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Talent Advertising Association Agency Culture

Want real change at your agency? Leave your recruitment comfort zones

By Sophie Brooks, Managing director

Tug Agency


Opinion article

March 31, 2022 | 7 min read

Diversity of representation in media products has rightly been a priority in recent years. But the data shows that diversity among the people making those products – along lines of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and other axes – lags behind. Sophie Brooks, managing director at Tug Toronto, argues that addressing those failings isn’t just the right thing to do; it’ll also make your work (and workplace) better.

Tug on how and why the recruitment process needs to be shaken up.

Tug on how and why the recruitment process needs to be shaken up

A year ago, the All in Census confirmed what advertising professionals already knew: the industry’s diversity and inclusion problem is serious and widespread. Following the public sharing of agency employment data in 2020, the report revealed inequalities across the board; with 60% of senior roles held by men, a mere 7% of C-suite leaders identifying as LGBTQ+, only 9% of workers defining as having disabilities, and ethnic minorities making up just 16% of the workforce.

However, some progress has since been made. The Advertising Association (AA), for example, has launched a three-point Action Plan, recently adding new goals for promoting female, Asian and older talent, while the Publicis Media Once & For All Coalition has declared a mission to increase support and spend for diverse and minority media outlets.

But while this is all a step in the right direction, it’s still not enough. Tackling these issues shouldn’t just depend on the work of diversity organizations and officers. Until agency teams are built differently, change won’t go far. To achieve this, agencies need to get out of their comfort zone and look beyond the usual talent to recruit new voices from different areas and backgrounds.

Shake off the city mindset

Traditionally, agencies have looked for people who can access offices typically found in major cities, yet doing so restricts agency talent choice. Metropolises are expensive places to live – especially popular creative and ad industry hubs such as New York, London, Sydney and Toronto.

Hiring based on location therefore puts opportunities out of reach for those from underprivileged backgrounds or people just starting out in their careers. The knock-on effect of excluding these valuable candidates is that the diminishing talent pool shrinks even further — no wonder 56% of chief marketers believe a skills shortage is holding the ad industry back. But such barriers can be easily addressed by lifting hiring limitations on where staff are based.

Accelerated by the pandemic, uptake of remote and hybrid working has not only benefited wellbeing and productivity, but also inclusivity. By offering flexible working, agencies can expand hiring horizons and increase access for a greater array of skilled, innovative and diverse candidates. At Tug, for instance, embracing hybrid work has allowed us to launch an internship program for indigenous Canadians and immigrants, who are too often excluded from typical city-based digital careers.

Give space to diverse voices

Recruiting from a variety of communities and groups isn’t just about hitting diversity quotas and bolstering an agency’s image.

Continued poor representation of female, Black, Asian, mixed race and queer workers in agency teams often means client campaigns fall flat. For example, it’s highly likely the creative output from a team made up solely of white, straight men would fail to resonate authentically on topics such as racial and queer equality. The outcome is that consumers feel spoken over, rather than spoken to. With that in mind, agency teams that cannot deliver work that resonates with the population due to their own lack of representation face a big problem when trying to deliver against brand KPIs.

Some agencies – including the UK’s Brand Advance and Canadian outfit Ethnicity Matters – are working to rectify this by recruiting a diverse workforce with the capabilities to reach a full spectrum of cultures. There is, however, room for every agency to also follow this model. Implementing unbiased practices – such as erasing the name, age, gender and religion of an individual from CVs – will ensure the best candidates are selected. From there, representation can be considered as a factor in employment decisions; allowing brilliant candidates to enter firms and work their way to the top.

Extend the welcome, permanently

Pouring effort and investment into getting diverse talent through the door won’t pay off without the right support once they’re actually in. Again, All In Census data shows retention is a sizeable challenge for several minorities: Black, Asian, disabled and female talent frequently come up against discrimination that forces them out of the industry; with 32%, 27%, 22% and 15% respectively likely to leave because of bad experiences.

Establishing fair career pathways is an obvious priority, but it’s also critical to provide safe spaces. In the case of Tug, that has involved setting up committees for various groups, including female workers. Alongside giving individuals the freedom to discuss workplace concerns – without anxiety about possible negative ramifications – these initiatives facilitate mutual support and development between people at every level. We view it as a virtuous circle where employees help each other grow and advance, which increases the chances they will stay and lead the company forward.

The last few years have brought much-needed focus on powering the change we want to see in advertising and marketing through client work. Greater determination to represent diverse communities through ads and allocate spend to independent, minority-owned media is fantastic. But it’s critical to pay the same level of attention to the people behind the creative. Agencies striving to drive much faster and lasting change must leave their comfort zone and adopt new approaches to recruitment that will enhance access, opportunities and ongoing inclusion for diverse talent.

Talent Advertising Association Agency Culture

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