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Agency 2020: Change makers discuss diversity within agencies

If there is one key trend affecting the marketing and creative communications industry at the moment it is ‘diversity’ or, depending on your viewpoint, the lack of it. Diversity, in it’s very broadest sense, is a huge issue within our industry and most forward thinking agency businesses are driving the diversity agenda within their organisation.

In today’s industry diversity goes much deeper than simply gender issues. Race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, social background all come into the debate as agencies look to create as diverse a workforce as they can to ensure that the work they are creating for a diverse portfolio of clients is coming from a workforce that best represents modern society.

Following on from the recently published Agency 2020 article, which considered the current threat landscape to agencies, this article brought change makers from some of London’s leading agencies to discuss diversity within today’s marketing agencies.

Agency 2020
 
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Offering their views at the Chatham House Rules roundtable session hosted at The Riding House Café in London were: Fern Miller, global chief marketing officer at DigitasLBi, Gareth Moss, managing partner of The Blueprint, George Porteous, managing director at Accenture Interactive; Jasel Mehta, former international general manager at AKQA, Jonny Spindler, chief innovation officer at AMV BBDO, Laura Jordan-Bambach, D&AD president and creative partner at Mr President, Mark Lainas, chief innovation officer at Ogilvy & Mather, Matt Groves, former managing director at Edelman Digital, Nadya Powell, managing director at Sunshine, Neil Miller, CEO at POSSIBLE, Paul Doran, strategic partner at The Blueprint and Simon Wassef, executive strategy director at R/GA.

Beginning the discussion on a positive note, one attendee stated: “Diversity is definitely a key issue today and there are statistics that show that boards of companies with more women on them deliver a 36% higher ROI than other companies. That's a brilliant statistic and obviously within our agency the leadership team is primarily female oriented. So we see that there are opportunities within diversity and how the advertising industry as a whole is overcoming the challenge of previously being quite male dominated?”

Another person’s response remarks that diversity covers many factors, but questions whether agencies are actually covering all the bases: “I just want to make it clear that for me, diversity is gender, ethnicity, ability. We work in an industry where practically everyone sits down in front of a screen all day. But ask yourself, when was the last time you worked with someone who was physically disabled in some way? I haven't ever.”

The conversation took a shift as people begin to share their own experiences of diversity or lack of diversity in the workplace.

“We have just set up something called the Great British Diversity Experiment, which we'd like everyone to get involved in, which is where we're trying to recruit 200 people from very, very diverse backgrounds. So, we are working with a technical community college, working with Purple Rain which is a leading LGBT organisation, trying to look at transgender issues within the workplace, which is a growing issue in our society. It's one of the most horribly treated groups of people in the country.”

Another focused on younger people coming into the industry and how often they can be misunderstood by their more senior colleagues: “The first time I worked with a 20-year old kid from Hackney, I spent an hour thinking “I don't understand a word you're saying, you're clearly thick” and then another hour realising “oh my God, this guy's a genius, he just speaks in a different language to me and so people learning.” 

"From my perspective, the female/male thing is getting better. The ethnicity thing is appalling, really bad. The physical ability thing is appalling. The socio-economic background to me is probably the biggest issue.”

“I was recently speaking to a guy from the Law Society who runs the LGBT team. He asked if I worked in creativity. I replied “yes”. He said “and everyone's the same?” I was like “yes”. He went “well how can you come up with brilliant ideas that work for everyone if everyone's the same?” And it just made me think.”

So, if diversity in agencies is not so widespread, what does this mean for agencies moving forward? Do clients demand a diverse workforce in their agencies?

“Clients don't ever demand that. It's very, very rare that they do. The only time I’ve ever heard it happen was at the 3% Conference in London. Cat said that she'd been working with a client on a pitch and it was for a feminine hygiene product and the all male team walked into the pitch and the client went I can't do this, get out. But I’ve never had a situation when they've looked and gone this team does not represent my target audience at all.  I’d love it if clients did that more.”

Another contributor warned of the guidelines that are being put into place to maintain that balance: “There is a fine line and you have to be careful that you are now creating your workforce based on diversity guidelines. You want your agency to be pure. You want interesting people coming together to create interesting work. Not putting people together because they fit a stereotype or look like a nice diverse group. You want the best people for the job. You have to be careful you don't fall into that space.”

Another attendee suggested that the diversity issue in most agencies lies at the top rather than the bottom.

“I think it's one of the massively important changes that we have to make in the industry and in our agency, not at the day to day level, but more at the senior level, where I think it gets even worse. Most agencies are still headed up by men. The balancing act is finding the time to make those changes.”

With issues that seem to be causing growing concern, where do you begin to make changes? You cannot simply sack your board just because they are men.

“We could start with pay,” suggested one attendees. “Salesforce recently showed us all the way because they brought all of their women up to the same pay scale as men.”

Another attendee echoed that point: “We have just done that too, we've done fair pay across our agency and now all salaries are publicly available. It has a set standard. There is stepped tiers between promotions and it was announced across, the whole account management department.”

How did the company react?

“The staff liked it, because now you've popped that bubble and that tension about female account directors sitting next to a male account director wondering if he is getting more money. We very publicly stood up and said all account directors now earn this salary.  We appreciate there should be a level of financial gain not just linked to promotion so then we put intermediary tiers between promotions, so you know that you could have the opportunity to be in this band, but you know the steps of the band are this and someone can openly tell you this person here is closer towards promotion, so two steps up within the band, you're on the start of the band, but it's very visible and it's been fantastic.”

The issue of diversity is possibly one of the biggest for an industry that only survives on the quality of its people and one that all agencies need to get right, or at the very least make positive in roads to address if they want to be seen as a forward thinking modern employer.

Some agencies have got it right, but I think it’s fair to say most have not got it right just yet. Diversity will take time, particularly in an industry where most independent agencies are created by groups of like-minded entrepreneurs who are similar in the ways that the diversity question is asking them to consider.

Whether there is a right answer is also a good question. How do you measure when an industry is ‘diverse’ enough? No doubt the diversity debate is set to rage for many years to come.

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