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We need to look harder at adland's social diversity problem

29 Aug 2019  |  Helen Rose 
We need to look harder at adland's social diversity problem

Just because we can’t measure how big it is, doesn’t mean we should ignore it, says the7stars’ head of insight Helen Rose. But where to start?

How socially diverse are we? This isn’t one of those quizzes where you get to work out if you’re mostly A’s, B’s or C’s. Nor is this meant to be a trick question. It’s an open question to the advertising industry, looking for an honest answer.

The advertising industry has made great strides in tackling diversity issues; primarily the relatively low proportion of female and BAME leaders. And, as with all challenges, this started with measurement. The IPA’s annual diversity report provides a benchmark for the industry as a whole and yardstick for progress.

But despite the progress made in supporting gender and ethnic diversity, advertising remains too elitist. Less outwardly identifiable than gender or racial diversity, socio-economic inclusion is an area of equality that adland has historically had less to say about.

Before we get too hard on ourselves, this issue isn’t exclusive to the advertising industry - it’s an issue across society, which has serious implications.

Since 2016’s vote to leave the EU, social divisions continue to widen. Sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison call this out in their recent book ‘The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged’ - social mobility in the UK seems to be getting worse, not better.

Why? The recent publication of ‘Elitist Britain 2019’ report by The Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission points to another theory - the increasing influence of the ‘elite’ on society. Its benchmark is the proportion of privately-educated people in positions of power: it found that 65% of judges, 43% of ‘news media’ and 34% of PR ceos were privately educated, compared to just 7% of the population.

While the study didn’t look at the advertising industry specifically, I wonder where we are now, and where we should be. Because we undeniably do have influence. It’s what we do for a living.

The benefits of a diverse workforce are well-publicised, and for the media agency sector   specifically we know diversity of experiences and opinions leads to more creative, relevant and groundbreaking communications planning.

Recruitment is an obvious place to start. While improved understanding of the impact of unconscious biases can help to remove some of the barriers, it doesn’t remedy what I've always felt is the core issue - which is explaining to people who live outside the advertising industry bubble exactly what media agencies do, in order to sell it to them as the inspired career choice it is. We need to be attracting more leads at the top of our recruitment funnel, and that starts with awareness; as any media planner will tell you, if they can't see you, they won't choose you.

Outside of the industry, many have no idea what a career in media actually looks like, or default to creative and production roles as the stereotyped ‘media’ career.  Media planning and buying remains much of a mystery.

This point really hit home for me earlier this summer, when we ran a pilot project called the7schools with Visionpath - a social enterprise that connects employers with talent from disadvantaged backgrounds. For us it was part-experiment, to figure out how to improve social diversity within our own organisation, but also to better-understand how young people from underprivileged backgrounds perceive our industry.

Pictured: Visionpath students participate in media workships at the7stars as part of the7schools initiative

We hosted 14 sixth form students from seven different schools across the country, representatives from various levels within the agency acted as mentors for the day, and we held a Q&A panel for them to learn more about the different routes into media.  The students were also given a live client brief to work on – so that they could experience what a day in the life of a job in media actually entails.

The students seemed genuinely surprised that media is fun, friendly, collaborative and ideas driven, having had very little sense of what the role would entail. We also got a lot out of it, and intend to repeat it. I’d also like the IPA to look at widening its diversity study to look at socio-economics in future. A measure of the number of people in the industry with a private education may not be the perfect metric for social diversity, but it’s a start.

Either way, I see social diversity in the industry is as much of a challenge as other inequalities such as race and gender.  Effective measurement, and better marketing of our own industry is our opportunity to start addressing some of these challenges and help attract a more diverse talent pool.


Helen Rose is head of insight at the7stars

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ChrisMundy, MD, Clearcast on 30 Aug 2019
“On the point of recruitment, the industry needs to consider every touch point, starting with job descriptions. I was asked to decipher an entry level media agency JD for a mentee a little while ago and it was shocking. Full of acronyms, names of industry and internal systems and generally off putting and unwelcoming. If we're serious about a level playing field we really need to make sure that we follow through on making the industry accessible at an entry level at every point in the recruitment process.”