June Sarpong on why the creative industries must take a lead on diversity and equality

Research shows that businesses with a diverse workforce do better than those who don't, so take Campaign's test to uncover the unconscious bias that could be holding your business back.

In the last year many of our major advertising agencies have realised that diversity or rather the lack of it is something that needs to be addressed in order to create authentic content that truly resonates with consumers.  

Gone are the days of the cigarette smoking "Mad Men" calling all the shots and dictating to well-heeled and perfectly manicured secretaries.

Thankfully, the industry has moved on, but there’s still a long way to go. The advertising sector realises that it needs to diversify and diversify fast. But how?

All of the research shows that businesses with a diverse workforce do better than those that don’t. Delivering Through Diversity, a recent study by McKinsey’s, examined over 1,000 companies across 12 countries and found that firms in the top quartile for gender diversity are 21% more likely to enjoy above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

Companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 33% more likely to see higher-than-average profits than companies in the lowest quartile. The evidence is clear – diversity is good for business! 

"If you fail to attract talent from the widest possible pool you concede the creative high ground to the competition"

Perhaps this is even more true for advertising as it is imperative for an industry that is all about communicating with a broad consumer base to get diversity right. We see what happens when this goes wrong. In an increasingly inter-connected world fuelled by social media, an unintentional mistake can spread globally in seconds with costly and devastating consequences. H&M, Pepsi and Dove have all experienced this recently. Reputation repair after a PR crisis is something that can take years.   

For global brands, it’s imperative to ensure teams are diverse in all territories as a misjudged campaign by a team in one territory can undo the successes of another team in a different territory. As was recently the case with Heineken, their UK team's ground breaking "Worlds apart" campaign was reflective of current social values which made it go viral for all of the right reasons. 

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the disastrous US version. Its slogan "Lighter is better" lacked cultural sensitivity and seemed to be more akin to the 19th century than in touch with today’s ‘woke’ generation. 

Is everyone in the room?

The question any agency leader has to ask is, "Is everyone in the room?" And if everyone isn’t in the room then the next question has to be, "Why?"

Most businesses including advertising tend to have tried and tested methods of sourcing talent, which leads to the same groups missing around the table and the same faces at the table. This results in missed opportunities for new creative directions.  Creativity comes from all backgrounds and cultures and if you fail to attract talent from the widest possible pool you concede the creative high ground to the competition. 

The advertising sector needs to not only be able to source diverse talent but also have the internal set up for diverse individuals to develop and flourish so that there is meritocratic progression attracting diverse talent rather than simple window dressing. To future proof the industry and prevent campaign disasters, advertising agencies should actually invest in Creative Diversity Officers who work across all the creative teams to ensure authentic story telling and representation.

The creative opportunity to #dobetter

However, there is good news on the horizon and we are seeing barriers being broken. A fantastic example of this is the recent appointment of Karen Blackett as country manager for WPP, making her one of the most powerful people in British advertising. Another refreshing case is the work Havas UK is undertaking to expand its diversity agenda.

The late African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass espoused that creatives and creators of visual content had such an important role to play in presenting a picture of a better future for us all. Douglass was the leading orator of his day at a time when orators were the equivalent to today’s rock and pop stars. However, he came to prominence at the dawn of photography and as the most photographed man of the 19th century became a visual symbol for change and challenged the limiting view people had of African-Americans at the time. Between 1861 to 1865 he wrote a series of essays that were promoted by powerful speeches on "how closely connected, the ideals of justice" were to imagery.

According to Douglas the "picture-making faculty, Is a mighty power" because it allows the observer to supplement the vision of what is for what could be or better still should be. This is also the power of advertising at its best.

In order for us to get to the point where we genuinely believe in diversity and are able to benefit from inclusion, we need to first check our Isms, then challenge them and factor those into our normal decision-making processes. To help with this, I worked with a team at Oxford University to create an ISM calculator to help individuals address unconscious bias and have now developed a version in partnership with Campaign tailored for the advertising industry.  

Click here for the ISM CALCULATOR

All of these themes are covered in my new book Diversify, which argues the social, moral and economic benefits of diversity. To visually demonstrate this, Al MacCuish and his team at the Sunshine company created a short film that looks at how the world should be through the eyes of children.

We didn’t only want the onscreen to be diverse but also the team behind the screen too. The first thing we did was hire a diverse casting agency, "Looks like me" run by Selma Nicolls, who diligently worked to ensure children cast reflected all of British society. We also hired a diverse design agency Siaw Misa run by Abuakwa Siaw-Misa.  

DIVERSIFY | June Sarpong speaks about diversity

Ultimately the advertising industry's growth – like that of all sectors – will depend on the quality of the talent within it.  As the world becomes increasingly diverse, we must ensure that creative industries lead the way in workplace fairness and equality. Only through creating more companies that hire, nurture and promote talent from all walks of life can we reach our full economic potential.

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