Are we there yet? The Social Element CEO says diversity in ads shouldn't be a 'stand-out factor'

Every week, we ask industry insiders across all job levels and titles to share personal stories about equality, diversity and inclusion in adland. We know we're not there yet, but we want to document the highs and lows as the industry slowly transforms for the better.

Tamara Littleton
The Social Element

Tell us about one thing that’s happened recently that leads you to believe there’s still a problem.

A study in London recently showed that 75 percent of people thought advertising should reflect the cultural mix and diversity of the city, yet only one in four people believed that it does. That’s led to the city giving away half a million UK pounds in advertising space to agencies who represent women in their ads who represent the city’s diversity.

There shouldn’t need to be a financial incentive for this to happen. We need to see more diversity in our advertising, and to do that, we need a more diverse industry. I’d love to see more ads that show people with disabilities, for example. A new campaign for fashion brand ASOS shows models in wheelchairs, which is amazing, and a real step forward. But it’s also really sad that it makes the news. It shows how unusual it is.

On a personal note, I’m glad we’re seeing more LGBT+ people represented in advertising (although we’re still underrepresented), and I’m proud that a lot of the brands we work with embrace this, and not just around Pride week. But looking at some of the trolling and the negative comments on social media that those brands get, just for making an ad that shows someone who’s gay, or someone of color, makes me realize every day how far we still have to go.

How about something that proves we’re making progress?

I’m a very optimistic person. The number of rainbow flags on every shop front and on every social media page during Pride week this year gave me real hope, in a world where there’s so much division at the moment. It’s great that there’s at least a public discussion happening about transgender issues, too. 

There are some brave companies out there tackling big issues to change for the better. Diageo is putting a framework in place to banish stereotypes in their advertising, for example. There are conversations happening in agencies about mental health and how big the impact is in the creative industries, and how to support people in a positive way. The Marketing Society is tackling this head on with its Braver series too. The industry is discussing why diversity is really important for creativity, which is encouraging.

There are some incredible pioneers who are thinking more broadly about diversity, too. I had a great conversation with Pip Jamieson who founded The Dots about her work to include neurodiversity and socioeconomic diversity in her business. I work with Richard Simcott, an amazing hyper-polyglot who’s running a conference this year on diversity in language. These are all massive steps forward that are starting conversations about diversity in all forms.  

What else needs to be done to get there?

It’ll be a good sign when there’s an ad showing someone who’s transgender, or in a wheelchair (or both), and it doesn’t make the news. It’ll just be great advertising. Seeing different people in ads won’t be some sort of shock or stand-out factor, it’ll just be representative of how the world is.

To get there, of course, the industry needs to be more diverse itself. We should all think broadly about inclusion, and address differences that sometimes get forgotten, like disability, neurodiversity, age and socioeconomic factors. That means asking some tough questions about what is excluding people from the industry. Why are there so few people over 40 in agencies, for example? Or so few people with disabilities? If coming into the office every day for 9am is a requirement, that might put off someone with mobility issues, or someone who can’t afford to live in an expensive capital city. If you have flexible working, or the ability to work from home, you increase your pool of potential people to work with. But you might have to structure the company differently to get there.

My business attracts different people because it has a distributed structure. But I know we have a long way to go. We’re trying to address diversity by making it a business issue, and by changing things like how we recruit. It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s better for business.

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