Advertising has become a much more diverse place in recent years. While the change has opened-up new opportunities for some, it may have closed doors in the faces of others, and there are signs that a backlash has begun.
It’s usually white, middle-aged men who are privately (though, in some cases, openly) criticising diversity on the supposed grounds that it goes against meritocracy. But this belief is more self-serving than it is accurate, and the reality is that true meritocracy demands an even more profound commitment to diversity – a journey that still has a long way to go.
It’s usually white, middle-aged men who are privately (though, in some cases, openly) criticising diversity on the supposed grounds that it goes against meritocracy.
So, what exactly is the current state of play on diversity in our industry, in terms of ad agencies, marketers, casting, and directors? In short, it has vastly improved in the past few years, but there are still areas that are lagging.
Executives at the major ad agency groups are 85% white (source: this report, issued in 2020, by the ANA). It’s a big improvement if you’ve seen Mad Men, but still an overrepresentation given that the US population as a whole is 76% white, per US census data. On the other hand, the gender balance is healthier than ever – 59% of US ad agency employees are female, according to Statista, although an intriguing undercover experiment by two young, female creatives in the UK demonstrates that it may still be harder for female teams to break in. And women are still paid less: in fact, the gender pay gap in UK ad agencies actually worsened this year.
Behind the camera, [there's] a different story. Only three women directed Super Bowl spots this year, and only five people of colour.
The marketing community is less ethnically diverse than the advertising community. Only 3% of 870 chief marketing officers are Black, 5% are Asian, and 4% are Hispanic (ANA), but gender parity has been achieved – 52% of US chief marketing officers are female (ANA again).
In the world of commercials specifically, there has been major progress in terms of casting. An analysis of this year’s Super Bowl ads by the Association of National Advertisers’ Alliance for Inclusive & Multicultural Marketing found that 45% of the spots featured inclusive casting. It’s particularly notable that 29% of all actors in Super Bowl spots were Black, when only 13.4% of the US population identify as exclusively Black/African American, according to US census data.
The overall picture is one of improved diversity, which means fewer jobs for white men. And guess who has started the backlash.
But, behind the camera, it’s a different story. Only three women directed Super Bowl spots this year, and only five people of colour.
Around the world, there is fine work being done by the likes of the 4A’s to address gender equality and diversity in advertising, and there are also heart-breaking deficiencies, such as a recent Australian report on diversity which failed to find a single member of the advertising industry from an Aboriginal background. But the overall picture is one of improved diversity, which means fewer jobs for white men. And guess who has started the backlash.
The usual argument of the backlashers – that a focus on diversity undermines meritocracy – is obviously false.
In July of this year a legal tribunal in the UK found that two white middle-aged male creative directors were unfairly made redundant on the basis of their gender. “If I'd been a young, Black, gay woman I'd have been ok,” one of them commented. “Hopefully the judgment will encourage more people to stand up to the 'Cancel Club'”, added one of the successful claimants’ lawyers. Publications like The Daily Mail went ham on the story, as did their readership, with the comment “use a different agency, keep away from woke idiots” attracting nearly 12,000 upvotes.
However, the usual argument of the backlashers – that a focus on diversity undermines meritocracy – is obviously false. Since talent is equally distributed across all races and genders, the most meritocratic organisation would, by definition, be as diverse as the society in which it operates.
Although we believed we were operating in a meritocracy, in reality, people hired people like them.
The fact is, although we believed we were operating in a meritocracy, in reality, people hired people like them. A simple example illustrates this point: once orchestras started conducting ‘blind’ auditions, in other words, asking potential new recruits to play from behind a screen so that their gender and ethnicity were not visible to the hiring panel, the proportion of white men they employed began to decline rapidly.
And in the world of advertising, where it’s advantageous to explore as many angles as possible, diversity is a distinct commercial advantage. As John Hegarty once famously said, “the essence of creativity is difference.”
There is now a considerable body of evidence that diverse teams outperform. Diverse films make more money at the box office, and TV ads with more diverse casting are more successful too. The really interesting and less-explored question is whether we need to start looking at diversity beyond the ‘visible’ qualities of race, gender and physical disability.
In a world where everyone has to be ‘client-friendly’, should we be concerned about the loss of people who are talented but disagreeable?
For example, there is some evidence that adding neurodiversity (people affected by dyslexia, ADHD, social anxiety disorders and other conditions) may be a competitive advantage, according to Harvard Business Review. And what about simple diversity of personality? Differences in psychology, tastes and personal style are crucial components of any advertising agency, creative department or production company roster of directors.
In a world where everyone has to be ‘client-friendly’, should we be concerned about the loss of people who are talented but disagreeable? And with the increasing pace of internet-driven advertising, are we losing ‘slow’ thinkers, who can’t type 54 emails an hour, but whose minds are valuably different.
Diversity is a competitive advantage, and although we’ve come a long way, we clearly still have further to go. Even in our understanding of the term ‘diversity’ itself.