Diversity in marketing – how is the industry doing?

We review the evidence of how diverse marketing really is – and the actions most likely to make a difference

March 14, 2017

Diversity in marketing and marketing-related industries has been high on the agenda for most of the past year. The issue has received renewed attention thanks to the shocking views and alleged behaviour of two senior advertising executives, which provided a stark reminder of the immense barriers to diversity that still exist. However, despite the attention, clear and comprehensive facts about diversity in marketing can feel frustratingly difficult to pin down. Just how diverse is marketing, really? What are the barriers to diversity – and what solutions can we adopt to overcome them? Here’s what we think we know so far:

What do we mean by diversity in marketing?

It’s worth starting with a definition of what diversity in marketing involves. The discussion tends to be dominated by the issue of gender equality. This is partly because it was the attitude to women shown by the then Saatchi & Saatchi Chairman Kevin Roberts last August that demonstrated just how far the industry still has to go on this issue. However, it’s also because gender equality is the only area of diversity in marketing that we seem to have any consistent and reliable data for. The numbers aren’t always definitive but there are enough studies and analyses to give a pretty clear idea of what progress, if any, is being made.

When it comes to the representation of minority ethnic groups or LGBT people in the marketing industry, there’s almost no data and far less discussion. That doesn’t mean these areas are any less of a diversity issue. If anything, it means the opposite.

There are other diversity issues bubbling under the surface for marketing as well. In an industry that’s traditionally obsessed with youth, do we need to keep a close eye on how representative marketing is of different age groups? Are we doing enough to welcome people from different socio-economic backgrounds or with different political views? You only had to be at the Festival of Marketing session on Brexit last October to see how narrow the spectrum of political views within marketing actually is.

Diversity in marketing isn’t just about the number of people from different groups working in our industry; it’s also about achieving representative headcount across different functions, skillsets, roles and seniority levels. If we judged marketing’s performance on gender equality just by how many women worked in the industry, we might congratulate ourselves that we were doing pretty well. If we look at the number in leadership roles, the picture is very different.

Technology, marketing and diversity

As marketing increasingly overlaps with technology, the representation of different groups across different types of functions is likely to become more of an issue. If women are considered for, say content marketing or social media-related roles, but rarely for more tech-related ones, then that’s a significant barrier to gender equality. It’s worth bearing in mind that the technology industry has some high-profile diversity issues of its own. Analytics Advocate Krista Seiden wrote a fascinating post late last year about the experiences of Women in Technology – and how unconscious bias operates in that industry. Mary Spio, a guest on our Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast, the founder of CEEK VR and a former NASA rocket scientist, explained to me how immensely difficult it is for a tech company headed by a woman to secure VC funding. In fact, 97% of all such funding goes to businesses with a man as the figurehead

Why does diversity in marketing matter?

Diversity in marketing, then, is a complex issue – and just because we make progress in one area doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re making progress in another. To answer the question of how diverse marketing actually is, we need to look at all of the different angles. First though, it’s worth backing up slightly – and asking why diversity in marketing matters so much.

There’s a clear and obvious answer here: equality of opportunity is a fundamental human right, and diversity is the application of that right to the workplace. Even if it had no positive effect on business at all, diversity would remain morally the right thing to do. However, we don’t have to rely solely on the moral argument. There is growing evidence that diversity in marketing departments drives more successful brands – and more successful businesses.

Research from McKinsey & Company shows that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially – and that this outperformance is growing. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are now 15% more likely to outperform their peers; those in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to outperform.

In our podcast interview, Mary Spio summed up the importance pretty comprehensively: “diversity isn’t a nicety, it’s a necessity.” She argues that “inclusion is an inescapable and necessary consequence of a global economy; it’s becoming impossible for companies to flourish without diverse organisations that reflect their consumer base.”

With leading brands increasingly looking for new sources of growth in previously untapped markets, ethnic diversity within marketing teams can quickly become a source of very practical competitive advantage. By the same rationale, proper gender equality within marketing should be a basic hygiene factor for the many, many brands that rely on female consumers. As Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall tweeted, in response to Roberts’ claim that gender equality in advertising was no longer an issue: “"Seriously @krconnect? If I were CMO @ P&G I would be questioning your understanding of my core consumer #doesntgetit."

Diversity in marketing has both commercial logic and moral imperative behind it – but is that enough? Is marketing getting more diverse in response? Here’s where the answers get difficult to pin down. However, let’s try and do so by looking at the key areas of diversity in marketing in turn:

How is marketing doing on gender equality?

The issue with gender equality and marketing isn’t that there aren’t a representative number of female marketers – it’s that far too few of those female marketers ever make it into more senior roles.

In its 2013 report on Women in Marketing, the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) used data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to show that, although women hold the majority of graduate and junior marketing roles in the UK, they only have 23% of marketing and sales director positions.

This discrepancy grows the more senior you get. In 2012, a report by the business consultancy Grant Thornton estimated that only 8% of CMOs worldwide were women. A year later, specialist marketing recruiter EMR released its own report showing that male marketers were twice as likely as female ones to reach a director-level role. They were also twice as likely to hold the position of head of marketing. In its study, only 12% of female marketers had made it to be head of their department – and only 7% made it to marketing director. By contrast 18% of male marketers get to be a marketing director, and 25% get to be head of marketing.

The EMR report also spotlights another aspect of the gender equality issue in marketing: pay. According to the study, whereas 61% of male marketers received a bonus, only 53% of women did. And when it comes to pay in marketing-related industries more generally, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Last year, a Foresight Factory report into the US media, advertising and creative industries found a huge gap, not just in pay but in awareness that pay was unequal. According to this study, only 23% of women in these marketing-related industries believe that they earn as much as their male peers. However, only 12% of men believe that their female colleagues earn less than they do.

Is marketing becoming any more equal as far as gender is concerned? There are some encouraging signs in more recent research. The Foresight Factory report found that women aged 18 to 29 were significantly more likely to feel they could be themselves at work and still have the career that they wanted. Over half (59%) agreed with this statement whereas only 38% of those aged over 45 did.

Campaign magazine’s ‘Power 100’ listing of top UK marketers in 2016, included 32 women. This isn’t an industry-wide sample by any means. However, it might be seen as indicating that women are holding more high-profile positions within the industry – and are increasingly seen in leadership roles.

On the other hand, there is evidence that gender equality in more creative marketing-related roles is still a long way off. At the Cannes Lions last year, the agency Razorfish crunched the data on award-winning entries to the festival to pick out trends amongst the marketing industry’s creative output. Amongst the findings was that only 11% of creative directors that featured in awards entries were women – a proportion that had actually declined over time.

How ethnically diverse is marketing?

Marketing may still have a long way to go on gender equality – but it arguably has even further to travel when it comes to ethnic diversity. Airbnb’s CMO Jonathan Mildenhall declared himself appalled at how white the Cannes festival appeared to have become, in an interview with Marketing Week recorded at the event last year. He pointed out that he was literally the only black face at any of the industry dinners that he attended.

It’s difficult to find any industry-wide studies of ethnic diversity in marketing to put Mildenhall’s point to the test. However, the Campaign Power 100 listing suggests he’s right about ethnic diversity being the next big issue for marketing. Whilst a third of the list were women, significantly fewer than 10% were from minority ethnic groups.

This raises an interesting question on what he end-goal for diversity in marketing is. According to the most recent ONS data, around 13% of the UK population is non-white British. Should the goal for ethnic diversity in that country’s marketing industry be to replicate the national population – or to go further? Considering the competitive advantages that come from a marketing team representing all of its potential audiences, it makes commercial sense for a business to push for greater diversity than exists in the population as a whole.

How many LGBT people work in marketing?

No data is available on how many LGBT marketers there are – or on the level of seniority they reach. This reflects the nature of privacy and the difficulty of interpreting sexuality from publicly available data. However, the fact that this issue is so much less widely discussed than other areas of diversity in marketing also suggests that the industry has work to do. Despite several high-profile brands coming out in support of issues such as same-sex marriage in recent years, the group remains one of the most underrepresented in mainstream marketing campaigns, according to The Drum. That might, in itself, suggest that LGBT voices aren’t being sufficiently heard within marketing departments and their agencies. 

Is ageism the next big diversity issue for marketing?

As digital skills take an increasingly prominent role within marketing, organisations like the Institution of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) have raised concerns that this could exacerbate another diversity issue for the industry – ageism. There’s already a concern that marketing is far too much of a young persons’ game – and that valuable skills, experience and perspective are lost when older people are sidelined or made to feel they are past their prime. The average age of employees at IPA member agencies is under 34. An assumption that only younger people can master emerging social media platforms could bring it down further still.

What are the forces holding diversity back?

Why hasn’t the marketing industry made more progress than it has on these different areas of diversity? Most discussions tend to come down to the issue of unconscious bias, the instinctive and instantaneous way in which our brains categorise the people we come across between those in our ‘in group’ and those outside it. This leads to men in power favouring other men in power. However, because of the human need to feel part of a successful group, it can also lead to women in positions of power favouring male candidates for senior positions as well. Mary Spio refers to this type of bias as ‘pattern matching’, with groups of people having a fixed idea of what a particular candidate for a role will look and feel like – based largely on the types of people they have seen in that role before.

For these reasons, progress towards overcoming unconscious bias can be frustratingly slow. It requires a business to commit to raising awareness of the issue – and making the unconscious, conscious. Businesses that are focused on overcoming unconscious bias often use measures such as mixed interview panels, to integrate different perspectives into the recruitment process. However, they also stress the importance of taking time to come to decisions on who is most suitable for a role, and focusing on overcoming instinctive responses.

Krista Seiden’s post about working in world of unconscious bias makes the point that the same core human characteristics are described and interpreted differently for women than they are for men – positively for one gender, negatively for another. So whereas a man might be praised as a passionate leader, maverick or visionary, a woman behaving the exact same way is likely to be criticised as “too strong”, “catty” or “awkward to work with.” In her experience, unconscious bias establishes very different frameworks for interpreting the actions of men and women. 

What types of actions can increase diversity in marketing?

The need to overcome unconscious bias is just one of the priorities put forward by campaigners to help increase diversity in marketing. The question of affirmative action continues to divide opinion. In the Foresight Factory research from last year, 57% of those working in the creative industries felt that board-level quotas for women would help to drive greater gender equality in marketing and media industries. However, such forms of positive discrimination are not legal in all countries – and divide opinion within the marketing industry itself. Many campaigners for greater diversity have argued that the accusation of simply being there to fill a quota undermines women in leadership positions, for example.

At an Advertising Week panel in New York last year, the author Valerie Graves argued that the marketing and advertising industries need to start reframing their perceptions of leadership around characteristics that are associated with women – and which men should seek to aspire to. Why shouldn’t marketing as an industry place greater emphasis on collaborative working, a relationship-based approach to management, or defusing issues by confronting them in a timely manner, for example? Changing the cultural context within marketing departments in this way perhaps remains the key challenge for marketing when it comes to diversity. As my colleague Josh Graff wrote in a post on this blog last year, there’s a big difference between a working environment that has some diverse people in it and a working environment that actively celebrates diversity.

Making diversity a priority for marketing and advertising leaders is the only way to create such environments consistently – and at times this can seem like a battle. Last May, Stonewall’s chief executive Ruth Hunt took the marketing industry to task on how little it seemed to be prioritising diversity, complaining at the lack of interest in a panel she was part of at the Festival of Marketing Global. Events such as the Diversity in Marketing and Advertising Summit, which takes place in London on April 4th and 5th, aim to drive a change in focus. It provides for intense analysis of what it takes to foster greater diversity within marketing departments and agencies, ensure equality of opportunity at all levels of marketing, and ensure that diversity translates into representative advertising campaigns and marketing activity.

What’s certain is that diversity in marketing is going nowhere as an issue – and it’s an issue that we’ll be looking to come back to on our Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast during the next few weeks. We’re working on lining up guests that can provide different perspectives on the many different challenges involved in making marketing more diverse. Watch this space for details.