Play the BAME game…and annoy Nigel Farage
A number of important groups in British society are still under-represented in the advertising industry, writes Dominic Mills - and if industry doesn't bite the bullet soon, there's a danger it will fall even further behind.
The idea of annoying Nigel Farage appeals to me. I like to see his eyes bulge and his face go a ruddier shade of florid. Besides, this might flush out the demons in his soul, and could even be good for him.
Why should the ad industry care about Nigel Farage? Because it needs to do the very thing that Farage wants to ignore: embrace diversity both in its output and its workforce, and not just in ethnic origin, but in skillset too.
Last week, following on from the IPA's focus on talent, I wrote about cost of high staff turnover rates (at 30 per cent the ad industry is poor). The other side of the retention coin is recruitment, and one area that will become a big issue is diversity of workforce.
If the ad industry's unique selling proposition is that it understands audiences, and how to create the messages that resonate with those audiences, it helps if those audiences are represented in its workforce."
In fact, as things currently stand, the ad industry doesn't do too badly on workforce diversity. According to the latest IPA Census, about 12 per cent of the industry workforce is of BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) origin. That compares with 13 per cent across the population as a whole.
That's ok, and certainly a whole lot better than in 2005, when the BAME proportion of the advertising workforce was just 5.1 per cent.
But here's the thing: one in four school-age children is of BAME origin, and pretty soon they will be making their way into the workforce. At that point they will become economically active, and therefore of great interest to clients.
If the ad industry's unique selling proposition is that it understands audiences, and how to create the messages that resonate with those audiences, it helps if those audiences are represented in its workforce.
Without that, there are two big dangers: one, 'groupthink', which is what happens when decisions are made by a narrow class with a tightly defined set of values; and two, cultural blindness, which occurs when we simply don't understand how others think and behave or ignore people who aren't like us.
Based on an entirely random and unscientific look at TV and press ads over last weekend, current output doesn't reflect the make-up of British society. Only a handful caught my eye: the Samsung press campaign with a hipster Sikh; an ad for John Lewis' Kin range featuring an Asian guy; this Barclays Life Skills TV ad; and a Sky Broadband break bumper featuring a black kid sucking up a piece of spaghetti. I'm sure (I hope too) there are more out there, and if you think I've got this wrong, let me know.
Although there may have been other ads with a few BAME faces in the background, this isn't much to write home about. Does this show cultural blindness on the part of agency casting teams or, heaven forbid, clients insisting on white faces?
One hopes this will change, and quickly too, as the industry recruits from a more diverse base. But how will this happen? And is there a built-in selection bias - our preference for recruiting in our own image - that has to be overcome?
Digging around this subject, it seems there are several initiatives already under way [...] But I suspect there is a case for a more joined-up approach across the industry as a whole."
The key is getting into schools early to educate youngsters about the potential of a career in advertising. According to Phil Pyatt of Inspiring the Future, a charity that links industry with schools, young people are bombarded with choice and tend to settle on a short list of four or five career options early on. They are also influenced by parents and teachers, so the ad industry has to reach those people too.
Digging around this subject, it seems there are several initiatives already under way. The IPA's Creative Pioneers programme, which it runs in conjunction with Metro, generates around 100 or so apprenticeships with agencies a year. Carat runs a one-day session called Discover Media, which targets GCSE-age students from schools in disadvantaged areas.
Good for them. But I suspect there is a case for a more joined-up approach across the industry as a whole.
The same could also be said for university recruitment. Of course the ad industry doesn't struggle to attract bright young graduates, except perhaps those with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degrees. They are much in demand right across the UK (and international) economy, but their data, creative technology and coding skills are especially relevant to the ad industry.
The issue, as I understand it, is that this cohort doesn't even think of advertising as a career, because they see no space for their talents there. To them, advertising is about hipster creative, pointy-head planners and smooth account people, not games developers or data scientists.
So there's another education job to be done there. Money too is an issue, because demand for these people is sky-high, and they can get better paid elsewhere. At some point, agencies have got to bite the bullet on starting salary levels, all the more so as the first graduates with £30-£40,000 of debt begin to emerge.
Adland has never been able to compete, money-wise, with the law, accountancy or management consultancy, but with the likes of Sainsbury's and Lidl offering starting salaries of £37-£40,000, there's a danger it will fall even further behind.
Equally, however, there is a generation of 16-year-olds, especially those from BAME and less wealthy backgrounds, who will not wish to encumber themselves with huge debt, and therefore look to join the workforce straight from school.
This takes us back to the industry focusing on schools. It's not easy, but it's essential. And the results - a more diverse workforce, and more BAME faces in ads - wind up Nigel Farage, so much the better.
(Disclosure: I work from time to time for the IPA, including generating content around last week's focus on talent.)