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What does Brexit mean for the Great British Diversity Experiment?

The Great British Diversity Experiment

There is something ironic about the fact that most of the key movers and shakers in the UK’s ad industry were in continental Europe for Cannes when the biggest political earthquake of a generation hit the UK last week.

As Brexit shockwaves continue to reverberate across the globe, I’m left wondering about the implications for the Great British Diversity Experiment. For those who missed it, the experiment sought to prove that increased diversity would lead to better creative outcomes. The research and subsequent report laid out several pointers and challenges for the UK marketing industry.

However the historic vote to leave the EU does raise wider questions for the UK and the role that marketing communications plays in society. After all, Great Britain is itself an experiment in diversity. Our island nation has historically sought to accommodate people from different nations across the globe. Now it appears that for many people, enough is enough. One third of Leave voters (33 per cent) cited ‘controlling immigration’ as the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU.

While there are a number of different characteristics of Brexit voters, one set of statistics jumped out to me. According to polling by Lord Ashcroft, when taken as a whole, marginally more white voters voted to Leave the EU than remain by 53 per cent to 47 per cent. This is in contrast to two thirds (67 per cent) of those describing themselves as Asian who voted to Remain, and three quarters (73 per cent) of black voters.

Great swathes of working class voters in South Wales, the Midlands and across northern towns ignored the pleas to Remain. This pattern was mirrored in the Tory constituencies of middle England and the South West.

On Friday I was in central London – home to the majority of the UK’s advertising industry – and there was a palpable sense of shock on the streets. The reaction to the referendum result on my social media feeds was even more extreme, as many friends and colleagues from across adland exploded with rage and disappointment. But this result poses a challenge to us all. Is our industry losing touch with a large contingent of the UK public?

If we are honest, our industry has a lot in common with the so-called political elite that much of the country rebelled against. Increasing diversity within adland should enable more non-traditional voices to be heard.

Does this mean that we should pander to views that are sometimes bigoted and ill informed? Not at all. As Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed argued in his timely address at Cannes on The Future of Brands: “We can create better advertising if we can create advertising that is more progressive, and we can do this by challenging stereotypes.”

Our failure to do this during the referendum was perhaps the communications industry’s biggest missed opportunity. But as we try to push things forward, we should not lose touch with the hopes and fears of those who sit outside of the adland bubble.

To misquote David Oglivy: The customer is not a moron. She's your neighbour.

Jonathan Akwue is chief executive of Lost Boys. You can find him on Twitter @jonakwue

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