Over the past few months we’ve seen great strides in the media and marketing industries to ensure we can all work safely and effectively from home. That has had the side effect of opening the industry up to people who would otherwise have been overlooked in the past. Now campaigners are hopeful that we can retain those benefits as we move past the pandemic.
If nothing else, the pandemic has proven that home working isn’t just possible – it’s desirable for many people. The mad scramble to provide employees with everything from remote access to lighting and webcams for meetings has left a lasting infrastructure that can outlast our various lockdowns.
One positive corollary of that is the increased likelihood that people outside of the traditional marketing hubs have the opportunity to join organizations once denied to them. Whether it was by geography, family restrictions or requirements related to disability, the industry has become more open and accessible than it was pre-pandemic.
The danger, as we’ve heard from advocacy groups and individuals that have taken advantage of that openness, is that in the rush to return to normal practices the industry loses that accessibility.
Martyn Sibley, founder of Purple Goat and captain of inclusion at Disability Horizon, says: “It’s softened some of that traditional corporate culture, which has enabled not just disabled people, but generally people [with restrictions] to be more included. In terms of nuts and bolts, there was an enabling of more inclusion by proxy of what everyone did for Covid. There’s definitely a risk that that may get taken away. And then that will exclude the people that for a year or two were more included than ever before.”
It’s an issue that goes beyond disability or geography, says Sibley. The past year has proven that for inclusivity a rising tide floats all boats – but that losing that accessibility will similarly negatively impact the entire industry. Sibley argues that brands and agencies that don’t ensure they have a plan to remain open will be impoverished, both in terms of talent and commercial opportunities.
“We know globally there’s around 1.3 billion disabled people... the spending power of those households is eight trillion dollars globally. In the UK the 14 million disabled people with £270bn spending power have become known as the purple pound, so that’s the business case.
“If you’re selling products and services, if you make sure that the actual product is more designed for everybody and your marketing is more inclusive and representative of everybody, then you end up with growth in customers and revenue and profit.
“You want to reflect society and your workforce to have a broader, more diverse viewpoint of what is going on in the real world and to marry all those things up.”
Marrying commercial and social benefits
He argues that while the surface-level representation of disabled people within the industry and in marketing creative itself has improved, there is still work to be done.
He cites the need for increased prominence of neurodivergent people in traditional media, but states that social media is doing a good job of giving them a platform of their own: “There’s visually-impaired, hearing-impaired, neurodiverse and hidden disabilities. That’s where being an influencer marketing agency works well, because we can do holistic campaigns by sort of joining the dots creatively. But we can also get niche content, to niche audiences, at scale.”
Sibley believes that brands and agencies need to have internal representation for that benefit to become tangible. He describes the role of those team members with experience of the communities they represent as a ‘tour guide’ for the organization. The impetus for brands to maintain that accessibility, then, is as much a commercial benefit as it is a social good.
Taking the responsibility
The question becomes how marketing teams can ensure they retain the benefits of accessibility as pressure grows to get people back in offices.
Sibley says the onus for advocating for continued accessibility is shared across a number of roles. “So in some respects, the owner’s focus should be on the business, because they’re meant to maximize profit and this is a growth strategy to maximize profits by being more inclusive to everybody. But for those that don’t see it that way, then it comes back to the disabled community advocating about the problems and the social issues.”
He says that the discourse is often clouded by the political considerations that creep into the discussions, though there is undoubtedly a role for the government in maintaining quotas and promoting visibility of underrepresented groups.
Despite that, he also notes that it is on people like himself and other campaigners to communicate the multiple benefits of accessibility, and to some extent assuage fears about speaking to those communities inauthentically. “If a brand is letting disability out into the public domain, they can be scared of it going south, going wrong. Putting out this disability-related campaign is a bit like releasing a bull, and we’re sort of like the matador helping to control and de-risk that narrative.”
While there is still work to be done in ensuring better representation for individual groups, the reality is that the marketing industry benefits from better representation and access overall. As we move on from the pandemic, it’s an opportunity to boost our commercial potential as well as fulfil our social obligations by maintaining that access. The danger is that the industry throws the baby out with the bathwater in a rush back to the ‘good old days’ that weren’t so good for everyone.