Diverse voices: Luke Alexander-Grose on the camera lens conundrum

Why can't the people behind the lens be as diverse as those in front of it?

The industry now needs to turn fine words about diversity into action that creates change. Campaign asked a broad range of adlanders at different career stages to share their personal stories and plot ways forward from their experiences


Whenever we talk about ethnic diversity in our industry, it’s seen as a problem, but rarely a solution. Diversity has become a buzzword that is referenced in agency manifestos and recruitment objectives, but it is a conversation that often makes us feel like we’re part of a guilty party or victimised group. 

We all know that diversity is important. The business case is indisputable and has been clearly articulated by industry leaders such as Karen Blackett

By 2045, the BAME population of the UK will be double what it is now, and it’s more important than ever to understand our society’s cultural bubbles.

When talking about diversity in our industry, we tend to pose the question: "Why can’t people from multicultural backgrounds work in our industry?" Often, we turn to those belonging to ethnic minority groups to answer this question. A question that I was going to try to answer myself, but instead, I’d like to ask a question of my own. 

A question that I call the camera lens conundrum: why can’t the people behind the lens be as diverse as the people in front of it? 

Between 2015 and 2018, BAME representation in front of the camera lens in UK advertising increased from 12% to 25%. Some sources even suggest that this percentage has increased to about 37% in 2019. 

This upwards trend of diversity in front of the lens makes sense. Brands and agencies recognise the transformation of the UK’s cultural demographic, as our cities become melting pots for multiculturalism. Already, more than 35% of Manchester and Birmingham’s population come from a minority ethnic background, while in London, the figure is about 40%.

We’re seeing more diversity in front of the camera lens because the strategists, producers and brand marketers behind the lens attempt to communicate with an increasingly diverse audience. However, the upward trend of diversity in front of the camera is not being replicated to the same degree on the other side.

While we have seen a dramatic increase in multiculturalism in ads, the diversity in the creative industry as a whole has only increased by about 0.7% to 13% year on year, according to the most recent IPA figures. 

So we’re seeing a steady increase in the junior positions in the industry, but only 5.5% of those occupying C-suite positions in our industry come from a BAME background. Furthermore, only 2% of the programmes you see on TV are produced by minority ethnic directors. 

The camera lens conundrum describes the disparity between the diversity we see in front of the camera compared with the diversity we see behind it. An insight that acknowledges the fact that we’re talking to, and portraying, a more diverse version of Britain, but not necessarily that we’re embracing one. 

This is a problem for several reasons. For one, a Lloyds study on diversity in advertising concluded that 34% of black people and 30% of Asian respondents in the UK believe that their culture is being inaccurately represented within ads. 

This is a byproduct of the camera lens conundrum and it is a worrying statistic.

Box-ticking exercises during production tend to overlook the lack of involvement of diverse individuals during the creative and strategic development phases. 

While it could be argued that ads are merely a pastiche of society – memes, or jokes with the sole purpose of selling a product or service – we must acknowledge the wider repercussions of this disparity. 

Being seen by popular culture is only as important as being heard by it. Being a protagonist in a story doesn’t necessarily mean that you have any control over the way you’re being represented.

So, why is this happening? One of the reasons is aspiration; we aspire to people we either look like or imagine being. 

Because there is such limited diversity in the senior management of our industry, it feels unlikely that I will ever become a chief executive of an advertising agency. 

When I was younger, I looked at the music charts, famous dancers, singers and models, and I did see people like me, and they became role models. If we had more role models behind the camera, more of us would aspire to work in the creative industries. 

That doesn’t mean flooding grad-schemes and junior roles with people from multicultural backgrounds, but rather recruiting diversity in the senior roles of our agencies. Our industry is already increasingly diverse at the bottom, so we need to start looking up. 

So instead of asking, "Why can’t people from diverse backgrounds work in our industry?", instead, let’s start asking, "‘Why should they want to?"

In an economy dominated by creative side-hustlers, extortionate inner-city rents and a war against creativity in our national curriculum, finding diverse talent is a challenge. Agencies are beginning to realise this; my agency, VCCP, knows there’s work to be done and  is stepping up to this challenge through its school-engagement programme and a new entry-level scheme, called The Table, founded by Julian Douglas and Sian Richards.

Let’s change the way we talk about this issue in our industry by realising that diversity in front of the camera is only as important behind the lens. 

People from diverse backgrounds are more than their faces and bodies, they have voices and ideas as well. 

Luke Alexander-Grose is junior planner at VCCP

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