Why diversity matters in adland

As the world becomes more diverse, advertising must move with the times or lose out.

Last week I was invited to speak on stage at a top advertising conference. As I wrapped up my talk, riffing about the new opportunities that Snapchat is providing for brands, I looked at the audience. None of them looked like me – a black man in advertising. This was – and is – a recurring scene in adland and I believe that as people in advertising we should be doing better. 

As a current Black British Business award-winner in the media and arts sector, I feel a desire to speak on the lack of diversity and this article will look at three practical ways that we at Fanbytes have tackled this.

At Fanbytes we have a relatively rare culture. Our company started with three young, black co-founders: me, 22, and from Ghana, my COO Ambrose Cooke, 23, and from Ghana too, and my CTO Mitchell Fasanya, 21, from Nigeria. When it comes to our employees, only one fits the typical image of someone in advertising: white, male, well educated. This diverse workforce didn't happen by mistake. Rather it has been a deliberate approach to building the company.

A recent survey by the IPA, worryingly showed that only 12% of those working  in IPA member agencies are from a BAME background, a drop of 1% on the previous survey. We in adland should do better.

Why diversity matters:

The benefits of diversity in the advertising workplace are fairly obvious, but it is worth reiterating what I think is the most credible reason to drive change. In advertising, we’re in the business of creating content that resonates with society, and getting people to move and take action. As the world becomes more diverse, it is imperative that we – as the ones who create the content that moves people – have a strong knowledge of culture and what moves people to act, given their backgrounds. The more we can do this, the more we can reduce the farcical advertising mistakes I’ve seen brands make when trying to reach different audiences, subsequently causing a consumer backlash and negative press. 

We ran two job ads: one described the role as "client relations", the other described it as "campaign connoisseur". We received 45% more applications from diverse candidates for the "campaign connoisseur" role.

One of the widely held beliefs around increasing ethnic diversity is that it falls to merely making positions available. This approach fails to recognise the cultural factors that prevent groups from ethnic backgrounds taking up the roles. So, the first two of the following three strategies acknowledge the cultural factors that prevent groups from taking up roles in advertising and offer a way to remedy them.

Strategy 1: throw away CVs

As human beings we have confirmation biases; we warm to people who are similar to us in whatever capacity, whether it be race, gender or university. In the early stages of Fanbytes, I went to an advertising industry event where (and I kid you not) every single person I met there (seven at least) had studied at Oxford. At Fanbytes, we realised that by removing CVs and instead setting a relevant challenge for applicants resulted in an increase in job applications and, most relevantly, led to an increase in applications from a diverse group of applicants. The trickle-down effect of removing CVs from the hiring process is that it further negates the unconscious bias we might hold, such as unconsciously giving preference to people who went to the same universities as we did or who had similar upbringings.

Strategy 2: Invent new job titles

Recently, we were looking to hire to someone to head up client relations. We ran two job ads: one described the role as "client relations", the other described it as "campaign connoisseur". We received  45% more applications from diverse candidates for the "campaign connoisseur" role. In my opinion, the reason this worked so well is that the latter job title meant there could be no preconceptions as to who would be ideal for the role. Its humorous nature meant applicants did not try to match themselves to who they thought might be best-suited to the job, and it moved the primary focus onto the skills they could offer. By taking this approach to hiring, which significantly reduces the misconceptions one might have about "the best fit" for a company, we would be able to attract a more diverse set of applicants.

Strategy 3: Report and track data

The issue with the lack of diversity in advertising, and the reason it remains one, is that it is treated as of secondary importance to more typical business issues, such as revenue and cash flow. So for us to make a change in the industry, it's important we shift from diversity being an ancillary issue to becoming a core KPI. It should be approached as other KPIs are: goals should be set, plans made for how to reach them, resources should be allocated and progress measured. Having that level of focus when it comes to issues of diversity is critical.

At Fanbytes, we focus on diversity as a core KPI. This has helped us to create the culture we have and be as successful as we have been. I also applaud the work of Grey London in aiming to inspire people to follow a career in the creative industries, by working with a 100 schools in London’s Hackney. It is this type of devotion to diversity that is going to change things.

In summary, there is much work to be done if we’re to change the ethnic diversity levels in advertising. I certainly think that as an industry we’re making steps towards that, however, we need massive strides, not just steps. Radically different results require radically different ways of thinking and, as an industry, we’re close to achieving real results.

By throwing away the rulebook on CVs, basing our recruitment decisions purely on skill, inventing new job titles and descriptions that don’t appeal solely to a certain type of person and treating diversity as a core issue in line with revenue and profits, we can make a difference. In this increasingly diverse world, the companies who fall behind will be those without a grasp of culture and how to position one’s company at the centre of it. The losers will be those who don’t keep up with culture. Don’t be a loser.

 

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