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Dominic Mills 

Census results, targets & glass houses 

Census results, targets & glass houses 

Dominic Mills gives his take on the IPA Agency Census and calls on the association to review its own make-up 

Let’s be honest: the IPA Census covering 2020 was never going to make comfortable reading. Most numbers  — overall employment, women, older staff, younger staff, pay differences — have gone the wrong way.

Progress towards being a more modern, inclusive, forward-looking industry has been halted and, in overall shape, agency-land looks pretty much as it did five or ten years ago.

The ambitious 2020 targets set by the IPA on women in the C-suite and ethnic representation weren’t hit and in fact look further away than ever.

But let’s not be too hard. Just remember what it felt like this time last year: the economy, indeed whole parts of the world, were shutting down. Nobody knew what would happen and for how long. I’ve just checked my diary for 12 March last year — as it happens the last time I was in central London until September  — and I had an appointment with the managing director of a medium-sized agency.

We fist-bumped in an already quiet and underpopulated reception. “That’s it,” he said, wearing a grim expression. “No hirings, no pay rises, no money spent unless it’s essential, everything in cold storage…we reckon our income could drop 30-40%. And that’s being optimistic.” We both gulped. He went back to his spreadsheets and I went back to cancel the rent on my office.

In fact, the advertising economy recovered faster than people expected, and agencies showed commendable resilience. But nobody knew that at the time, or how sustainable any recoveries might be.

Let’s look at some of these census numbers. Overall, staff levels are down 10.8% — more or less in line with spend — so no great surprises there.

And of those departures about a quarter (more in creative agencies, fewer in media) were a direct result of Covid — ie redundancies. To give it some perspective, that is about 175-180 individuals.

We all know that the effects of Covid fell disproportionately on some sections of society and the workforce, and that was exactly the case in ad-land, where the cohort most hit was women (four percentage points more than men) and especially those working part time, down 23% and seven percentage points worse than men.

When it comes to redundancies, as in any industry, the first in line are those easiest to get rid of (younger) and with the bigger salaries (ie older). As one seasoned executive said to me in May last year, “anyone over 45 and in a network has a target on their back.”

So it proved, where the number of those under 25 fell by 30% — comprising about 15% of the total workforce — and the 60+s by 22% or, in percentage terms, from about 1% to 0.75%.

Losing people at both ends of the age spectrum is, I fear, a bad thing. I always feel that the industry is at its best when it combines the energy, drive and fresh thinking of the young with the experience and wisdom of those who’ve been around the block a few times — however much Mark Read might wish they didn’t bugger up his overall salary levels.

Although here’s the surprise. I had expected levels of ethnic staff to drop — based on what would now be the erroneous assumption that entry-level recruitment (where the agencies have made great efforts over the three or four years) would halt — but in fact they rose both overall (up to 15%), and at the junior levels up to 22% of staff) and senior levels (up 1.5 percentage points to 6.4%).

But not in the middle. And as any political scientist, economist and sociologist can tell you, it’s healthy and burgeoning middle classes that make for healthy societies.

Which brings us to industry’s performance against the IPA’s targets:

  • Women in senior positions — target 40% vs actual 32% (down from 34%)
  • Non-white staff in leadership roles — target 15% vs actual 6.4%
  • Entry-level ethnic minority recruits — target 25% vs actual 21.9% (up from 17.7%).

Cue what feels to me like some finger-wagging from the IPA, with comments such as “doubling down” and “looking critically” at performance.

First, I think this a bit mean given the circumstances, and second the IPA’s own performance against these targets — and why should it say one thing to its members and not do it itself? — looks a bit underdone.

I say this not in a spirit of sarkiness, because in my experience the IPA is an exemplary trade body: original, thoughtful, energetic, forward-looking and above all committed to the wider good of the industry and its members.

The IPA itself did not take part in the census, which I sort of understand, but I’d like to see what its own figures are in all key areas.

On women in senior positions it does fine — 52.6% women — but on age and ethnicity (the figures are in a filing cabinet in Belgrave Square and therefore inaccessible) we don’t know and, judging by the faces on this staff page it doesn’t look so good either in total or at senior levels on the latter. Let's see if incoming president, VCCP's Julian Douglas feels emboldened to give the tree a little shake.

Then add in the 42 elected council members and, well, they’re not exactly diverse.

On the basis of that old saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant (and yes, I'm aware i'm now finger wagging too), a little bit of transparency would be a good place to start before it further admonishes its members.

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