Talent Agencies Diversity & Inclusion

The problem that's eating the ad industry alive

By Sarah Williams, creative director/partner

May 5, 2016 | 6 min read

Our industry is at risk. Not just from management consultancies and procurement departments and in-house creative departments and programmatic advertising and ad blocking. We’re at risk from one of the easiest problems to solve – diversity.

No, I’m not referring to the actual discrimination lawsuits like we’re seeing with JWT or clients threatening to leave Campbell-Ewald for racial insensitivities. While those need solving as well, I’m rather pinpointing what happens when the same people from the same schools, with the same connections and same backgrounds apply the same skills to solving creative challenges. Diversity of thought is quite frankly an afterthought, and our industry slips deeper into obsolescence. Diversity is the key to brighter days ahead, by allowing us, as an industry, to solve creative problems better, faster, and for more people. It’s our best bet for future relevancy.

So how do we inspire action and urgency toward making a change? Look no further than tampons and ketchup. You may ask what the heck do these two items have in common, besides the initial “ick factor” of being in the same sentence together? For that, we turn to our friends in the scientific community.

I recently listened to a podcast called “Reply All” episode #52, entitled Raising The Bar (the section I’m referring to starts at 11:53). It specifically examines the shocking lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, and the impacts or symptoms this imposes on innovation and creativity.

As a creative director and strategist, an analogy was made during the podcast that struck me like a thunderbolt – “Where do you keep your ketchup?”

Researchers found that people from certain geographies and ethnicities always kept their ketchup in the refrigerator (they were largely Caucasian and American). People from other backgrounds and locales always kept their ketchup in the pantry (this group was largely British, African-American or from the Southern US). Why does this matter? When those who preferred the refrigerator ran out of ketchup, they would usually opt for mustard or mayonnaise instead. When those who preferred the cupboard ran out of ketchup, they would often opt for say, using malt vinegar. So as the theory goes, if you want unique ways to solve a difficult problem, whether mathematical or creative or otherwise, you need assemble a team with people who keep their ketchup in different places than you do. Yet, whether we are talking about Silicon Valley or Madison Avenue or Wall Street, when hiring or selecting teams for a project, the myth that somehow sameness is good, or even the better option, continues to persist.

Without diverse perspectives, we’re all just looking in the same old place for the same old answers, dooming us to fail. Leaning deeper into the scientific community, a paper published by Lu Hong and Scott E. Page by PNAS in 2004 found that “In an environment where competition depends on continuous innovation and introduction of new products, firms with organizational forms that take advantage of the power of functional diversity should perform well.”

Now, let’s talk tampons.

Researchers had been stumped for decades, trying to come up with a way to extract blood, painlessly. But the male-dominated field had been ignoring the obvious until Harvard Engineer Ridhi Tariyal showed them where they could’ve been looking all along – the unsung hero blood collection – the tampon. Here was a creative solution that was born not just of scientific wisdom but of life experience; a life experience of 50 per cent of the population that had not been previously leveraged or considered. Tariyal’s simple but powerful insight opened up a new world of innovation in health technology and diagnostic testing that can help identify deadly diseases in their early stages.

So how do we apply these insights to the creative industry?

Our agency recently hosted a Creative Mornings event at our space in SoHo and I was delighted to welcome in, not just a group of graphic designers, brand strategists and photographers that you might expect, but a whole host of individuals with distinct perspectives and expertise. Helping us with our design exercise were software engineers, a marine biologist, a member of the Army Corp of Engineers, and UX folks.

What struck me was the speed at which this room of complete strangers came together to collaborate, and working with the same brief, developed a wealth of distinct and plausible creative solutions. It was a sheer epiphany – and exhilarating to witness the unstoppable power of diverse perspectives working toward a common goal.

We in the communications, branding and advertising industry are at perhaps a crossroads. The good news is, this isn’t complicated. Organizational experts have been espousing the benefits of cross-pollination for decades. Keeping a cultural bias and trying to solving problems with people who are all from the background as you, will simply not yield a rich and diverse breadth of ideas and perspectives. But building diverse teams will yield better outcomes and products, and keep other industries from beating us at the very thing we pride ourselves on – creative problem solving.

Sarah Williams is creative director/partner at Beardwood & Co.

Talent Agencies Diversity & Inclusion

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