Why advertising agencies should use the diagonal thinking test to widen their talent pool

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor at 23red, former IPA director general, and has had five successful business books published. With an agency career spanning 26 years, he’s worked on more than 50 brands.

The IPA’s five-year research project, through consultancy Agency People, validated the Diagonal Thinking hypothesis. This showed that people with high levels of linear and lateral thinking ability – Diagonal Thinkers – would be more likely to excel in all five agency job functions: creative, account management, account planning, media planning and media buying.

A dose of diagonal thinking could help agencies

In order to enable people, especially those at the beginning of their careers, to ascertain whether they had this special thinking skill, the Diagonal Thinking Self-Assessment (DTSA) was developed. It’s believed that each year as many as 20,000 graduates consider a career in advertising, and yet the estimated number of first-year trainees in IPA member agencies was 929 in 2014, with 80 per cent of these being found in media agencies.

The competition is very fierce, so providing candidates with another means of establishing their suitability for our industry is helpful. Those who do not achieve ‘double top’, ie score high in both inductive logic and creative thinking, still learn something important about their thinking abilities. This helps them navigate the job market more effectively, and understand better where their potential lies.

The tool was also intended to help agency recruiters to find the very best talent by simply asking candidates to provide a copy of their Diagonal Thinking scores along with their CV, and to include this in their assessment mix. Since agencies have need for all sorts of people, it’s not necessarily the case that they would only hire ‘double top’ candidates for all job roles. But knowing each recruit’s thinking style can round out the HR team’s understanding of their employees, and help optimise the agency team.

The DTSA free online test was launched on 16 September 2008. We now have seven years of data and so far 37,679 have registered, 20,731 people have completed, and 3,349 have discovered they’re Diagonal Thinkers. If you take registrants as representative of the population at large, this means that only 9 per cent of people are Diagonal Thinkers – it is a special skill.

The DTSA results have been remarkably consistent over time, and thus it seems reasonable to draw some conclusions from the data. These have implications for the agency business, especially in the context of the results from the latest IPA Census from September 2014. The latter is based upon an annual survey of IPA member agencies with the results from the 47 per cent responding being extrapolated to represent the whole membership. The total number of people employed in IPA agencies is 23,231, and, coincidentally, the total number of people who have completed the DTSA is 20,731. So the samples in both cases are robust.

The average age of employees is 34, whereas 66 per cent of those who have completed the DTSA were under 25. Clearly the tool is fulfilling its role for people at the start of their careers.

In terms of gender, the results are a more concerning. 58 per cent of the people completing the DTSA were women and they constitute 60 per cent of the Diagonal Thinkers. While the overall ratio of men to women employed is equal, females account for only 26 per cent of those at the highest levels of seniority and 37 per cent of those in another executive management role. Traditional creative roles and digital creative roles are male-biased 77 per cent and 73 per cent respectively.

Clearly there are many other factors which limit the numbers of women at the top of agencies, and which employers are working to resolve. This DTSA data should act as a powerful reinforcement to these efforts – agencies really need to recruit and retain these female Diagonal Thinkers in their businesses.

Turning to ethnicity, there are now 3,015 BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) employees in IPA member agencies, representing 13 per cent. This matches the 13 per cent national average, according to the Office for National Statistics Census of 2011, but it’s way below the 60 per cent of BAME people living in London, where many leading agencies are concentrated. And it’s not as if certain ethnic groups lack the special Diagonal Thinking skill which correlates with success in an agency. While 55 per cent of those who completed the DTSA are white British, 45 per cent are from other ethnic origins. For example over 1,000 Indians have participated, discovering over 100 Diagonal Thinkers, ie 9 per cent of them.

While the data does show a wide variation in the propensity of a given ethnic group to produce Diagonal Thinkers, this may well be a function of linguistic, cultural and educational background. For example, there’s also an under-representation of BAME students at universities, so this is a challenge for educators, as it is for agencies.

The UK is a vibrant centre of excellence for advertising and marketing communications, and there is big business to be had in serving global clients who hub their campaigns from here. According to the Office for National Statistics Census of 2011, there are 53 main languages in London which are spoken by at least 0.1 per cent of residents. This is a great resource for the development of brand ideas with an international appeal which can be adapted to local market needs.

To help build this capability, more agencies should make use of the Diagonal Thinking Self-Assessment in their recruitment processes, and help discover talent from a wider pool than just the white, middle class.

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor to 23 Red. He tweets @hamishpringle

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