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'Is this where it ends for me?': The case for investing in young, diverse talent

25 Aug 2020  |  Michaela Jefferson 
'Is this where it ends for me?': The case for investing in young, diverse talent

Mediatel News' Michaela Jefferson meets a graduate from the Brixton Finishing School, talks to its founder and looks at other industry initiatives dedicated to reaching diverse talent at an early age

For 19 year-old Kianna Joseph, the path into a career in the media industry was more of a hurdle race than a straight sprint.

From an initial lack of awareness of the non-showbiz elements of the sector, and having to explain to her wider family why she was choosing not to go to university to become a doctor or lawyer, to the difficulties of networking without any pre-existing industry contacts, plus seeing few other black women in the industry, her road to entry was blocked by barrier after barrier.

Joseph is far from alone in her experience. In a recent survey of 65 young adults, conducted by the Brixton Finishing School (BFS), almost all respondents said the creative, media and advertising industries were not doing enough to attract a more diverse workforce.

Some 71% of those surveyed said they thought "not knowing the right people" would be a significant barrier to joining the industry. Nearly half felt shut out because they were unable to take-up unpaid internships.

However, according to almost a third of those surveyed, the most difficult barrier they felt they would face in pursuing a career within the creative, media and advertising industries was their race.

And it's no surprise. According to employment estimates from the DCMS in 2018, nine in 10 employees in the digital and creative industries were from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Meanwhile, the IPA's 2019 Agency Census found the number of employees from an ethnic minority background among its member agencies had dropped from 13.8% to 13.7%.

"What we need to do is seek commitment to change, and that involves financial investment "

While diversity at junior levels sat at a slightly higher 17.7%, just 4.7% of C-suite roles were held by employees from an ethnic minority background, and at the highest level of seniority (chair/CEO/MD) ethnic minority representation sat at 4.1%.

The BFS was founded in 2016 in an effort to support 18 to 25 year-olds in "underrepresented groups", by teaching them a variety of digital and creative skills and helping them to get that first foot in the door.

BFS estimates that eight in 10 students over its three active years have been from multicultural backgrounds (60% black), a fifth have been white working class, and 20% across all groups have been neuro-diverse.

The free 10-week course is funded by the industry, with sponsors including Mail Metro Media, R/GA, Clear Channel, adam&eveDDB, and Vizeum.

Joseph, a recent BFS graduate, claims the experience changed her life. With the help of the scheme, she is now on a marketing assistant apprenticeship at radio and outdoor media giant Global.

Ally Owen, founder of BFS, says the most important thing about the initiative is that it "makes people realise they are as brilliant as they are".

As a single mum from a council estate background, Owen adds that she understands what it's like to be part of a group that can be viewed negatively in society and therefore has limitations forced upon it.

"To have 10 weeks where you are actually celebrated for yourself and you're treated like the most valuable commodity there is, [with] people rolling out the red carpet for you, means it's not hard to realise by the end that you're actually a very worthwhile and valuable asset to anybody," she says.

In recent months, the reignited Black Lives Matter movement - sparked by the murder of George Floyd on 25 May - has put a heightened, more immediate focus on diversity and inclusion within the media and advertising industry.

An open letter was published in the UK, calling on advertising leaders to commit to "actions, not words" by prioritising diversity, equality and inclusion, and harnessing "the cultural power of advertising" to bring prominence to the crisis of racial injustice. More than 200 leaders from creative agencies, media agencies, trade bodies and media owners signed.

"There is such a ground swell of noise around the issue at the moment, but what we need to do is seek commitment to change, and that involves financial investment by companies," Owen says, adding that it is "not enough to pop a black square on your Instagram.

"This is a complex issue that requires a long-term strategy, and it requires specialisms. If everybody on that list took action and backed projects like ours or other projects within the space, we'd see a change. The reality is you need to work with third parties to make the change on this one, because it's not a specialism of an ad agency or a media owner."

In the meantime, with the Covid-19 crisis fuelling both recruitment freezes and redundancies, career prospects for young people - particularly young, diverse people - are the most precarious they have been in recent years.

According to the Guardian, 61% of employers have had to cancel some or all of their work experience placements this year - a "massive opportunity" loss for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, Owen says.

At the same time, research from Adzuna has shown that there are almost 6,000 fewer marketing vacancies currently available across the UK compared to last year, including 90% fewer vacancies for marketing administrators and marketing assistants, 86% fewer marketing executive opportunities, and 80% fewer social media manager roles.

And with furlough and redundancies hitting media and advertising agencies at junior levels the hardest, the prospect for next year's IPA diversity figures looks grim.

As a result, in September the BFS is launching a free nationwide school - the 'Adcademy' to help support those young people who are finding their opportunities to join the media and advertising industry limited. "Looking at the decimation of young people's futures has basically harassed me into action very quickly," Owen says.

At time of interview, over 400 people had signed-up to the school, and KFC had just been signed as its first partner.

However, with funding "literally smashed" by Covid, the organisation is having to rely on crowdfunding in order to launch the Adcademy and to support this year's intake of BFS students.

"Obviously this year, Covid has created the world's biggest curve ball for everybody," Owen says, speaking specifically of funding for the BFS. "But we've got 36 amazing young people this year, and I'm on the hunt for funds and partners."

The business incentive

Investing in supporting young, diverse talent naturally has a strong moral incentive, but Claire Davey-Gerrard, senior manager of global programmes - social impact at Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN), says there is a clear business incentive too.

In late 2018, DAN launched The Code globally as part of a new strategy to "create a digital economy that works for all". According to Davey-Gerrard, The Code opens the ad network's doors to the next generation of talent, with a particular focus on young people from diverse backgrounds.

The initiative - run in partnership with careers specialist My Kinda Future - sees DAN employees share their skills and experiences in school workshops with students as young as 13.

The Code also includes a competition, Rise Up, which challenges students to work on a live brief from one of DAN's biggest clients.

According to Davey-Gerrard, the ad network has had 33 apprentices come up through the programme since 2017. "Protecting and improving the future talent pipeline is the number one business incentive to invest in young diverse talent," she says.

"There was a recognition when this [initiative] was set up that a lack of diversity in the workforce creates group think, and that stifles creativity and innovation," she continues.

"And we are a business that absolutely needs to represent the societies we live and work in. We need to understand the society and the people that we are talking to on behalf of our clients...So this is about future proofing our business and ensuring the sustainability of our business."

Additional benefits for DAN includes boosting existing employee morale, as employees are able to give back to the communities they live and work in, and an opportunity to take its relationship with those clients which partner on the initiative beyond the purely commercial.

Like Brixton Finishing School, DAN has also launched a digital, nationwide initiative in response to Covid-19. Experts from across the network have put together a "digital curriculum", aimed at 15 to 18 year-olds, with six weeks of educational content on subjects from how to structure creative thinking, to media planning and insight tools, to sustainable marketing.

"For every business, investing in young people should be a critical part of that overall response to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce."

This year's Rise Up challenge in partnership with Mondelez, and launched at the same time as the digital curriculum, saw 240 students take part in the digital learning course, with 52% of the final competition entrants from "BAME" students.

Plus, according to Davey-Gerrard, 73% of students who have taken part in The Code programme since its launch said they would consider a future role in the media and advertising industry. Looking forward, she says the long-term aim is to work out a way to measure how young people's employment prospects, life chances and life outcomes improve as a result.

"I think for every business, investing in young people should be a critical part of that overall response to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce. This is the starting point to getting entry level talent through the door at a younger age and inspiring at a younger age," Davey-Gerrard argues.

"It's not the only answer - we certainly recognise that The Code is only the starting point. Once those young people are into an organisation, there's so much support that you need to give them to create that proper inclusiveness for all people from all different backgrounds."

But nevertheless, it's an integral and crucial piece of the puzzle, she says.

"Is this where it all ends for me?"

Having graduated from the BFS and made it into one of the UK's biggest media companies, Kianna Joseph says her "battle" with her wider family about her career choices has now come to an end.

"The jaws dropped when I showed them my lanyard," she laughs. "There was silence when they saw what I was achieving." Her younger cousin now plans to follow in her footsteps, she adds. "So they definitely changed their tune."

With her apprenticeship with Global now coming to an end, Joseph will shortly find herself back on the hunt for a job - and with Covid wreaking havoc on the number of entry level opportunities available, she's not without worry. However, her experience at the BFS goes some way to reassure her.

"I do have a network of people that I now know who would be more than willing to help me," she points out.

Joseph was alerted to the existence of the educational programme when Owen visited her college for an "industry week" presentation. Asked now whether she thinks she would have achieved what she has so far without the experience of completing the BFS, which she describes as a "lifeline", Joseph says "definitely not".

"I've been doing a lot of reflecting during Covid-19 and I've just thought, 'oh my god, what if I never came in that day?'"

But that's not to say that her struggles as a black woman trying to progress through the industry are over, something she says she is keenly aware of.

"Even now that I'm in, it's not any easier," she says. "When I look at people at the top level in not just my company, but other companies, I see two things: hardly any of them are women, and hardly any of them are black.

"And it just makes you think, is this where it ends for me? Will I ever be able to move up in a company if I can't see anybody who looks like me?"

The problem, Joseph adds, is that so many of the people from underrepresented groups who come into the industry feel that same way.

"So we don't make the effort to be more, we don't try to get to the top. And if we don't try, then the person who comes in after isn't going to see anyone who looks like them. So then they don't try, and the cycle carries on," she says.

"So hopefully, with initiatives like the BFS, young diverse people feel more confident to try and get to the top."


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