Why recruitment is only half the battle in solving the industry's diversity crisis

Matt Williams

I’ve been lucky enough to write hundreds of articles on advertising over the past seven years. But none have been as difficult to write as this.

That’s mainly because when you look for pieces to be written on diversity in the advertising industry, a white, middle class 20-something male from Berkshire who spent last Saturday shopping for baby clothes in John Lewis isn’t the most likely candidate.

So I’m conscious that in this piece I could very, very easily come across as deluded and self-righteous (even more so than normal). I know I’m setting myself up for a possible fall. And I know there are plenty out there with more authority on the subject than me. But I feel it warrants saying.

It all started in June, standing on the Carlton Terrace in Cannes (wow, I’m really not off to a good start in the ‘deluded’ stakes). The Carlton is a big posh hotel on the French Riviera that’s probably quite nice for 70 per cent of the year. But when the festival season kicks in it turns into a blasphemous, wretched sea of sycophancy, with hyped-up executives spunking expense accounts in celebration of mediocrity.

The overblown, overpriced nature of it all is hard to stomach to those inside the industry, so Lord knows what it must look like to an outsider.

But what really got me when surveying the mass of egos flooding the Terrace this year was just how white and middle class it all was.

Of course, we knew this already. We know just how terrible the lack of diversity is in advertising. We know we need to do more. And people are beginning to talk about it.

I don’t think that, on the whole, the advertising industry is racist. And I think the initiatives that are trying to get people from more diverse backgrounds into the game are doing a fantastic job. Initiatives like the Ideas Foundation and the School of Communication Arts 2.0. Should they be given more support? Emphatically yes. Yet that doesn’t mean they’re not already breaking down barriers.

But I’m not here to talk about how we recruit people from more diverse backgrounds into advertising. Those behind the aforementioned initiatives have a far more informed point of view than me on that.

And I’m not here to talk about why we need to recruit more people from diverse backgrounds into advertising. Frankly, if you still need to have that debate, then you shouldn’t really be in the industry in the first place.

No, what I want to touch on is the conventional processes and structures that the industry has in place, and look at why it is that, even if we do strengthen our recruitment armoury, we’re still in a position that overwhelmingly caters to the white middle classes.

I think a lot of it starts with an agency’s refusal to defy conventions. We love to come across all edgy and eccentric, but in many cases we’re anything but. Our offices are cool, there are still many professions who are stunned with how informal we can be, but in terms of structure, process and recruitment, we remain fairly resolute in our approach.

We continue to hire what we know. It might be cliché to say that the industry is full of public school-educated account men, northern planners and Watford College creatives, but they’re clichés for a reason. There are pre-ordained roles and people still have to be pigeonholed.

Diverse creative talent may not know they could be hugely beneficial to an agency, so they haven’t aligned themselves to a job role in a traditional sense. I hear a lot of lip-service saying that’s a good thing, but when it boils down to it, it’s much easier to find a planner who knows a planner’s place, and an account man who understands the traditional ways to manage a client.

It’d be great to get new blood in and work with them to find roles that might suit them, or combine and create new roles that can really take advantage of their talents, but I don’t see enough agencies willing to do that. They find a person to fill the role, not find a role to fulfill the talent.

Of course this isn’t all just the agencies' fault. It’s sad to say it but the great lengths agencies are required go to please clients can often supersede the desire to provide a platform for greater, braver work. Got an intern opening available? Who’s that going to go to: someone from a less privileged background who’s not got the references but has bags of ideas and creative potential, or the nephew of the client who’s just so happened to mention that he’s looking for work experience over the summer?

And even if you do then manage to score a placement or low-paid role, the traditional day-to-day etiquette you have to adhere to in agency life is still very middle class. You’ve got enough expenditure paying to travel into Soho every day, but then there’s the ‘unwritten rules’, where you have to drink in expensive pubs, spend £10 on lunch and at least a fiver on artisan coffees.

Coming from a journalist background into an agency, I remember my astonishment on my first day when I opened up my packed lunch and realised I was the only one doing so. And indeed when I recalled this story to a friend at another agency, he told me that he regularly ends up spending “seven or eight quid” he doesn’t want to on sushi or overpriced sandwiches each lunchtime, for fear of looking out of place. Of course that gets easier over time, but don’t tell me you wouldn’t be at least a little self-conscious if you’re coming to a work environment as an ‘outsider’ trying to fit in.

I always think that’s a big driving force for startups. What makes entrepreneurs who they are? A desire to push the boundaries, to shun conventions and put their own spin on proceedings.

And that usually works for a few years. The agency wins some awards for some mad campaign they did for an edgy brand, and gains a reputation for thinking out of the box and being a cool place to work.

Then said agency realises it needs to grow, wins the account of some big FMCG or car brand, and ends up servicing them in the only way it knows how – through traditional account management thinking. And eventually that cool start-up mystique dies, and we just have another drab, mid-sized, middle-class agency on our hands.

So what next? How do we change these things? As always, the first battle is awareness. Things are never going to change until you get the ‘problem’ to recognise the issue.

But I think that people are beginning to do just that. And I think it’ll change even more as more and more millennials – people who have grown up in an interconnected world, who are at home in a multi-cultural society and see themselves as ‘global ambassadors’ – become more and more uncomfortable with the situation they find themselves in.

And in a world where it’s recognised that a new generation requires more ‘feedback on the fly’, I’d suggest that that works both ways. Younger people will find themselves challenging the top brass. They’ll be intent on collaborating with and tapping into a more diverse range of minds and personalities. They’ll be encouraged to speak up, to continue the conversations and question the accepted norms.

At least, I hope that’s the case. I reckon a lot of people in the industry do. But it comes down to more than just changing hiring policies and raising awareness of the advertising industry to more diverse backgrounds. We need to shift our entire way of thinking. The way we structure our businesses, the way we initiate processes, and the way we think and test our clients. We as an industry – not just senior management – need to encourage this. To step out of our comfort zones.

We can all keep on doing what we’re doing. Being nice, safe and presentable won’t lose you much business. But it won’t push you to do something extraordinary either. And surely if an industry is claiming to be as creative and inspirational as ours, that’s what we should be striving for.

Matt Williams is head of creative content at Partners Andrews Aldridge

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