For ad-land, ignoring inclusion is bad for business

Six ways to put diversity on the agency agenda

Six ways to put diversity on the agency agenda

Over the last few months, the diversity and inclusion conversations in ad-land have been getting louder; from the initial stirrings caused by ousted JWT CEO, Gustavo Martinez, to the recent furore over comments made by the (also ousted) Saatchi & Saatchi chairman, Kevin Roberts.

It’s a hot topic, catching the attention of mainstream media publications who collated and shared numerous horror stories of the systemic and overt sexism experienced by women, in various boys’ club agencies. These things need to be said because the issue deserves attention. But expressions of outrage, a plethora of generic ‘we need to do better’ statements and a few ‘aren’t we progressive, we promoted a woman’ press releases, have not delivered definitive action.

Until this week, when a seismic shift took place that flew under the radar for most people, but which I believe is the start of a chain reaction.

On Thursday 1st September General Mills announced that they were undergoing a creative review, looking for fresh new thinking for their US advertising business; unlike the standard pitch process, they announced two pre-requisites. As part of a conscious diversity push, the cereal maker is only considering agencies with at least a 50–50 male to female split in their creative departments, whilst also stipulating that at least one fifth of the company’s creative staff is made up of people of colour. Those unable to meet those requirements, were told they need not apply.

When asked why, chief marketing officer, Ann Simonds simply stated

“If you are going to put the people you serve first, the most important thing is to live up to it and make it a key criterion.”

And it seems she’s not alone in this opinion. The same day, Hewlett Packard’s chief marketing officer, Antonio Lucio, sent out an eloquent and definitive ultimatum to his agency partners demanding the very same thing.

Each of the company’s five agencies have been asked to submit plans to show how they will increase the number of women and minorities in key creative and strategy roles. The details must be submitted within 30 days and if creative shops don’t comply then “anything is on the table,” including potential removal from HP’s roster.

On this, Lucio says

“HP thrives on innovation. Study after study confirms that innovation is improved and accelerated by broad perspectives and diversity of thought. Marketers are expected to have deep understanding and insight about their markets, about decision makers, and about customers.”

Karen Kahn, chief communications officer at HP added,

“We can’t control agencies, but [with] the kind of budgets we have in marketing and PR, we can influence with the spend we have.”

So two huge brands throw down the gauntlet and demand diversity from their agency partners, in the space of one day. Suddenly not demonstrating diversity can date and define the entire agency offering.

And they’re not the first to have spoken up and to suggest leveraging their spend to bring about change.

A while back, Brad Jakeman, President of PepsiCo Global Beverage Group, tweeted —

“If clients don’t speak out, nothing will change. Or at least, won’t change fast enough.”

Cindy Gallop echoed this, saying,

“Clients have the leverage because they are paying the fees”

And Nancy Hill, president and chief executive of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, says that one positive step marketers can take is

“demanding that the teams who work on their business reflect society”.

Their rallying cries are being heard. And those who do not listen will reap the whirlwind.

Walking into most ad agencies today it is noticeable that everyone looks the same.

Just check out some of these recent press releases about new hires or promotions; here, here and here.

As an industry, we’re standing on shaky ground with a huge amount of uncertainty surrounding our future business models, the value we can add, our ability to attract and retain interesting talent and how we can keep up with a continuously changing world.

One thing’s for sure, the current homogenous make-up of ad-land is driving a severe deficit in cultural intelligence affecting the quality of our thinking, the breadth of our ideas and our relevance outside of the ivory towers we occupy.

According to an IPA survey, in 2015, women made up 32% of those in senior positions in agencies but still only 26% of those in creative departments. The proportion of creative directors who are women is now estimated at just 14%. And according to The Drum’s Diversity Census, 86% of our industry identify as white.

Back in the real world, women make up 51% of the UK population and minorities have almost doubled, accounting for 80% of population growth.

So as contributors to culture and creators of ideas, do we really understand the people we’re trying to connect with? Or do we tend to rely on stereotypes and assumption?

It’s hard to argue with the importance of diversity and inclusion; a diverse team has a broader frame of reference, drawing from a myriad of experiences, generating more varied ideas and are more aware of their knowledge gaps, challenging themselves to explore and understand more. This has been proven time and time again; most recently in the excellent work undertaken by the team behind The Great British Diversity Experiment.

And there’s a business benefit too. Numerous studies have pointed to direct correlations between inclusion and performance. McKinsey’s ‘Why Diversity Matters’ report proves that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform others, increasing to 35% with ethnic diversity.

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t we jumping on the bandwagon and making it happen?

The short answer; because it’s difficult, it’s uncomfortable and it takes a long time.

There’s a bit more to it than hiring a few women and people of colour, putting your staff through three days of diversity training and presenting your new team at pitches, as a means of proving your progressive credentials.

Rather, it takes the weaving together of a number of small shifts that impact every aspect of agency operations, yielding big changes.

Finding the right initiatives and investing in the right areas will differ on an agency-by-agency basis, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But there are aspects all of us can be thinking about and putting in place now, to help us build towards a more inclusive ad-land in the future.

Delve into the data

Begin by collecting data to better understand what diversity current looks like in your agency. How many men and women work there? How many people of colour? At what levels? For how long? At what salaries? How are they feeling? I can guarantee that you won’t like what you see, but once you have a benchmark, then you can start to make changes and measure your progress.

This doesn’t need to be a big investment. You can send out a Survey Monkey or Google Form to gather the results.

Ditch the diversity training

The knee-jerk reaction to the rising tide of diversity awareness has been to implement some sort of diversity training, PR it and call it an improvement. Talent companies, consultancies and even the IPA are offering it, tapping into the topic du jour and productising a solution in order to broaden their portfolios.

But it doesn’t work. In fact, not only does it have zero impact on people’s attitudes and behaviours, but it can also activate bias or result in a higher level of animosity than before as highlighted in Harvard Business Review’s recent study, entitled ‘Why diversity programs fail’.

This is down to three big reasons;

1. Most training uses negative messages and can come across as remedial, resulting in people feeling defensive, threatened and just switching off.

2. Mandatory training reduces people’s feelings of autonomy and choice; people often respond to compulsory courses with a level of anger and resistance. But voluntary training evokes the opposite response (“I chose to show up, so I must be pro-diversity”)

3. Finally, there’s the phenomenon of the ‘Token’ outlined in Malcolm Gladwell’s insightful podcast, Revisionist History, which delves into the idea that when a door opens for an outsider, it usually just “gives the status quo justification to close the door again” — so when people attend diversity training, they can feel it gives them permission to be even more biased than they were before. Weird but true.

Bottom-line, diversity training is a wasted endeavour. There are far more effective ways to get the results you’re seeking.

Cultivate broader connections

I hear the same excuses from agencies again and again about the lack of women and people of colour in the talent pipeline. They claim they’d love to hire them, but just can’t find them. And to an extent, that’s true.

But rather than shrug our shoulders and say ‘hey, at least we tried’, maybe we should think about how to cultivate that pipeline so that it spits out more than just middle-class white dudes.

Building relationships with varied organisations and bodies is the simplest and best way to access a more diverse pool of talent from different backgrounds, who can bring new and interesting thinking to the table.

Here are just a few of them that you can reach out to right now:

8 And Rising — an initiative started by Indy Selvarajah, to get more people of colour in the industry talking at schools to provide more diverse role models and to inspire the next generation

Pride AM — the world’s first LGBT+ group for the advertising and communications sector

Livity — a consultancy and talent incubator that brings young people from diverse backgrounds closer to the ad industry and brands.

The Girlhood — set up by D&AD alum, Kati Russell and Teach First teacher, Natalie Rodden, with an aim to add culture and creativity to the curriculum and to create courses and content to get young girls inspired and excited to join the agency sector

The Ideas Foundation — a pioneering creative education project, which aims to teach 13–19 year olds about the creative industries and gives them an opportunity to have a go at answering a live creative brief.

Ad Colour — champions of diversity and inclusion in creative industries.

The One Club - a diverse tribe of creative thinkers and doers and a non-profit organization that pours everything they make back into nurturing a more vibrant and inspired global creative community.

Redesign recruitment

As humans, we’re terrible at evaluating people objectively. Stereotypes serve as our unconscious navigational system and when it comes to getting diverse talent through the door, this can have a major (if unintended) impact. But there are a few ways to combat this, using processes to reduce our biases.

Demand a diverse shortlist –

Most agencies use recruiters or go through recommendations from colleagues, which is great, until you realise that the same type of candidate keeps popping up. So why not try implementing The Rooney Rule — borrowed from the NFL in the US, the rule states that there must be no less than two diverse candidates on any recruitment list — and if US football can do it, so can we. Demand a candidate shortlist that includes both women and people of colour for every position.

Go in blind –

We claim we hire for ‘cultural fit’, but that can be self-reinforcing, meaning we deliberately or unconsciously weed out those who aren’t ‘like us’. A 2015 study found that candidates with black-sounding names from elite universities were as likely to be called back as those with white-sounding names from lesser schools. Other studies have found that applicants who are Muslims, mothers, gay or disabled face the same prejudice, even if employers swear they want a diverse workforce and believe they’re trying to create one. Humans are flawed, it is what it is.

That’s why there’s a spate of new software companies who aim to remove all potential prejudice from the hiring process, by hiding any details about a person other than their skills and work history. GapJumpers are one such platform, working with agencies around the world to open up the talent landscape just that little bit more.

These blind auditions, of course, are not a replacement for face-to-face interviews, but they are a great first step in the process.

Standardise the questions –

In the creative industry, we’re informal, relaxed and prefer ‘chats’ rather than interviews. We want to get to know someone on a personal level, using that as a yard stick for whether we could work well with them. And whilst this sounds good, in practice, it’s a huge barrier for diverse talent where we let our bias run rampant.

This is because, in these situations, we’re searching for commonalities; for people ‘like us’ who enjoy the same things and see life the same way. It’s what makes us comfortable and builds instant bonds. Problem being that anyone who is not ‘like us’ will be summarily discounted or marked down.

Structuring an interview so that it adheres to standardised questions and making notes against candidate responses in the moment (aka, not waiting until later when our bias may further resolve our feelings), is the best way to ensure that everyone gets a fair assessment and is evaluated against the same criteria. Again, not a perfect solution, but definitely an improvement.

Adopt new ways of working

Two years ago, Facebook proposed a system to make its workforce less universally white or Asian and male. The plan was to incentivise its in-house recruiters to hire diverse candidates, literally giving them more points for Hispanic, black and/or female candidates. Unfortunately, the gains for more female employees are marginal and the racial makeup of the company hasn’t changed, so the method can be deemed a failure.

Why? Because they missed one big thing — when companies recruit diverse candidates and then pay no attention to ensuring the workplace welcomes them, those candidates won’t contribute to the best of their ability, and they certainly won’t stick around for long. In fact, in the case of Facebook, more blacks and Hispanics have left the company in the last year than they’ve managed to hire.

New ways of working that focus on increased collaboration, support and autonomy are good for everyone, but here’s why they can be especially helpful when fostering a more inclusive environment…

Egalitarian meeting formats -

How many times have you been in a meeting where the voices and opinions of a few drown out the voices and opinions of everyone else? I certainly have. Gathering teams together for meetings when there’s no specific agenda, no format to stick to and no clear objectives results in inefficiency and chaos and tends to reward those that shout the loudest.

Thankfully, there are better ways to do it that allow all voices to be heard and everyone to feel that they’re on equal footing — a crucial box to tick for inclusion.

Here are just a few tools and meeting planners that I highly recommend you to try:

How Modest runs tactical meetings


Responsive decision-making

Enabling self-managed teams –

Contact between different groups can significantly lessen bias, after all, you’re being exposed to real people and not the stereotypes. For this reason, self-managed teams, which allow people in different roles and functions to work together on projects as equals, are invaluable when it comes to creating a more inclusive workplace. Specialties within agencies are still largely divided (i.e. more men in creative, more women in account handling, not enough people of colour in any department), so utilising self-managed, cross discipline teams helps to bring those people into the same space; creating, debating, learning and reaching toward the same outcome.

It’s a far less comfortable way of working that staying in homogenous teams and requires a lot of patience, empathy and active listening…but it works wonders once you’ve got the ball rolling.

Offer universal mentoring -

In agencies, we don’t offer mentoring enough. We talk about it but rarely implement it. Or, if we do, one session will take place and then it will fall out of the diary due to prioritising pitches, client meetings and laziness.

But mentoring has a critical role to play in inclusion, especially when creating paths to leadership for women and people of colour. It offers support and an advocate for mentees and helps to chip away at the biases held by managers/mentors.

As research from Harvard Business Review states —

“In teaching their protégés the ropes and sponsoring them for key training and assignments, mentors help give their charges the breaks they need to develop and advance. The mentors then come to believe that their protégés merit these opportunities — whether they’re white men, women, or minorities. That is cognitive dissonance — “Anyone I sponsor must be deserving” — at work.”

Revisit what good looks like

The final hurdle to building a diverse agency is the most important and the most challenging to overcome.

It’s based on the traits we align with success and the behaviours we reward.

For too long we’ve praised cultures that glorify insane-hours and sleep deprivation. Assumed that the only way to show our ambition and dedication is to be available at the drop of a hat or ensure that we’re the last to leave the office. We tout the line ‘no dickheads here’, yet we applaud bravado and ego. We want a team effort but revere the ‘rockstars’. We need to be culturally in-tune, but we rarely explore beyond the confines of our open-plan spaces or the comfort of the nearest coffee shop.

How can we build towards openness and inclusivity when we’re hell-bent on creating working environments that cultivate macho masochists? When we communicate in no uncertain terms that in order to get ahead, a certain amount of self-flagellation is required, is it really any wonder that we’re hemorrhaging good people and struggling to attract them too?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy path to navigate away from this, but there are a few things we can do…

Advocating new behaviours -

Traditionally, the behaviours that are encouraged in a workplace (read: agency) have played firmly into male descriptive stereotypes; direct, assertive, rational, objective, loud.

With female descriptive stereotypes seen as softer and less desirable; caring, warm, deferential, emotional, sensitive, and so on

But as more and more women are rising into leadership positions, this is beginning to change and that’s a good thing. These so-called “soft” behaviours are significantly more likely to contribute towards a working environment that fosters diversity and inclusion, because they all ladder up to the most critical trait of all — empathy.

I’ve written about the importance of empathy within organisations before, but it’s especially relevant in this case. Empathy is a prerequisite when it comes to building relationships with people that are different to you, it helps you to actively listen and be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices.

So when it comes to the values you espouse within your agency and the behaviours you seek out and reward, ensure that empathy is top of your list.

Flexible working for everyone -

The term ‘flexible working’ has no specific definition but it’s essentially any working pattern that is different from norm; part-time, job-share, remote, reduced hours and a variety of other arrangements.

Traditionally, flexible working has been offered to mothers with young children, but that’s changing now. Advances in technology, demographic shifts and increased mobility mean that flexibility is in more demand than ever and presenteeism is rapidly becoming irrelevant.

The rise of the ‘portfolio career’ is also a factor, with people working on side projects or trying to grow a business; they’re approaching the concept of work in a different way.

But whilst attitudes are progressing outside of the industry, not much is changing within it.

In fact, within the marketing, advertising and PR sectors, just 2% of vacancies offer flexible working options.

And it’s because old stigmas still prevail — with many seeing those on flexible working arrangements as less committed, less reliable or just on ‘the mummy track’.

Opening up flexible working options to everyone can and will result in a much wider and diverse pool of talent (men, women, people of colour) — both attracting them and retaining them. It’s a no-brainer.

The ground is shifting when it comes to the priority being placed on diversity and inclusion within ad-land. It’s no longer an altruistic and moral choice. It’s now a business imperative.

If agencies remain in a state of inertia and fail to make positive and significant steps towards making their offerings more heterogeneous then there’s no doubt that it will result in their rapid decline into irrelevance; impacting new business, the quality of the work and their ability to compete for talent.

Undoubtedly it’s a tough, long and sometimes uncomfortable process — but given what’s at stake, I’d suggest that you start right now.