Marketers could force agencies to improve diversity

UK agencies could be forced to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to ethnic and gender diversity, as the industry shifts towards transparency.

US brands Verizon, HP and General Mills have shunted the diversity debate forward by demanding better representation, specifically of women and ethnic minorities, at their agencies.

Many in the industry have applauded the move as a concrete development in an area often dominated by platitudes.

Oystercatchers chief executive Suki Thompson told Campaign that the intermediary would now begin including diversity information on its agency profiles.

She said: "We can’t say to a client that it should be a critical question of your choice, but we can ensure our basic profiles of agencies include this information whenever an agency approaches us to suggest them for a pitch."

Oystercatchers will also ask brands whether agencies should include diversity information in future request for information documents.

Last month, HP chief marketing officer Antonio Lucio instructed its five agencies – BBDO, FleishmanHillard, Gyro, Fred & Farid and Porter Novelli – to propose how they would boost female representation in their global creative departments. HP’s 1,000-strong marketing department is 50% women and 30% ethnic minorities. 

When asked if he would fire an agency for failing to meet his diversity targets, Lucio told Campaign: "Anything is on the table."

Half of Gyro’s leadership is already female. Kate Howe, the creative agency’s UK managing director, said: "It’s the logical next step for organisations taking responsibility for the company they keep." 

No UK brand appears to be taking similar action. Campaign contacted more than 20 of the UK’s biggest brands, including Procter & Gamble, Sainsbury’s and Transport for London. Most did not respond and some declined to comment. 

Marks & Spencer’s executive director of customer, marketing and M&, Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, said the retailer’s "Plan A" sustainability strategy was "at the heart" of how it did business with agencies. The plan includes diversity. "The work here is far from being complete but we are on a journey," he said.

For agencies, it’s a complicated and expensive problem. And there may be  different, systematic reasons for a lack of diversity, particularly in terms of ethnicity diversity, in the UK compared with the US.

"The pressure is perhaps more intense in the US, where there is arguably more cultural tension than in the UK," Lucky Generals founder Andy Nairn said. He added that London’s overpriced housing market and recruitment processes have exacerbated a lack of diversity. "But rather than use these [problems] as excuses, we need to find ways of getting further down the chain to solve them – possibly collectively as an industry, or groups of agencies," he added.

Michael Sugden, chief executive of VCCP, called for "less bleating and more action". He likened industry sluggishness on diversity to the ethical sourcing of materials for smartphones and the use of sweatshops by fashion brands. "Little dark secrets hidden away in a supply chain have a rich history of tarnishing some of the world’s biggest brands," he said.

While mandating diversity as part of agency contracts is one way to force change, Scott Knox, outgoing managing director of the Marketing Agencies Association, warned about an "increasingly commoditised market, driven by brands themselves" and said that companies need to "co-invest" in talent acquisition.

There is scope, perhaps, for more transparency and solid action on both sides of the table. 

How to promote diversity in your agency

The IPA, backed by Campaign, wants women to make up 40% of senior agency positions by 2020. The trade body is also targeting 15% of the top jobs being represented by people from a non-white background. The IPA has published tips on how agencies can make this happen.

1. Get to know the business case for diversity in your organisation, then get leadership backing

2. Record your progress through data and work out what ‘good’ looks like

3. Train staff to combat unconscious bias and name three ‘champions’ to push diversity agenda

4. Take diversity lessons from other industries

5. Celebrate positive stories and role models

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