Campaign, April 2024

Back in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, black squares began dropping on social media. After the shock came the promises of allyship. Then came the initiatives, in their droves. The advertising industry would change from Shoreditch to the South Bank to the sun-splashed Croisette in Cannes. Hires would be made with a remit to focus on inclusion. Diversity, equity and inclusion (specifically of black, brown and other minority ethnic talent) was, it seemed, finally top of the agenda.

But four years on it's a di!erent story. Campaign has spoken to more than 50 people, representing those from entry-level years through to industry veterans, to uncover the prevailing sentiment in 2024. Many spoke of their frustration at the speed with which DE&I has been deprioritised since the loud clamour for change in 2020.

Nishma Patel Robb, president of Wacl and The History of Advertising Trust, explains: “The rollback on DE&I with people replacing it in priorities – as if we have a choice – astounds me. We’re sleepwalking into a major issue where our industry just doesn’t reflect our population – neither have we increased representation at the top.”

Adland’s fickle obsession with trends is also evident, as Lollipop Mentoring founder Maria McDowell, outlines: “I genuinely thought the industry would change more but, it turns out, it was a fad. Adland has moved on to the next thing – sustainability or the menopause are the big topics now. You talk about race and you can actually see people glaze over, it’s as if this has become unfashionable. If DE&I is now dead, then where is the equity?”

Organisations that have taken a serious and structured approach to change – implementing initiatives and making long-term commitments – have a key factor in common, says The Barber Shop’s founder Dino Myers-Lamptey: “In each example, there is a diverse leader there championing, pushing and tapping into networks. Places that tend to fail in their e!orts often have no representation at the top.”

The swift about-turn by many organisations on their DE&I structures and hires hasn’t surprised everyone. Kevin Morosky, filmmaker, author and co-founder of People of Culture Collective, points out that the roles did exist pre-2020 but were held predominantly by white women. “After 2020, the heads of DE&I became black and brown women. All of these jobs then disappeared because with black and brown women doing those roles, they were really testing and questioning the structure and so there was friction. When you are trying to make changes at surface level, nothing happens because the foundations are rotten, they haven’t been changed.”

And the clamour to be more inclusive has also resulted in a “tick-boxing" of blackowned businesses, with Quiet Storm’s chief executive and former Wacl president Rania Robinson explaining that, “Our agency, along with many black-owned businesses, was put on more rosters since 2020 but none of them lead to anything." It’s an experience shared by Myers-Lamptey, who agrees that his business hasn’t won any work due to being “black-owned/founded”, yet has certainly been invited to pitch more.

Stats don’t lie

The latest Advertising Association All In Census was released last May and covers both agencies and brands. It reported that 18% of respondents were from a “minority ethnic” background (compared with 16% in the previous 2021 census), exceeding the 14% of the overall UK working population. However, with the advertising and marketing industry highly concentrated in London, one of the world's most diverse cities, the industry remains under-representative.

More recent data from the IPA, released at the end of January, shows a decline in the level of ethnic diversity at agencies. The report estimates the percentage of employees from a non-white background is 23.3%, down marginally on the 23.6% reported the previous year. Individuals from a non-white background account for just 11% of employees in executive management and C-suite roles, down from 11.2% the previous year.

Leila Fataar, founder of Platform 13, a cultural marketing and relevance consultancy, comments: “Everytime I talk to a creative of colour and – or even – our allies, the story is not positive. The IPA data shows the level of diversity is marginally down overall, senior POC are down, while junior and entry level are up, impacting negatively the size of the ethnicity pay gap, which has increased year on year.

“Simultaneously, DE&I programmes, targets and initiatives have been deprioritised client side, which again has an e!ect on the make-up of their agency partners – it's all interconnected. And, disappointingly, it feels like it's going backwards.”

The entry-level experience

Individuals from a non-white background occupy 35.6% of entry- and junior-level roles, up from the 33.3% the previous year according to the IPA data, but there’s an added scrutiny these new hires experience when making their next career move, says Naren Patel, chief executive o"cer and founder of Media for All: “There seems to be a ‘jilted John’ complex, with leaders complaining that their young hires from diverse backgrounds of 2021 moved on within two years. Well, so did their white colleagues, too – young people do tend to move on within a short space of time.”

The hope is that the new talent entering in the industry is here to stay, but the All In stats also flag that a startling 30% of black respondents and 21% of Asian respondents said they were likely to leave the industry due to a lack of inclusion and/or discrimination experienced. Clearly more must be done to nurture the talent before they exit the industry, says Ete Davies, Dentsu Creative’s EMEA chief operating o"cer and chair of the All In Black Talent Working Group.

“While there’s been a lot more work done by DE&I-focused initiatives at entry level, the experience hasn’t shifted much in the past four years,” Davies explains.

“Lots of these schemes are focused around landing that first job but once in, it remains quite difficult. The All In data tells us people are feeling undervalued, which is pretty bad when you consider this data was recorded in the years when the industry was really focused on DE&I. Despite everything that has happened, the stats on those likely to leave the industry have barely changed. Collectively, more needs to be done.”

And one of these actions should be addressing “lazy” hiring, says Trevor Robinson, founder of Quiet Storm and Create Not Hate. “People look for themselves, often middle-class people from a certain school, basically ignoring a huge pool of talent along the way. There’s a hell of a lot of talented people who are not being used and the industry would be better if they were.

“For a young black creative, it remains hard work to constantly play the game, feeling you have to fit in. When you get a young, talented person into an agency where 99% of the people are not like them, then they will not feel comfortable. And they quickly feel that if they are going to succeed, they are going to have to get used to feeling uncomfortable.”

In addition to that discomfort, post-2020 many organisations leaned on their black and brown colleagues to steer their inclusion e!orts while also doing their own jobs. Amie Snow-Mayers, creative and founder of Eleda House + Sanctuary, a soon-tolaunch retreat for creatives, explains that after June 2020 she (and many of her peers) became a diversity ambassador. “The result is you flip-flop between your actual job of creating award-winning work and then also being this diversity lead, doing so much extra work and experiencing burnout," she says. "Black and brown talent su!er from burnout so frequently because we have to work two or three times as hard to prove ourselves.”

Speaking of the urgent shift that needs to occur, Fataar adds: “The industry needs to see DE&I as a value, not a cost, and integrate it through the business as a horizontal function, not a vertical one. Diversity should not be conflated with inclusion, as they need di!erent strategies. Done right, those junior roles can be supported properly to reach senior levels and that all-important decision making. The risk of not focusing on 'inclusion' is that POC leave the industry before they even have a chance to get there.”

Senior leadership pipeline

While entry-level representation may be improving, the most recent IPA Census found a decline in the proportion of senior leaders from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is because they had left to set up their own businesses or had left the industry entirely. Clearly more work needs to be done in terms of progression, development, mentoring and advocating at all levels. “There can be inequity in the support for progression,” says Davies. “We desperately need more representation in leadership to keep talent in the industry – and we need to make this more important across leadership teams in all roles that can influence to create change.”

And with such low representation in senior leadership, departures are felt acutely. Several people interviewed for this feature spoke of both shock and sadness following the announcement of the forthcoming departure of Karen Blackett as president of WPP in the UK, with Pretty Bird’s Mia Powell reminding that “we can’t be what we can’t see” and Backlight CEO and founder of the Black Pound Report, Lydia Amoah, adding: “You’ll always see apprenticeships and entry-level schemes, but what I want to see is changes in the top level of leadership teams – the CEOs, the MDs, the decision makers.”

As representation in leadership declines, it remains crucially important that businesses take a long-term approach to their DE&I strategies as any instability can hinder progress. Bukola Garry joined Adam&Eve/DDB in January 2021 as the agency’s first head of DE&I and, during her time there, created its first DE&I policy. However, her two years at the agency coincided with significant changes of leadership and structure. “Strategy is a long-term thing and it relies on a proactive leader to bring energy to drive it. If the person sponsoring and advocating for it leaves, that becomes a major setback,” she says.

The agency’s chief executive Miranda Hipwell confirms that no direct replacement has been found for Garry, saying that diversity is a “multifaceted challenge” that shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of one individual: “Rather than automatically find someone else to fill her shoes, we as a leadership team concluded that a di!erent approach was now needed. This is because, given the breadth of change needed, it’s unfair to expect one person in the agency to lead it and doing so can absolve everyone else from feeling the need to share responsibility for it.”

“What we are doing now is working to get more weight behind becoming more diverse, not just in gender or ethnicity but in respect of a wide range of di!erent experiences and backgrounds. We are doing this by involving everyone in the agency, collaborating with a broad array of external partners and embedding a number of important new, culture-changing initiatives.”

Adland needs to move beyond overestimating what can be done in the short term, Patel Robb says: “People are the most important aspect of your business. We would not treat other aspects of business strategy in the same way. No-one should have approached this with short-term objectives. I worry it comes from a place of fear, of relinquishing control. Great people can rise to the top, but we need more urgency and action.”

Creating an equitable future

Progress is being made but frustration at the pace of change remains, says VCCP’s group CEO and former IPA president Julian Douglas. Douglas, who also chairs the Black Representation in Marketing (BRiM) advisory group, explains: “Everyone knows where we need to get to, we just need to take individual responsibility to get there more quickly. As we say at BRiM, we must move from good intentions to meaningful action.”

While it is clear that urgent actions need to come from across the industry, individuals are also demonstrating their own impact in creating an equitable future. Nina Bhagwat, global group director of DE&I at global public relations agency Golin, isn’t alone in sharing the view that one of the biggest changes in the past four years has come from individuals having more agency in how and where they want to work: “What makes me optimistic is the fact that more emerging talent are proud of their unique voices, are able to advocate for themselves and be who they want to be.”

Initiatives from Black Strat and It Takes a Village Collective through to Lollipop Mentoring also point to a rise in communities focusing on galvanising and uplifting each other. POCC’s Morosky stresses that “we all need to go o! and build our own spaces and talk to each other as a foundation, so that when you do step into those spaces, you have your own foundation and what you will stand for and what you won’t”.

“We are all a part of building the future we want to see,” agrees Ayo Fagbemi, cofounder of Explorers Club and founder of Black Strat. “Constant iteration; it’s how the best judge themselves. How can I be 10% better every week? This is an approach we as an industry should take on a variety of issues versus a yo-yo-ing of priorities and questions. Action moves the industry forward.”


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