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Brands - it's time to tackle your unconscious bias when it comes to agency selection

Following a week in which the world's biggest advertiser Procter & Gamble (P&G) pledged to “significantly increase” investment in black-owned or operated media companies, agencies and marketing suppliers", Quiet Storm chief executive Rania Robinson says it's high time brands unpick their own unconscious bias when it comes to agency selection. 

We challenge our unconscious biases when hiring internally – now it’s time for brands to do the same with their suppliers.

It’s widely accepted that people feel more comfortable working with people who are like them. That is part of the reason why our industry has struggled for so long with a lack of diversity.

With varying degrees of success, this situation is being challenged within organisations, with a greater focus on implementing diversity and inclusion policies, and individuals committed to driving wide-scale change.

I wonder, though, if this is being considered to the same extent when it comes to how brands are selecting the agencies they work with?

In an industry governed by relationships and chemistry – factors that can often override capability and experience when you have a stable of agencies on the pitch list that all have the relevant credentials – I question how much of the final decision making is actually about chemistry or capability and how much is about unconscious bias.

This is even more pronounced in a tough economic climate when people are inclined to be more risk-averse. Are they going to go with an agency that makes them feel uncomfortable in any way, consciously or unconsciously?

It was heartening last week to read about Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) roadmap for achieving racial equality – especially its commitment to "restructuring buying systems" to “significantly increase” investment in black-owned or operated media companies, agencies and marketing suppliers’. (And hey, Marc Pritchard, we’re here to speak to you whenever you're ready...).

Unconscious bias isn’t just about race, gender, sexuality and disability – it can extend to characteristics like weight or age. But the good news is this: it has been shown that these biases are malleable, that we can take steps to mitigate their impact on our behaviours and decisions.

There’s more good news: tackling unconscious bias isn’t just about doing the right thing morally. It leads to better campaigns by making room for different points of view, it provides thinking that helps brands stand out from their competitors and connect with the whole of their audience potential, not just some of them.

At Quiet Storm we’re lucky to work with clients who are creatively confident, who actively want to challenge the status quo with genuinely original thinking and are willing to step outside of their comfort zone.

I’m optimistic there will be industry-wide improvements as marketing director roles across all sectors begin to look diverse. But that could take years to happen.

So, is it time for individuals and organisations to tackle unconscious bias when selecting an agency?

Just because someone looks like you, doesn’t mean they’re the best person for the job. You need an agency leadership team that reflects your target audience.

If it’s a policy that one of the world’s biggest advertisers believes in adopting, there’s something in it for all of us to think about.

Rania Robinson is chief executive at indie agency Quiet Storm. The agency tweets @QuietStormAdv

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