It was only a couple of years ago that a leading agency executive hosted an end-of-year event for UK media owners during which he gave an expletive-filled presentation at the expense of various people in the audience, including a female member of his staff who was reduced to tears and a senior broadcasting figure who was mocked over his looks.
The rogue executive soon exited when news of the scandal threatened to break but it was symptomatic of a bigger problem in the media industry. Too many people, particularly in the clubby, senior echelons, were willing to put up with bad behaviour for too long.
Attitudes are changing, but progress is still slow. "Every time you talk to BAME people, women, people with disabilities, they talk about the glacial pace of change," Sir Lenny Henry told the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge last year.
More than 40% of the population are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background in London, where most media businesses are headquartered, yet the proportion of BAME people working in these companies is far lower.
"As an industry, we are servants of the population at large. If we’re not connected with the people in our society, we do a disservice to both ourselves and to society," Dominic Carter, chief commercial officer of News UK, the owner of The Sun and The Times, writes in an article for the Advertising Association’s latest Advertising Pays report.
Carter, one of only a handful of sales chiefs from a BAME background in UK advertising, points out: "The world is diverse" and "changing really quickly" and "we need to reflect this diversity" because otherwise brands won’t be able to "communicate effectively".
The media sector ought to be a leader when it comes to championing diversity. No industry is more aware of the power of image to influence behaviour for commercial gain. Yet agencies and media owners rank little better than average when compared with the UK’s working population.
The most recent IPA diversity survey found 13.8% of agency employees came from a BAME background and just 5.5% in the C-Suite. Similarly, Ofcom reported that 13% of staff are BAME at the big five UK broadcasters and 9% of senior leaders.
Progress has been particularly slow in positions of power because top executives tend to recruit in their own image and perpetuate the status quo.
As Karen Blackett, UK country manager of WPP, said when she spoke alongside Henry at the RTS: "Privilege is invisible to those that have it and it’s really difficult [for people from white, wealthier backgrounds who are in the majority] to understand what it feels like when you’re a minority in the industry."
Faster change requires companies to put diversity at the heart of their business and for senior leaders to be held accountable in the same way that they are responsible for revenue and profit growth.
An advertising or media leader who fails to hit financial targets faces "repercussions" but too often the same cannot be said for missing diversity targets, as Blackett pointed out to the RTS audience. That is why measurement is critical to monitor progress. Media companies must improve their collection of employee data – something that is still patchy, partly because it can depend on voluntary disclosures by staff.
All this requires a change in mindset: a recognition that diversity in all its forms will lead to greater creativity and be good for business, rather than a problem or obstacle.
Alex Mahon, chief executive of Channel 4, who has made diversity a priority and voluntarily disclosed additional information such as the company’s ethnicity pay gap in its annual report, says: "The answer is never that the talent isn’t there. It’s you haven’t made the criteria right, you haven’t looked hard enough or you’re not prepared to take the risk."
And lack of diversity inside a company has consequences, from the way news organisations have reported on Meghan Markle to the M&C Saatchi board’s handling of its accounting woes.
Look harder and it’s obvious: diverse companies stay relevant.