Monday, November 12, 2012

10722: U.K. Mirrors U.S. Dearth Of Diversity.

Campaign published an essay on the dearth of diversity in the advertising industry in the U.K.—and U.K. could easily have been swapped with U.S. That is, it’s the same old bullshit, except delivered with a British accent.

Jonathan Akwue—who participated in the Media Citizens video series spotlighted here last June—examined the problem with the standard thoroughness of a concerned citizen. At least Akwue had the courage to tie class and privilege to the conversation. Yet the perspective ultimately regurgitated contrived “solutions” and clichéd thinking. As always, the field boasting innovative idea masters is rendered absolutely ignorant by its cultural cluelessness.

The stereotypical fixes featured minority scholarships and attempts to reach out to underserved youth—because, by golly, there are no people of color over the age of 12 that might be qualified for or interested in pursuing an advertising career.

An initiative by Beattie McGuinness Bungay—called Ad Scheme—allowed applicants “seven-minute Skype chats with a randomly assigned BMB panel.” Over 400 interviewees played along for the inaugural event last year. Akwue praised the effort, but is granting someone seven minutes really the best way to foster diversity? White advertising executives have to realize it will take much more than that to seriously address matters. As the U.S. has come to admit, finding candidates is just part of the answer—creating environments that will make people want to stay is a bigger challenge. Opening the doors for seven-minute intervals actually sounds a tad insulting and uninviting.

Sir John Hegarty was also mentioned in the piece. Honestly, Hegarty exhibits all the classic characteristics of an Old White Guy and latent racist. Okay, let’s go with passive bias for the sensitive White folks who might take offense to being labeled racist. Then again, here is a man who has suddenly embraced inclusiveness after spending decades gleefully perpetuating exclusivity. When the opportunity to connect with non-Whites appeared, Hegarty’s agency literally did not show up. These morons wouldn’t even give seven seconds.

Akwue’s essay was titled, “Adland must think creatively to bolster diversity.” This is correct—and at some point, someone will hopefully proceed to devise tactics beyond the hackneyed, half-assed schemes of delegating diversity. White advertising people unwilling or unable to be fully engaged and completely committed to the cause are totally useless. Educating minorities to the possibilities must be balanced with enlightening White people to the realities. Cultural cluelessness must be replaced with cultural competence.

Until change happens across the board, expect our peers in the U.K. to run true to form and produce minority internship programmes, Dukes and Duchesses of Diversity, HRH IAM, Buckingham BrandLab and “Where Are All The Black Brits?”

Adland must think creatively to bolster diversity

More needs to be done to increase diversity in the industry, but there are many examples of progress, according to Jonathan Akwue.

Let’s face it: in the UK, we are still hung up about class and privilege. It may not be discussed as much as the weather but, even in 2012, it remains a uniquely British preoccupation.

At last month’s Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister David Cameron sought to combat the claim that his Government is run as an Etonian old boys’ club by asserting that his aim was not to defend “privilege” but “spread it”. This led to a PR stunt by the luxury retailer Fortnum & Mason, which created a limited-edition plum and claret “Privilege Spread”, described as “a recipe that instantly solves Mr Cameron’s conundrum of how to spread privilege”.

Joking aside, discussions surrounding class and privilege are often linked to the thorny topics of equality, diversity and discrimination. The ongoing debate about racism in football demonstrates that these issues are often contentious and controversial.

Within the advertising and communications industries, the discussion is generally more muted. While the casual sexism and racism portrayed in the TV series Mad Men may have been acceptable in the past, these days the overriding emotion seems to be guilt. Many of the advertising industry leaders I’ve spoken to are acutely aware that their agencies don’t reflect the diversity of modern Britain and they are embarrassed about it.

In some ways, the UK industry has pioneered equality issues. For example, Wacl has been in existence since 1923 and currently consists of 130 of the most senior women in the UK’s marketing communications industry.

In other areas, the industry has been slow to catch up. It wasn’t until 2003 that the IPA Ethnic Diversity Group published its first major collaborative work on the topic, examining the employment, portrayal and economic value of minority groups.

The IPA’s most recent report was published last month to coincide with the release of the first 2011 Office of National Statistics Census figures. This provided a more up-to-date picture of the ethnic media landscape, but also provoked headlines in this magazine such as “Adland neglects ethnic consumers”. Cue more hand-wringing, introspection and guilt.

I wanted to take a different approach. Instead of focusing on where the industry is failing, I wanted to highlight examples that are starting to change things for the better. This is not because I believe the problem is insignificant — I just think that inspiration may be a better motivator than guilt.

Diversity as a creative challenge

I’ve often wondered how the advertising industry would tackle the diversity issue if a client posed the challenge as a creative brief. One agency that has adopted an innovative approach is Beattie McGuinness Bungay. In 2011, it launched the Ad Scheme as an attempt to broaden the pool of applicants to the agency. As BMB puts it: “For an industry that talks loud and reaches many, the net it casts to find the people to drive it on is narrow and predictable.”

As part of its mission to address the issue, BMB set aside one day last year in which any applicant, be they “grad, non-grad, Martian or Womble”, could have a seven-minute Skype chat with a randomly assigned BMB panel. More than 400 people played this game of interview roulette within a 16-hour period. The agency was so pleased with the response that it is doing it again on 22 November.

The power of ideas

In 2003, Robin Wight, the Engine president, established The Ideas Foundation. This helps identify and nurture creatively gifted young people from disadvantaged backgrounds through the award of creativity scholarships. I joined the board a year later and have remained on it since.

The charity is backed by many of the industry’s top agencies and, over the past decade, has worked with young people in schools across London and the North-West of England. More recently, it developed an online platform called “I Am Creative”. This enables brands such as BT, Barclaycard, E.ON and Aviva to sponsor briefs that young people respond to. A panel of professionals judge each brief, with the winner receiving a prize and a work-experience placement.

Moving forward, The Ideas Foundation is exploring the feasibility of setting up a new free school to teach creativity to young people who have been excluded from mainstream education.

An ideas meritocracy

I did hear a counterintuitive perspective when I spoke to Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland recently. He pointed out that, in his view, it wasn’t surprising advertising had taken a while to attract ethnic minorities because the industry is so flakey that no first-generation immigrant in their right mind would want to join it. Instead, they would naturally veer towards more established professions such as accountancy or medicine, leaving it to the second or third generations to indulge their creative impulses. He may have a point.

As Sir John Hegarty points out, advertising should be a meritocracy where the people with the best ideas succeed. This seems to be reflected in some younger agencies. For example, the creative department at Engine’s social media unit, Jam, looks like an ad for the United Colors of Benetton. Wayne Deakin, an affable Australian executive creative director, leads the team alongside Chris De Abreu, a Brazilian creative director. Jam’s creative output clearly benefits from their global perspective.

Getting the advantage

Few would deny that “social capital” goes a long way in this industry. Having the right connections, often gained by attending the “right” university, provides distinct advantages. The youth engagement agency Livity has partnered with Google to address this issue.

Over the past three years, they have developed the Advantage programme to give young people from less advantaged backgrounds eight weeks’ training and experience in digital campaign management. Completion of the free course leads to fully paid 12-month digital marketing apprenticeships at some top UK companies.

This year, for the first time, Advantage is running alongside Google’s own agency graduate scheme. This means both groups share industry-leading guest speakers and participants support each other and exchange ideas.

Diversity in advertising

BMB’s Ad Scheme, The Ideas Foundation and Livity’s Advantage are three examples of how the industry is proactively responding to the challenge. There are many others I could have drawn upon.

On 13 November, I will be debating these issues at the IPA with Hegarty, Wight and Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. The event will also launch the documentary Diversity In Advertising, made by Clever Peeps, Media Citizens and The Ideas Foundation.

One could argue that all of these developments are just drops in the ocean, but I see them more like stones. Stones create ripples. Ripples make waves.

Jonathan Akwue is the global client managing director at Engine.

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