Addressing the ad industry’s diversity problem

The advertising industry has a particularly poor record on diversity, but some of its key players are determined to change this by casting the net far more widely for talent


The UK advertising industry was hit particularly hard by the pandemic in 2020. As survival in the short term became the priority for most players, there were restructurings and redundancies, as well as budget reductions and cuts to long-established agency ties.

All this came against a backdrop of an industry struggling to change perceptions that it is too London-centric and not as open as it could be to a diverse workforce. How, then, is it to attract the next generation of talent and ensure that it’s creating work that reflects the full range of British experiences?

The talent crisis

The latest agency survey by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) shows the serious impact of Covid-19. Staff numbers at its member agencies fell by 10.8% year on year in 2020. Just over a quarter of those departures were a direct result of the pandemic.

Digging deeper into the data, it’s clear that the impact has not been felt equally. Female employees were hit harder, with their number falling by 12.8% compared with 8.1% for their male counterparts. The proportion of C-suite posts occupied by women also declined, from 34% in 2019 to 32.4% in 2020.

The youngest and oldest employees have also taken the brunt of the job losses. The number of under-25s employed by IPA member agencies declined by 29.4% in 2020, while the number of over-60s fell by 22.1%.

But there has been some more positive news. The proportion of non-white employees in the industry in 2020 was 15.3%, up from 13.7% in 2019. At the C level, 6.4% of roles were occupied by people with a non-white background, up 1.7 percentage points year on year. Yet there is clearly still a huge amount of work to do to improve diversity at the highest levels of the industry.

The IPA’s recently appointed president, Julian Douglas, acknowledges the industry’s enduring inability to make significant improvements in this area. One task that’s high on his presidential agenda is “accelerating efforts” to make adland a more inclusive place.

Douglas, who hails from Manchester, is also aiming to make it less of a London-centric business. Signalling his desire to attract talent from outside the M25, he deliberately gave his presidential address to the IPA at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum, rather than somewhere in the capital.

Pay equity is a huge issue in the industry, while representation of Black employees at C-suite or senior leadership level remains low

“Brilliant things happen on many levels beyond London. There are loads of great agencies out here,” enthuses Douglas, who is also international CEO and vice-chairman at the VCCP agency. “The biggest positive societal impacts will be by attracting and harnessing talent from around the UK. I’m talking not only about agencies, but also about brands. Most of the brands that I work with are outside London.”

The Creative Equals consultancy, which works to improve diversity in the advertising industry, supports Douglas’s aims. As a sign of the work that’s still required, its director of client services, Dinah Williams, quotes data from recruiter Major Players showing that a white man earns £10,000 more a year on average than a white woman and £20,000 more than a Black woman in the same role.

Covid, she says, has nullified “any previous wins or progress we’ve seen in terms of Black representation. We know that the resulting downturn has affected more women than men – even more so for women in underrepresented groups.”

Williams continues: “Pay equity is a huge issue in the industry, while representation of Black employees at C-suite or senior leadership level remains low. The mean average is 2.9% and the median is 0%, which means that more than half of all teams at these levels have no Black members. And we’re still finding that 71% of organisations aren’t collecting data on the ethnicity pay gap.”

Improving diversity

Some agencies have been making concerted efforts to address the problem. Leo Burnett, for instance, anonymises applicants’ CVs to prevent any unconscious bias among recruiting managers from affecting shortlisting decisions. It has also signed up to the open apprenticeship scheme operated by its parent company, Publicis Groupe UK. This aims to reach 10,000 people with disadvantaged backgrounds and offer them training, mentoring and employment opportunities.

“It’s hard to hire people from diverse backgrounds into more senior positions because the industry simply hasn’t worked hard enough and early enough on attraction and retention,” says Leo Burnett’s MD, Carly Avener. “Our strategy has focused on entry-level talent, which is where we can make the most impact right now.”

As Douglas has highlighted, the industry’s clients must also play their part. With this in mind, the Advertising Association has just created an alliance called Black Representation in Marketing in its bid to “create meaningful change”. Sponsors include Facebook, Unilever, VCCP and travel company Tui. Its advisory group includes representatives from organisations such as Accenture, the BBC and Creative Equals.

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), meanwhile, has published numerous guides for brands, including 2020’s A Marketer’s Approach to Diversity and Inclusion. Its aim is to encourage users to consider not only the diversity of their teams but also the work that these produce.

Pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline – a WFA member – is seen as a leader in this area, having created a dedicated diversity hub containing best-practice guidance and training for its marketing teams. The company also encourages users to run workshops to share their knowledge more widely.

Such initiatives are slowly helping the industry to address its diversity problems and so better represent the customers it serves. This in turn should make it a more attractive proposition for the next generation of talent.

Tara McRae, chief marketing officer at shoe company Clarks, is excited about the opportunities. The pandemic, she says, has forced her firm to accelerate the work it had been doing to adopt more progressive and innovative marketing methods. 

“At Clarks, we have some new mentorship programmes that we’re about to start with partners within [poorly represented] communities in the coming months. I’m personally engaged and super excited about these,” McRae says. “We aren’t perfect and we’re not there yet, but we are committed to making positive changes.”