Burnout is forcing people from underrepresented backgrounds out of adland

Creative workers from underrepresented backgrounds are having to work twice as hard to prove they’re more than a ‘diversity hire,’ and it’s resulting in burnout and a mass exodus of diverse talent from the industry. Mike Reed, founder of Reed Words, explores how people at the top can remove some of the burdens.

“I feel burnt out.” We’ve all heard this from someone at some point. But this time, I was hearing it from a young copywriter (I’ll call her M) less than a year into her first job. I was shocked: already?

M explained that she was one of only two people of color at her agency, and the only Asian face. That created a whole extra set of challenges on top of her ‘regular’ responsibilities.

“I feel there’s a need to prove yourself twice as hard,” she told me. “I don’t want to be seen like I was a token hire, so I feel like I have to prove I’ve got what it takes – and more. I over-exert myself in that way.”

Not only that, but M was also conscious of a responsibility – unbidden but inescapable – to be a standard-bearer for diversity. To try to help level the playing field.

“One half of me really wants to address the diversity issue, and make changes,” she said. “But another part of me feels like I need to dedicate my time to learning my craft, and networking, and pursuing my career. Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”

It was obvious M was facing multiple pressures that simply don’t exist for other people. And by “other people” I mean white people, men, those with the ‘right sort of accent’ and especially those who tick all three of those boxes. People, let’s face it, like me. I’m the elephant in this room.

Getting the job is just the beginning

Most people are aware that it’s harder for women and people of color to break into our industry (and all the others). Securing a first agency job is a real victory, but I hadn’t properly understood all the extra work that someone like M ‘wins’ in that victory.

All that work is essentially invisible. It’s not in the job description and it doesn’t show up on timesheets. It doesn’t earn overtime, or bonuses – you just have to do it and not complain.

I was shocked by M’s story – and then by how shocked I was. The reality should have been obvious. It’s not enough just to open the doors to people from diverse backgrounds. We have also to make working life itself more equitable – and therefore less exhausting – for them.

My field and the minefield

I first met M when I gave a talk for Brixton Finishing School, a grassroots organization in London that creates pathways into creative careers for young people of diverse backgrounds. M was at that talk, as was another aspiring copywriter I’ll call P.

P, a young Black woman, also went on to win a great job soon after graduating. And like M, she also described an environment with all the usual pressures – plus some extra. Especially around the issue of diversity itself.

“I always want to push for diversity in any campaign I’m on,” P said. “But as a Black woman, especially in a team of predominantly white men, it can be uncomfortable to do so – especially if you’re the only one who brings this topic up. Plus, this is your first job and you want to fit in. It can get in your head and make it a very difficult topic to broach.”

That was a wake-up call to me. As the middle-aged white man, it can feel awkward to speak out about diversity, but leaders, whatever their own heritage, have to grasp this nettle. It’s not fair to leave it to already isolated people of color in less influential roles. (The Advertising Association’s 2021 All In survey revealed that just 1% of adland’s Black talent is in C-suite positions. That’s three times less than the already shameful national figure of 3%.)

Talking to these two young creatives, it was clear they both expended a lot of energy and anxiety navigating a minefield of hazards that simply don’t exist for me. For me, the minefield is just a field. It’s up to me, and others like me, to make it that way for everyone.

Creating change

To understand what can be done, I speak to two remarkable campaigners: Ally Owen, the founder of Brixton Finishing School, and Duro Oye, who founded the youth empowerment organization 20/20 Change.

Owen isn’t surprised by what I’d heard. As a young woman starting out in advertising, she says, it took her a while to realise she was jumping through a lot more hoops than others.

As well as being a woman, she was also “not posh” – which set her apart from virtually all her solidly middle-class (and generally male) colleagues. “In fact,” she grins, “I thought I’d get extra credit for the fact I’d worked harder than everybody else to get there.” She didn’t, of course.

The burnout M had described, Owen reveals, is widespread. “The dropout rate at about 18 months or two years is really, really high.”

She says it is likely because these workers are pioneers for people from their background. “You’ll be experiencing microaggressions your colleagues aren’t aware of. It’s unlikely that, as a pioneer, you’ve got a safe space or colleagues to talk to. Maybe you’re perceived as some kind of ‘diversity hire’ – which is bullshit. You’re there because of your talent – and are probably more talented than most, because it was harder for you to get in. But now it’s harder for you to get on. No wonder people drop out.”

This reminded me of Zoe Scaman’s article, ‘Mad Men. Furious Women,’ in which she wrote: “The younger [women] are burning out, while the older ones (old in agency-land is apparently mid-30s) are either being booted out or saying ‘fuck this shit.’”

She continued: “The energy it takes to play along, to pretend it’s all just ‘banter’ – whilst also watching your every move and every word, in case you come across as too meek, too brash, too abrasive, too confident, not confident enough, too sensitive, or just ‘too much’ requires superhuman strength.”

Action, not words

The problem is clear. So what do we do about it? Oye is forthright. “Everyone’s put together their D&I groups and stuff,” he says, “but from the feedback we get, it’s all just lip service. There’s no action. The people who really should be involved – the leadership – aren’t. So everyone around that table is just wasting their time. We need senior people in the business, and in the industry, to really get behind this.”

Depressingly, this chimed with what I’d heard from M and P. They described ‘D&I’ initiatives that were essentially talking shops: groups of employees gathering to discuss the issue, but no leadership representation – or support. And therefore no action.

At Reed Words, we’re increasingly being asked to write D&I statements, or “work inclusion in” to brand pillars or values, but far too often, this comes across like a check-box exercise to “make sure we’re saying the right things.” As Oye points out, without serious support it’s just a nice statement or a toothless working group.

Owen believes in following the money – or lack of it. “If your D&I crew doesn’t have a budget, it’s not a real thing,” she says bluntly. “If they don’t have a KPI at board level, it’s not a real thing. If nobody on the board is bonused for sorting it out – probably not a real thing.”

She believes clients can make a critical difference: “The brand sits at the head of the table. If they decide inclusion is on the menu, everybody eats that.” If brands refused to work with agencies that aren’t acting meaningfully in this area, things would change fast.

Employ your audience

And what of the end consumer? Both 20/20 Change and Brixton Finishing School get asked to put young people forward for focus groups, because their students represent the audiences brands want to reach. But agencies aren’t recruiting these people directly.

“When you look at who agencies are recruiting, and then look at the audience they’re targeting, it doesn’t make any sense,” Oye says. “Think of how much time agencies spend on research, trying to work out what this audience wants. You could halve that just by getting people from that audience to create the work. It’s a no-brainer.”

Quite apart from the social injustice, this means agencies are denying themselves a huge reservoir of talent. As Oye says: “A lot of young people on our programs are creative by nature. And they’re looking for outlets. They might know a role exists, but they just don’t think those roles are available, or attainable, to them.”

Once again, we’re expecting underserved communities to do the hard work for us. Just writing a diversity policy and putting out job ads isn’t enough. We have to be actively building relationships with diverse communities. Organizations such as Brixton Finishing School and 20/20 Change can help agencies tap into a wealth of talent and potential outside the traditional stereotypes.

Diversity is good business

If agencies don’t get more welcoming for a broader range of people, they’ll get left behind. Oye says: “I can name 15, 20 young people from our cohorts who’ve had a taste of the industry, then said, ‘You know what? I can do this on my own.’ And they’ve gone out and started on their own.”

If we make life difficult for people like M and P, they won’t just leave. They’ll leave and become the competition. And clients, eager to tap into ‘authentic’ voices, will soon spot which is the real thing – and which is a bunch of middle-class white guys with some focus group quotes.

So for selfish as well as noble reasons, it’s time for our industry to get a lot more active in reaching out to people from diverse backgrounds. And when they join, we need to be far better at creating environments that feel the same to them as everyone else.

I’ll leave the last word to M, who put it perfectly. “I just wanna turn up and do what I do best,” she told me, “which is write. But I’ve got to write and fight off all the unconscious bias in the industry. Just let me bloody write.”

Mike Reed is founder of Reed Words.