation is so shoddy in our industry that they rarely have people in their network who can introduce them to this line of work.“

But she raises issue with the schemes’ ability to overcome structural prejudice. “These initiatives don’t address the proven fact that non-white applicants are not given close to a fair shake in the recruitment process,“ she insists. “Studies show resumes with non-white names don’t get callbacks, and that the elite school preference or educational requirements from employers don’t correlate to better qualified candidates.“

Retention contention

“All these talent programmes have incredible intention; however, the real challenge is retention,” insists Ali Hanan, founder and chief exec of Creative Equals.

Hanan questions whether the internal structures are there to help people succeed once these initiatives have attracted diverse talent in.

“One of the most common challenges we hear from agencies is ’we don’t have time to mentor or to upskill on the job’,“ she claims. “If this is the case, there is absolutely no point bringing in talent if line managers and leaders won't be able to dedicate the time to mentor, nurture, coach and teach. ’Too busy to upskill’ won’t lead to a successful outcome.’“

Similarly, Jerry Daykin, commercial director at Outvertising and volunteer for the WFA’s Global Diversity Task Force, says that while making the industry more accessible through advertising, education and apprenticeship schemes is a piece of the puzzle, “there is work to do to make it more inclusive to those who join.“

“When you look around our industry you do so see greater diversity in more junior roles but too many of those people choose to leave, or are forced out of the industry, before taking their fair places in senior positions.“

Smith says that unless agencies fix recruiting and company inclusion issues, all this work will be for nothing. “We’ve seen internships and apprenticeship schemes get popular again and again in moments like these, but they never seem to move the needle,“ she exclaims.

“It’s because we can’t only focus on those things, we have to fix the entire system. There’s no shortcut around that.“

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