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Why maximising diversity is a business imperative as well as a moral imperative for the advertising industry

Tuesday 28th August

At a recent diversity seminar at the IAB, speakers discussed the need to create and increase opportunities for BAME people to enter and thrive in the advertising sector and what they are doing within their organisations to address the ethnic diversity imbalance in the creative industry workforce.


From a commercial perspective, Akama Davies, head of Brand Performance at Oath, put it simply:

– The world is diverse

– A more inclusive organisation will allow us to appeal to more diverse audiences

– Advertisers want to reach those diverse audiences

– We sell more ads

– We become more successful

But given that we know all this, why is the creative industry landscape still dominated by white male boards? Research released by the IPA at the start of 2018 revealed that a mere 4.7% of C-Suite positions are occupied by people of BAME background. The proportion of women achieving C-suite roles has scarcely increased in the past year, going from 30.3% in 2016 to 30.9% in 2017. The Adobe study, Creativity’s Diversity Disconnect, demonstrated that whilst nearly all creatives (87%) say a diverse workforce should be an industry priority, only half of respondents (54%) believe diversity in the creative industry has improved, compared with 5 years ago.

A comment from Nicola Kemp in a recent article for Campaign reflects this sentiment While the advertising industry has no shortage of words when it comes to admiring its well-documented diversity problems, tangible solutions to move the dial are harder to find.’

 The imbalance of BAME people in the creative advertising industries has led to numerous examples of brand missteps and tone deaf creative. The notorious Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad in which the supermodel dissolves tensions between police and protestors with a can of Pepsi criticized for co opting protest movements for profit, Nivea’s campaign with the tagline ‘white is purity’ and the Dove ad featuring a black woman turning into a white woman following use of the lotion are amongst several misguided promotional campaigns that have sparked global outrage. Would these misjudged adverts have been produced if there had been racial and ethnic diversity in the organisations from which these adverts sprung?


That’s not to say that the problem is unacknowledged and no good work is being done. Ally Owen – a former exec at the likes of Unruly, MailOnline and Yahoo – has founded Brixton Finishing School, offering young people from BAME/underrepresented backgrounds a free 12-week course in digital, advertising and marketing skills. 18 – 25 year olds who do not have a University education will be able to learn from talents at big names in the industry such as magazine publisher Hearst UK, Time Inc, advertising giants WPP and McCann London.

The technology giant HP has a well-established commitment to improving diversity within its in-house teams and agencies. In 2016, HP insisted its principal agencies begin appointing more women and people of colour to positions of influence on its account. Since then the company has reported that 61% of those working on its account worldwide are now women, a huge 20% increase. Diageo has developed a four-part diversity framework that aims to tackle representation, perception, agency relationships and characterisation as the drinks company seeks to advance change and shift away from relying on stereotypes as a shortcut for building content. And the Channel 4 Diversity in Advertising Award focuses on a different area of diversity each year to encourage the advertising industry to embrace inclusive creative campaigns.

These are some examples of organisations not just communicating a pro-diversity message but taking proactive steps to instill an adaptive and accepting culture where all voices, opinions and experiences are valued. Introducing company structures and frameworks to ensure we attract and retain people from a diverse pool, training on unconscious bias and structural inequality and mentoring programs are just some of the ways to help in changing the industry landscape and create more inclusive work spaces within which we will all thrive and produce better creative work.

The drive to improve workplace diversity is there, particularly amongst a millennial generation who cite a diverse and inclusive workplace as an important factor in a job search. But the progress lacks momentum. Having an inclusive and flexible approach to talent drives success and stronger work, and without diverse teams the creative industry will not keep pace with our changing society. As Adobe principal designer Khoi Vinh succinctly stated, ‘Diverse forces you to create better products, better outcomes. We should all be moving towards this.’

Article Written by

Isabelle James

International Media Executive, Total Media

Isabelle is a French and Spanish graduate and is working for the first time in the media industry. As a member of the international team, Isabelle has been excited by the opportunities to use her language skills in her work and in speaking with her international colleagues.

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