View from a garden: Where have all the proles gone?

When I was a plump young prole myself in my first job, it was a very different social landscape.

Here’s an embarrassing fact. I have recently become obsessed with binge-watching ITV "drama" Downton Abbey on Amazon Prime. I have a fair bit of time on my hands right now (ahem) and, as I’ve already ganneted the whole of Making A Murderer season two and The Haunting Of Hill House, I find myself truly scraping the bottom of the box-set barrel with this dreadful, flabby old TV show.

I share this private shame with you because I have had a couple of sleepless nights over Downton. Not because I’m tossing and turning over when Carson and Mrs Hughes will finally get jiggy with it in the broom cupboard, but because the clumsily expressed clashes between upstairs and downstairs in this most Ovaltine of television shows have reawakened in me a genuine uneasiness I have about the UK class system and our industry.

When I was a plump young buffoon sweatily starting out in advertising, it inhabited a significantly different social landscape to that of today. My first salaried job was at WCRS, where rumour had it that, of a morning, Robin Wight would ride his horse from his palatial home to the local train station, followed at a discreet distance by his groom. Said groom would be waiting for him later that evening upon his return, so that Robin could canter back in the iridescent lime-green corduroy suit drawing the admiration and deference of the crofters and serfs who inhabited the land around the Wight estate. (I have no idea whether this story is true or not, but I do hope so; if you are reading this, Robin, please don’t disillusion me – it would break my heart.)            

Below the stairs in the creative department, it was a very different world. As a whole, we were a scruffy group of poorly educated herberts plucked from the council estates of Britain. In my intake year alone, along with myself and my then partner Ian (a dedicated Scouser who I’d often catch filling his bag with industrial-sized toilet rolls "borrowed" from the cleaning cupboard to take home with him), there were current VCCP chief creative officer Darren Bailes – whose limited culinary upbringing in Durham manifested itself in an almost atavistic horror of green vegetables – and Sunshine co-founder Al MacCuish, a man whose soft-spoken manner belied a previous successful career as a hard-bastard bouncer at some of Glasgow’s roughest pubs. We really weren’t fit for polite society at all.

Trust me, I’m not in any way romanticising some kind of "hard-knock life" upbringing as if it made us working-class ad heroes of some kind. I can’t speak for Daz or Al, but my family were encouraging of my odd bookishness and incredibly supportive of whatever weird career path I decided to eventually follow. Even if their reaction when I landed a disastrous job at the Inland Revenue ("The civil service, Jonathan! The civil service! WE’LL LIVE LIKE FUCKING KINGS!") was markedly more jubilant than when I told them I’d got a job trial at an ad agency on less money than if I’d stayed on the dole and claimed housing benefit.

But I am feeling deeply nostalgic for the social diversity of the advertising agency in which I worked at the beginning of my career all those years ago.

The current conversations around and column inches about the diversity debate have understandably coalesced primarily around gender. As, of course, they should. Consistently holding the industry to account for its historic and appalling lack of gender equality is an important and necessary thing, and every initiative we generate to finally rebalance the equation is long overdue.

But diversity is a word that, by its very definition, should encompass more than gender. I am not the best person in the room to discuss gender or racial diversity, or our industry’s equally bizarre lack of representation from people with physical disabilities, but I tell you what: I’m common as muck, me, and I think we also need more chavs like what I is.

We often talk of the need for diversity as if it were a necessary fairness. I’m sure it is, but I wouldn’t really know about that. I’m not a terribly altruistic person, to be honest; I find humanity more fascinating than lovable – as would you if you’d spent as much time as I did outside the Costa in Mornington Crescent. There is an irrefutable moral and societal argument for the even distribution of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class and disability throughout our industry, but I’m more concerned with the basic good business sense of gathering as diverse a range of inputs as possible in order to help stretch the remit of our output.

One of our most precious gifts as an industry is our ability to empathise and to dig around for the insights and executions that are deeply relevant for all sorts of folk, not just the ones who look and act like us. But the pesky unconscious bias that affects the best of us can blunt that empathy to such a degree that, from a distance, it genuinely feels like we view many of the people we market to as if they were some kind of recently discovered deep-sea creature that feeds off frozen Turkey Twizzlers and Rothmans Superkings. Watching afternoon commercial television from the luxury of my garden leave (I save the box sets until after dark; I’m not an animal), it’s horribly apparent that most of us haven't walked an inch in the shoes of our audience, let alone a mile.

There is undoubtedly a whole generation of excellent young proles out there who would make an enormous and profound difference to how we all work and what we make – but we’re simply not fishing from the pool in which they swim. More fool us.

If you would like a more intelligent and considered historical point of view on the role of class in our industry, I’d urge you to read Dylan Williams’ excellent essay on the matter. Me, I’m off to watch The Jeremy Kyle Show and shudder at the ad breaks, rather than the people who appear on it. 

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