No ‘diversity’ without disability: why marketing needs to wake up to the world's most underrepresented minority group

Virgin Media's #FasterCloser ad from earlier this year
Virgin Media's #FasterCloser ad from earlier this year

The advertising and media industry is rightly focused on improving its diversity, but much of the focus is on race and gender. Disability should also be included in that focus, so we explored what work is happening.

“I have to pinch myself these days at how well it’s going,” Martyn Sibley, co-founder of Purple Goat, a London-based influencer marketing agency focused on disabled people, says. "We said at the start, let’s aim for a million in revenue and already we're smashing that." 

Sibley, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disability, has been a wheelchair user since he was three. He launched Purple Goat in April 2020, and although it's only been just over a year, success has happened faster than he ever imagined. But that wasn't always the case. 

"We’re on track to do millions now," Sibley says. "But for 10 years it was extremely difficult to get a brand to pay me or any disabled influencer to even give a talk at a conference. They wanted everything for free."

More often than not, Sibley was used to brands turning around and saying they didn’t have any budget for his time or value. "So, to suddenly now have a business that pulls in that kind of revenue, on a personal level, has been phenomenal."

What has driven this change, Sibley says, is that he and others in the disability community have got better at articulating the business case.

"The more I understood the size of the market – 1.3 billion disabled people globally – and the $8tn spending power which that brings, the business case became a really obvious way to create change."

And it seems brands are finally waking up to the business case for disability inclusion, too. Already, Purple Goat has worked with tier-one brands such as Tesco, Virgin Media and Facebook.

"I think if you can get brands to understand the business case and that by making changes they’ll make more profit, it’s actually a win-win-win situation to have it with that for-profit business case set up," Sibley says. 

Having completed a degree in economics and a masters in marketing, Sibley worked for a disability charity for five years and then, for the past 10 years, he has been a prolific entrepreneur.

He previously co-founded Accomable, a disability-friendly travel website, that sold to Airbnb four years ago.

"That was the first sign to me that the world and brands were starting to 'get it' in terms of the business case of disabled consumers," Sibley explains. "As rather than just talk, it was actually action, as Airbnb actually bought a company founded by disabled entrepreneurs."

Since then, Sibley partnered global social influencer marketing agency – Goat – to launch Purple Goat, and hasn't looked back. Applying Goat's tried-and-tested influencer marketing model to disability has proven to be a game-changer.

"In setting up Purple Goat, I came across the influencer model of marketing and the way that you can work with different people to create niche content for niche audiences, but at scale," Sibley says. "Influencers are the gateway to tell authentic stories through marketing and still reach the whole of their niche community." 

The authenticity disabled influencers bring to the campaigns has also helped to remove barriers, especially around doing or saying the wrong thing that many brands have been fearful of when it comes to disability.

"I think many of the disabled influencers we have worked with have allayed some of the fears because the brands have seen that everyone is really professional and wants to work with them to make a positive difference," Sibley says.

However, he admits the fear many brands have of saying the wrong thing continues to be a challenge.

"They [brands] worry about saying things the wrong way, even on a call with me and not publicly or on Instagram," Sibley says.

"But our job at Purple Goat is to encourage brands to say what they want to us behind closed doors, to get all the fear out the way, and then actually get on with making the real change."

Purple Goat has already worked with more than 100 disabled influencers. It does not operate as a talent agency, but instead finds influencers for each individual campaign.

"For me, it has been really amazing how we’ve been able to create an economic opportunity for all these disabled influencers as it’s becoming a job for them, whereas previously no brands were coming to them offering them money,” Sibley says.

Although many of the influencers were already producing great content on Instagram and TikTok, according to Sibley, they just weren’t getting the brand deals because they weren’t recognised as a viable audience and a viable influencer.

"But now through partnering with Goat and having that structure in place, we're meeting the right people, having the right conversations with brands, and are better able to drive change and connect the dots." 

Purple Goat is not alone. As the movement to improve representation of disabled people in advertising grows, more agencies are springing up to cater for it. This includes Zebedee Talent, a UK-based talent agency established in 2017 to represent disabled people and people with visible differences.

"When we first launched Zebedee, and were reaching out to brands, it really was like we were speaking an alien language," Laura Johnson, the agency's co-founder, says. "It had not crossed many people's minds that they should be including disabled people in their work. Steadily, we have seen clients be more open to casting our talent, and we see more briefs specifically looking to be inclusive."

Today, Johnson says the talent on Zebedee's books are five times busier than they were even last year and have worked with brands ranging from Gucci to Google, Lidl to Marks & Spencer, Mercedes to Renault, and the list continues to grow.

"I think we are at the tipping point of it starting to be the norm to feature disabled people in advertising," Johnson says. "That said, we are still nowhere near seeing 20% of people featured in advertising having a disability." 

In the UK, according to government statistics, 22% of the total population has a disability and 19% of working-age adults have a disability. Yet, according to the Geena Davis Institute, while 19% of people live with a disability globally, only 2% of people in 2019 advertisements had a disability. That’s obviously not good enough.

"It’s telling that the one example of good disability representation that sticks in most people's minds is the 2016 Maltesers campaign," Marianne Waite, director of inclusive design at Interbrand, says. "If the only significant example of female representation in advertising was five years ago, there would be a lot to say." 

Sadly, the fact remains that while disabled people make up the biggest minority group in the world, they are still, by far, the most underrepresented.

"Quite simply, this is due to widespread fear and discomfort around the issue," Waite says. "There are many attitudinal barriers that inhibit the progress of disabled people, but a fear about a) disability and b) of ‘getting it wrong’ are the two main drivers. This fear means that people tend to ignore the issue or focus on it within the context of charity and corporate social responsibility (CSR)."

Waite believes that brands need to forget CSR and address the needs of disabled people with the same consistency and investment as any other consumer group.

"Crucially, they must watch out for tokenistic, ‘corporate saviour’ attempts to connect with this audience," Waite says. "Innovating with disabled consumers should elicit no more tears of inspiration than innovating with female consumers. The ambition should be to create seamless and elevated brand experiences that promote parity between disabled and non-disabled consumers."

Besides issues around how infrequently disabled people are featured in ads, there are also some new unhelpful tropes and clichés starting to land. Recently there have been several self-congratulatory campaigns from brands launching their first disability-led campaigns and innovations. This marketing-focused perspective can be problematic, given how overdue this shift towards accessibility and inclusion is.

Columnist Sam Renke nailed it in her latest article when she said: “As a physically disabled woman and a disability campaigner for inclusion and representation, I will never be grateful for or celebrate something that should have happened years ago.”

It is, then, incredibly important to get positioning and communications right. This can be achieved by employing more disabled talent in decision-making positions and by deferring to the experience of disabled people across every element of the creative process. By doing so, brands stand a much better chance of making deeper and more significant impact.

“The ultimate metric and source of credibility will always be the perception gap between what the brand is saying versus how disabled employees and consumers experience it, not how many awards we can win,” Waite says. 

While some gains have been made on screen when it comes to greater representation, behind the scenes, and in the workplace, progress is not happening fast enough. This year the UK advertising industry's All In Census found that disabled talent is underrepresented across the industry (just 9% versus 20% of the working-age population) and 22% of them said they are likely to leave their organisation compared with the industry average of 9%.

"You need the right insights and experience behind the camera in order to tell stories with accuracy and authenticity," Waite says. "There are a lot of creative decisions made around disability that are still based on the assumptions of non-disabled people."

Waite draws a comparison to how progress was made with unconscious gender bias and female representation.

"It took more than the education of men to make a difference. It took the liberation of women, the direction of women and the creativity of women both on and off screen to ensure lives and expectations were captured and conveyed correctly. We now need to do the same with regards to disability."

And for actual change to happen, there's growing consensus that the industry needs to stop talking about being more inclusive and just get on and do it. "It’s easy to say ‘we should be doing more’, the key is ‘what needs to be done?’" Martin Beverley, chief strategy officer at Adam & Eve/DDB, says. His agency recently featured a man who uses a wheelchair in a Virgin Media ad.

He adds: "We have launched ‘Fresh Takes’, which aims to give fresh talent the opportunity to direct our ads and change who is behind the lens, not just who is in front of it. We are increasingly aware of casting in front of the camera, but changing who is behind the camera is also important. When we change who is looking down the lens, we will change the stories we tell and improve the representation at the heart of those stories."

Ultimately, the disabled community is a huge consumer market, and there are a lot of people for a long time that haven't had the inclusion they deserve from a human rights perspective.

"I think now is the time to put that right and it’s an opportunity for brands to do good, but still to make more profit," Sibley says. "That’s the holistic view of all this. It’s a win for the brands, a win for agencies, and more broadly a win for disabled talent and disabled consumers. In essence, if you’re the brand that grabs this opportunity you will win more and if you don’t you’ll be left behind. If you’re not doing it, someone else will be and they’re going to take that $8tn market." 

Michael Alhadeff is a senior strategist at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, who spent five formative years at Grey London. He has athetoid cerebral palsy, which affects his movement and speech.

Have you seen any increase in disabled talent coming into the industry?

In the past few years I haven’t seen a great influx of disabled talent coming into the industry if I’m blunt. I’m just speaking from a personal angle, having worked in two ad agencies, but I don’t know about the entire landscape. It’s just what I’ve seen anecdotally.

What about representation in ads, has that improved? 

There are lots of examples of campaigns from household brands like McCain, and other family brands, where they have ads that feature more diversity. They’re not necessarily disability-specific, but clever casting shows that disabled people can also be your buyers. I think it’s quite an important but subtle shift. When I was a kid, I never saw any disabled people on TV anywhere. Now, I think representation is a lot better. I think incidental representation is really important. You don’t want every ad to be disability front and centre as that would be ridiculous. But I do feel like brands have got better at including disabled people at relevant points in their communication.

Any specific examples of good representation in ads or campaigns that you've noticed recently?

I saw the recent [Channel 4] Paralympics campaign "Super. Human." I feel like it has achieved what it set out to do, which is to demystify the super human element, which is to say that the Paralympians are all human and expel the same blood, sweat and tears as everybody else. I did find it a bit messy at points. I felt like they tried to communicate too much in one ad. But on the whole I think it’s gone down very well and will be a very memorable piece of communication.

Obviously, with the Paralympics this year, there will be increased buzz and talkability around representation and inclusion of disabled people, but I do think it has become more of an ongoing conversation rather than just something people jump on every four years. So that has been an improvement and is going in a better direction.

Aline Santos is chief brand officer and chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer at Unilever.

1. Despite being the biggest minority group, representation of disabled people in advertising still seems so rare, why do you think this is?

We have seen the advertising industry make progress on representation, but there is still more work to do, especially when it comes to designing products that really cater to disabled people. That’s why we recently launched Sure Inclusive, the world’s first inclusive deodorant for people with visual impairment and upper limb motor disabilities. Sure worked with a team of inclusive experts from Wunderman Thompson, occupational therapists from NYU, engineers, consultants, and disabled people, to design this prototype. We knew it was extremely important to not just represent those with disabilities, but to co-create this product alongside people with lived experience.

2. On screen in the UK there has been some progress with ads starting to be more inclusive, but do you think those gains have been reflected behind the screen as well?

Inclusive marketing is no longer a choice, the industry needs to act now to increase representation both on-screen and behind the camera. We recently launched Unilever’s "ACT 2 Unstereotype", which aims to provoke more diverse and inclusive thinking across the end-to-end marketing process from consumer insight, to the brand DNA, product design and development, and creative development. As part of this, we have committed to work with more underrepresented groups both on-screen, and behind the camera. 

3. Could brands be doing more to better represent this massive consumer group? What are the barriers preventing them?

I think the biggest hurdle we face as marketers is challenging and changing our own human behaviour. Challenging your own unconscious bias requires attention, and a need to approach things in new ways. I understand some marketers may feel nervous about getting it wrong, but I would encourage them to start the journey – start by speaking to the communities you’re looking to represent.

4. You mentioned previously that Unilever has set the target to become the number-one employer of choice for disabled people by 2025. Is this still your goal?

We want to be a beacon for diversity and inclusion. We know that diverse and inclusive teams are higher performing, more agile and faster in responding to changing consumer needs. We’re working to drive equity, diversity and inclusion across all levels of our organisation. One of our goals is to be the number-one employer of choice for people with disabilities, and by 2025 we want to see people with disabilities representing 5% of our workforce.

“I don't know what's preventing brands being more inclusive. They just need to stop talking about it and do it.” Alexandra Frean, chief corporate affairs officer, Starling Bank.

UK fintech startup Starling Bank worked with Purple Goat Agency on a social-media influencer campaign back in May targeting disabled people. The campaign ran for a time-limited period, but it is planning a new one, which will go live soon.

What was your objective for the campaign? 

We always want to show how relevant the Starling app is to people's lives and when I heard that Starling often gets positive mentions in disability forums, I thought this might be an interesting angle to pursue. The idea was to demonstrate that Starling is the best bank account for everybody. I told the agency we wanted to be "the Good Grips of the banking world". You know Good Grips kitchenware right? The ones with the big black handles? Their products were originally designed for people with arthritis, but became mainstream because they are just so helpful to everybody. So the objective was to produce an inclusive campaign that would demonstrate how useful Starling's features are for everybody.

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