Why diversity in advertising matters to marketers

The Kevin Roberts furore shows advertising still has a big diversity issue – we need to work together to solve it

August 9, 2016

There’s a big difference between a working environment that has some diverse people in it and a working environment that actively celebrates diversity. Former Saatchi & Saatchi Chairman Kevin Roberts showed how little he understood that difference when he declared a week ago that the gender diversity debate in the advertising industry is “all over” and that diversity campaigners like advertising consultant Cindy Gallop are “making up a lot of the stuff to create a profile, and to take applause, and to get on a soap[box].”

Roberts is gone from Saatchi & Saatchi now. He resigned on Thursday. Is this a victory for the champions of equality and diversity in advertising? Only to a very limited extent. Sadly, the evidence suggests that Roberts’ comments are the tip of a large iceberg that stubbornly refuses to melt. What’s worse, they serve to exacerbate the problem by perpetuating the myths that advertising has long used to drag its feet on this issue. This is a big issue for adland. If it’s not addressed soon, it could become an existential issue. And that makes it a big issue for marketers as well.


Why is gender equality still an issue in advertising?

Diversity in advertising and marketing is about far more than just gender equality of course (another high-profile resignation – of JWT chief executive Gustavo Martinez involved accusations in a host of other areas). However, gender equality is a good issue to focus on for a few reasons: firstly, it really should be fixed by now. Roughly half of all the people working in advertising are women – and yet only around 32% of those in leadership positions are.

Perhaps most tellingly, women still fill only 11% of creative director roles. The heart of the advertising industry remains hugely male dominated. And if advertising can’t empower and support women equally when it has so much potential talent within its ranks, what chance does it have in improving its performance on ethnic diversity (hugely under-represented, as Airbnb’s CMO Jonathan Mildenhall pointed out at Cannes this year)? Or on establishing LGBT role models in leadership positions?

If anything, there’s evidence that the situation on gender equality is getting worse. At Cannes this year, Razorfish’s Global Chief Creative Officer Daniel Bonner presented a fascinating Big Data analysis of the characteristics of Cannes Lions winners – and as he explained in our Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast, there was a worrying trend in that data. A decade ago, 9.9% of the executives listed on Cannes submissions were women. By this year it had actually dropped – to 9.8%.


Diversity isn’t a numbers game – it’s a culture game

The problem with gender inequality is that there are still plenty of people in advertising beyond Roberts, who think there’s a perfectly valid excuse for it. It’s an excuse that Roberts summed up rather well: we’d love to put more women in leadership positions but they just don’t seem to want those high-pressure, time-demanding roles.

This embodies adland’s problem. It’s a hugely out-dated belief that responsibility for promoting diversity only goes so far as making positions available; it doesn’t embrace pro-actively changing the cultural factors that prevent different groups from taking them up. It’s not enough to blame the lack of affordable childcare in the country as a whole (as many have done in the aftermath of the Roberts firestorm). Actively championing gender equality in advertising means changing working practices within advertising to ensure this is less of an issue. It means prioritising putting women into the roles where they are under-represented, asking questions about what it would take to make that happen (flexible working practices being an obvious starting point), and then doing those things determinedly until it does happen.


Wanted – executive thought-leaders to change the narrative

Forward-thinking businesses talk about diversity as a potential source of competitive advantage – but for advertising, it’s becoming more of a survival issue. How can you hope to compete for the next generation of creative talent, when you only seem to offer opportunity to a narrow slice of that generation? Advertising is eroding its talent brand in the areas where it needs to be strongest.

We talk a lot on this blog about the positive role that executive thought-leadership can play for businesses by embodying the values that those businesses stand for – and demonstrating how they run all the way through from top to bottom. It’s a powerful brand asset because it can talk to so many different audiences simultaneously: embedding vision and values internally at the same time as demonstrating the depth of brand purpose to customers and potential employees. Senior executives play exactly that role for businesses like EY, which has built a highly effective brand presence on LinkedIn by taking on the issue of gender equality in the workplace.

The last week has shown the potential dark side of this. It’s shown what goes wrong when your executive thought leaders don't actually understand what the culture of your business is or needs to be. I know that there are agency leaders out there who do understand this and who are fully committed to diversity. The reaction to Roberts’ comments has demonstrated some of the strength and extent of that feeling. It would be great to see more of those people taking an active role as executive thought leaders and forcing a change in the narrative at C-suite level.


Why diversity in advertising matters to marketers

I mentioned at the top of this post that advertising’s problems with diversity are an issue for marketers as well. There are three reasons why I believe this to be true.

Firstly, because marketing departments can’t afford to be complacent on diversity. Brands tend to be part of larger businesses with stronger governance and this can have a positive role in ensuring that diversity is taken seriously. It’s why there are stronger diversity role models in leadership positions on the client side than on the agency side. However, marketing shares many of the same working pressures as advertising – and that means the same excuses can creep in if we’re not vigilant.

Secondly, because advertising agencies with legacy creative cultures are less equipped to deliver the type of work and working relationships that brands need. A lack of diversity doesn’t just mean that the creative leaders in your agency are developing campaigns for audiences they have very little in common with; it also makes them less likely to challenge how they work with you as a client. Much of the friction that exists between marketers and their agencies stems from an inability to find new ways to work that reflect the changing communications landscape.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s because senior marketers are in a pretty good position to do something about advertising’s diversity problems before it’s too late. On Twitter, Mildenhall made the point that, if he were CMO of P&G, he’d seriously question Saatchi & Saatchi’s understanding of the brand’s core consumer. Should marketers be asking more of these types of questions?

For the vast majority of people working in both marketing and advertising, foot-dragging on diversity is hugely frustrating. It’s time to change the conversation – but to do that, we need to keep actively talking about this issue until it’s solved; not just waiting for the next person to demonstrate that it isn’t.