Extinction rebellion: Why diversity in advertising must prevail

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Our response to the current status quo must be to step up our efforts to knock down walls.

Rachel Cooke's recent article in The Observer on lack of diversity in the advertising industry (Sexism in advertising: 'They talk about diversity but they don't want to change') made for shocking if unsurprising reading. A catalogue of issues - the size of gender pay gaps, cultures of silence around discrimination, the scarcity of true representation in creative output - painted a picture of an industry very much on the back foot. Out of touch. The sharp contrast between the forward-thinking bravery we extol for our clients and the entrenched, conservative behaviours we practice feels at best deeply ironic. At worst duplicitous.

Those of us who chose advertising as a career because of creativity's ability to see the world differently, to challenge the status quo, to connect and move people, might well shake our heads in despair and frustration.

But as we've seen with the #MeToo movement in the film industry, or the response to Blue Planet II, the uncomfortable glare of the media spotlight is sometimes what's required to galvanise voices for change. Advertising businesses are just that: businesses. They respond first and foremost to economic drivers. "We move fast when there is a business imperative", says Jo Arden, CSO at MullenLowe and quoted in The Observer article. "If we had seen a business imperative in broader representation sooner, we would have changed a fuck of a lot sooner".

She's right. However difficult that might be to acknowledge for an industry which has supposedly built its reputation on a combination of insight, intuition and foresight.

And the business imperative within advertising right now is one of survival. We are heading towards our own extinction: resistant and slow to adapt; often struggling to create work which is relevant and effective; reacting not proacting. And the patriarchal establishment which still prevails is if not wholly then at least partly responsible for perpetuating this. We are not creating enough space for diverse thinkers and thinking. And I mean this both in terms of 'making way for', and in the sense of actively creating the inclusive cultures and practices where diversity is welcome and encouraged. As long as flexible working is associated predominantly with working mothers, for instance, it will forever be marginalised as a female-centric issue; a compromise born of necessity, rather than a wider force for good and a key requirement for an in-touch, tuned-in, turned-on workforce.

It is clients more often than not who are leading the way with thinking on inclusivity: Diageo has recently introduced 6 months of paid parental leave, regardless of genderDanone is a UN Women #HeForShe champion thanks to its EVE female leadership initiativeand 1000-day parental policy, and is fostering inter-generational thinking through its Octave programme. Sky is an Inclusive Top 50 UK Employer, with its MAMA youth project offering TV and media training to 18-25 year olds from under-represented groups.

I recently produced a piece of work for a client looking at brands and the environmental sustainability agenda. It struck me how sustainability has moved from the CSR policy sidelines into the language of mainstream business. It is now at the heart of business strategy and brand building. A catalyst for innovation and commercial success. The same must hold true for diversity within our own industry.

There is power, authenticity and impact in being the counter-culture: the apparent misfits, the malcontents, the outsiders, the unconventional, the overlooked of advertising's prevailing norms. But more than anything, there is a rich vein of creativity. And creativity - in strategy, data and technology as well as creative - is our industry's competitive advantage. Our value. The answer to the question of our survival. Jazz. Hiphop. Impressionism. Pride. Rock 'n' Roll. Environmentalism. None of these enduring ideas emerged out of the mainstream. They were born of rebellion against it. The tapping into an alternative perspective. The liberation of a different way of being.

Our response to the current status quo must be to step up our efforts to knock down walls. Pierce the bubble. Break out of our echo chamber. Stimulate our chosen habitat's biodiversity and productivity. Otherwise we risk being on the wrong side of history. And obsolete. And businesses and brands that thrive on the creativity that advertising at its best can bring will be the worse off for it.

The Chairs, Presidents and CEOs of the advertising elite, irrespective of gender, race, sexuality, background or belief, must not make the same mistake as their counterparts in the political elite. Such a pressing issue shaping our future must be central to their manifesto for personal and collective success. The general public and grass-roots they serve will otherwise in the main continue to feel unheard, under-represented and disengaged. As consumers and employees we have the right to demand it of them. And to hold them to account.

Beth Pope