Adland still led by privately educated white men, study finds

Adland still led by privately educated white men, study finds

Advertising Diversity Taskforce research reveals that 31% of senior leaders are privately educated and only 8% are from BAME backgrounds.

Research from the Advertising Diversity Taskforce underlines the disconnect between rhetoric and reality when it comes to diversity.

The Who Are We? report, released today, is based on the biggest-ever anonymous census of the media and advertising industries. It revealed that 31% of senior leaders were privately educated, compared with the 7% national average, while only 8% of senior leaders come from black, Asian and minority-ethnic backgrounds. 

Despite the industry’s focus on diversity, only half of agency employees think companies go out of their way to hire diverse talent and 90% of respondents said they believe the best creative environments include people from a variety of backgrounds. 

Commenting on the research, Karen Blackett, WPP's UK country manager, said: "Our industry needs to evolve if we want to survive and play our fullest role in society. This report shows we have some ways to go.

"We have a huge responsibility. We set the cultural norms through the content that we create. Diversity isn’t just good for business, it will also help us to do work that makes people feel that they belong. It's good for the soul."

Sarah Jenkins, chief marketing officer at Grey London, a driving force behind the industry-wide survey, said: "Our industry has a repetitional problem that risks alienating existing staff and stopping new talent from coming to work for us. It’s our responsibility to look out [for] what’s going on and force change."

She added that the research was designed to help drive understanding of what is really going on in agencies in order to push for significant changes. "Creative environments can’t flourish without diverse talent bringing their skill and outlook to create the work that our clients’ deserve," she said.


Yet the report suggests the industry still has some way to go, with 16% of employees at UK agencies coming from BAME backgrounds. Although this figure is higher than the national average of 13%, it is considerably lower than the London BAME population of 40%.

There are signs that things are improving and that diversity initiatives are starting to cut through, with more BAME employees under the age of 24. However, only 8% of industry leaders are from BAME backgrounds, pointing to the need to ensure future progression from entry-level positions to the boardroom.

The research suggests the lack of social mobility in the ad industry is showing little signs of abaiting, with 22% of participants being privately educated – more than three times the national average of 7%. Employees under 24 also over-index on the national average, suggesting the plethora of social inclusion strategies that have been adopted by agencies have yet to gain critical momentum.

The motherhood penalty

The data also suggests that the glass ceiling may have turned to concrete, with working mothers not seeing a path to both thrive in their careers and be hands-on parents. According to the research, many women are leaving the industry once they start a family – a trend that points to the lack of compatibility with family life. Just over half (54%) of mothers return to their current companies after taking maternity leave.

Meanwhile, 80% of working mothers surveyed have flexible working, compared with less than half (43%) of working fathers who work flexibly. 

While women outnumber men until director level, at that point the trend goes into reverse – an inequality reflected in the gender pay gap across the industry.

Only 44% of those researched agreed that everyone in their organisation are paid based on ability without gender or other bias, while almost half of the women surveyed disagreed with this statement. (It is also worth noting that the study was carried out before the mandatory gender pay gap reporting.)

According to the research, this means "despite changes such as the introduction of shared parental leave, primary care for children is still largely carried out by women and in many cases it is either ending or curtailing their careers in the industry".


The research also shined a light on the industry’s ageism problem, with only 10% of the sample being over 45. This issue is particularly acute among women, with only a third of over-45s in the industry being female. 

The ad industry is also failing to represent and reflect disabled people within the workforce, with the research suggesting only 1% are registered disabled, against a UK average of 7%. More than a third (38%) of employees who are registered disabled haven’t declared it to their employer, while just 8% of respondents believe the industry is diverse in relation to disability.


On the face of it, the findings suggest LGBT representation is in line with the national average. However, LGBT organisations say that official figures often under-represent the LGBT+ population due to the fact that some people are still afraid to declare their sexuality. This could explain why a smaller percentage of women than the national average identified as LGBT in the findings and may suggest a visibility problem in the industry.

Despite the growing focus on mental well-being in the workplace, according to the research only 46% believe there is enough mental health support and awareness at their agency. The number is even lower for LGBTQ+ people (36%).  

Accelerating change

In light of the findings, in its recommendations to the industry the report urges leaders to set policy to accelerate change. It notes: "You many not be able to change people’s attitudes, but you can change behaviour. Put in place the guard rails that will ensure your agency or organisation are forcing action. Work with your HR partners to ensure all managers have diversity and inclusion training. Insist on genuinely diverse recruitment lists. Put in place mandatory reverse mentoring for your senior leadership team. 

The anonymous questionnaire was completed by 2,589 people from 15 companies across the agency landscape and was compiled and analysed by MediaCom and Grey London. 

Formed in 2017, the Advertising Diversity Taskforce is a coalition of agencies united around the goal of identifying barriers and creating solutions for the recruitment and retention of diverse talent. The agencies in the taskforce are AnalogFolk, Creature, Engine, Essence, Grey, IPG Mediabrands, Lucky Generals, MediaCom, Primesight, Wavemaker, We Are Social and Wieden & Kennedy. 

Barriers to change

Respondents identified the eight key barriers to diversity in advertising as:

1 Lack of awareness of the industry – young people have very little awareness of the industry and what it involves.

2 Low wages and high cost of living – this means entry-level roles are financially out of reach for those from less affluent backgrounds.

3 Long-hours culture – a lightening rod to eroding diversity from alienating parents to dissuading young people from entering the industry in the first place.

4 Lack of diverse role models – a lack of diversity at a senior level means diversity is not as high up the agenda as it should be.

5 Not seen as a desirable profession – this was particularly a barrier for people from some BAME backgrounds. There was also a feeling that the advertising and media industry has lost its allure as a profession and is considered less relevant and important by younger people. 

6 Advertising is still a boys' club – the industry is still viewed as a bastion of white, middle-class men with good connections.

7 Looking in the same place for talent – there is a recognition that the industry has not cast its net wide enough when looking for talent.

8 Senior people recruiting in their image – without challenging unconscious bias, the same type of people will advance. 

Removing the barriers to drive change 

Based on the findings, the cross-industry body is calling for simple steps to be taken to help drive change. These recommendations for individuals and organisations include:

• Taking personal responsibility for nurturing and developing diverse talent

• Signing up to an annual diversity audit to understand your agency better

• Creating an office space that is as open and inclusive as possible  

• Setting policies that drive change and joining the Advertising Diversity Taskforce

• Making public commitments to change

The Advertising Diversity Taskforce is today also launching the survey that will provide the data for the 2019 Who Are We? report. Any agencies wishing to take part in the census should contact

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