An open letter to adland: How we can show people from all backgrounds this industry is for them too

Picture this. It’s Monday morning and you arrive at work as normal. You walk through the front doors and see the receptionist, who is black. You then make your way past the agency trophy cabinet and see a delivery guy, who is also black. So far, so good. Nothing really out of the ordinary. Oh, you may have passed a security guard if you work at one of the big, fancy places – he’s black too.

Where were we? Ah yes, so as you make your way past the planners, around client services, across account handling and into creative, it suddenly dawns on you that pretty much every single person in the building is black. Every department. Every floor. Every desk. Every chair. Every nook. Every cranny. A sea of black faces.

Imagine that. Scary huh?

And not just because they are black (feel free to replay the events with the faces all being Asian if you like), it's because it’s a scene so wholly unrepresentative of the world we live in today. Like being trapped in a parallel world – a hermetically sealed homogeneous bubble.

And this, I’m afraid to say, is pretty much what it’s like for any person from a minority background working in a creative agency in the UK today.

It genuinely astonishes me that an industry, allegedly at the zeitgeist of all things cultural, in fact, inhabits a world that is so monocultural.

Okay, so this isn’t anything new, it isn’t something revelatory. We all know this problem exists and is a massive problem in the advertising and creative worlds, from the bottom right to the top. Walk into any agency and I guarantee you there are very few, if any, creative directors, executive creative directors or chief executives of colour, which has an enormously dispiriting effect on minorities currently working in the industry and those looking to get into it. Whatever anyone says, the glass ceiling, I’m afraid, is still firmly in place.

And so, as someone who isn’t white and isn’t a chief executive or HR director or on a diversity board, I’d like suggest a way I honestly think we can change the current state of affairs.

And just to let you know upfront, I’m going to use the term ‘people of colour’, as that’s what we are. And ‘BAME’ is without a doubt the biggest dollop of a shit acronym in the world of acronyms.

So let me explain why I want to get more people of colour into agencies.

Firstly, and perhaps a selfish reason I admit, but I'm really bored of being the only face of colour in the office, meetings, pitches, lunches, football team, men’s toilet and drinks at the pub.

Secondly, it makes life more interesting. It creates more discussion and as a result will push the quality of the work and thus…

Thirdly, it makes perfect business sense.

And fourthly, it means we get more variety of ‘exotic’ bites at the agency ‘bring a lunch dish’ event. This is most important.

So what can we do?

We have to tell young people that advertising exists and it is open to a broad range of people, from different backgrounds with differing talents.

I had no idea what an art director or copywriter was when I was 16. Of course I was aware of advertising as a ‘thing’ but it was never explained to me properly.

If someone had told me that you could have a career where you are called 'a creative', that people bought your ideas and these were then brought to life, I would have jumped at the chance.

Last year I did a talk to around 25 youngsters aged between 15-18. They were all from lower income families and the majority from minority backgrounds. I showed them the Thierry Henry Sky Sports ad I made, and explained the process. How the brief came in from Sky, how I wrote the ad, how we chose the brilliant Scott Lyon to direct it, how we pre-vised the advert, filmed it over in Barcelona, the post-production magic at Electric Theatre Collective and finally choosing the music.

I can honestly say, hand on my heart, every single one of those kids' eyes in the room lit up.

And let me assure you, it wasn’t because of my smooth delivery, which I was secretly devastated about. They responded because no one had ever explained to them that this is how you make an advert, the amazing journey you go on, the excitement of seeing your ideas come to life and satisfaction when you hear people saying how much they enjoyed it.

But also, and importantly, they responded because I am 'like them'. If you see someone ‘like you’ your self esteem instantly rockets, you have a sense that you can do it too. It's important we always remember that children and teens notice when people who look like them are not represented or depicted as less important.

At the end of my talk almost all of them came up to me and asked questions on the ad, what it was like working with Thierry, my own background and how they could get into advertising.

I was honest and told them that it’s tough out there. It’s a fast-paced profession where you are constantly being judged, need a thick skin and where you are only as good as your last piece of work. But I could see this was music to their ears. Remember, many of these kids have had to deal with adversity, had to be quick thinkers from a young age and resourceful and have not had the privilege of many of the white, middle classers in our profession.

These are the types of individuals who have something very special. They have rich, multiple cultural viewpoints of the world. What could be better than a myriad of opinions, perspectives and thought processes when trying to crack a tricky brief?

I believe it’s these guys who would make a massive difference to the profession and create work that is truly representative of the world we live in.

So here’s my plan, and I’d be forever grateful if you would climb on board.

I have set up an initiative called 8 (currently only 8 per cent of senior positions in ad land are held by those from minority backgrounds) and I invite all creatives, creative directors and executive creative directors to give up an hour of your time, twice a year to visit a school or college and talk about what you do. Show the ads you’ve made. Talk about a shoot. Where you’ve travelled to. The amazing, and not so amazing, directors you’ve worked with. If you’re over 50 tell them about the long lunches and short working hours you used to enjoy. And if you’re feeling brave, answer some of their questions.

That’s it.

It doesn’t seem like much, but I’m certain this is the most effective starting point in creating a more balanced, diverse, interesting and fun industry.

And in doing so, eight will become nine, will become 10, will become 11…

To sign up please visit www.8AndRising.com.

Indy Selvarajah wrote and created the Channel 4 TV show 'Ain't It Funny Being Coloured?' and the Thierry Henry 'Time Traveller' Sky Sports ad, both featured someone of colour. He tweets @IndySelvarajah.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.