Break it, build it: Time to ensure our industry’s diversity and inclusion story has a happy ending

Simon Wassef, chief strategy officer at WhiteGrey, says the industry is overdue for a look of self-reflection in order to help it rise.

Spoiler alert: without serious deconstruction and reconstruction, our industry’s diversity and inclusion story will not have a happy ending. The best candidate won’t just magically get the job. People from minority backgrounds won’t just be able to rise up.  

The answer isn’t ‘hiring on merit’ or more ‘dialogue.’ It’s acknowledging that genuine transformation will come from letting those who live the experience of being marginalised take the mic like the future of our industry depends on it. Because it does. It’s proven. Diversity drives growth in creativity, organisational culture and the bottom line. 

Advertising was the original home for misfits, as Tony Hale brilliantly put it. But it feels like we’ve forgotten where we came from. Choosing grad scheme candidates based on the university they went to. Struggling to bring black and Indigenous talent into our industry. Bemused by Cannes juries that aren’t representative. Stuck with a gender wage gap of anything between 2-10%. 

I’ve been lucky in my career. I’ve worked on some iconic brands at some famous agencies around the world. But my LinkedIn profile won’t tell you that in my travels I also experienced a client who asked a woman of colour if a campaign would have ‘urban appeal’, multiple buildings where wheelchair access is impossible, an agency boss side with a client who asked a trans person who identified as female not to come to meetings ‘dressed like that’, and being paid more than a female counterpart because… that’s how it is. 

And while that was happening, I looked out the window and witnessed first-hand the London protests of 2011, the Women’s March of 2016, Extinction Rebellion in 2018 and finally, most shockingly, the 2020 executions of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd by white men that brought the Black Lives Matter movement into daily focus when I lived in Los Angeles. 

And what I saw I cannot now unsee.  

Agencies posted black squares on Instagram and helped clients ‘show solidarity’ with Black Lives Matter. And I realised that the problem was us. It was me. It was a system that had conferred ‘luck’ on me: someone who had never been marginalised, silenced in a boardroom or humiliated at an office party; felt alone; felt fear. And yet I was supposed to lead change. I had no answers. So I had to learn.  

STFU: First I learned to shut the fuck-up and listen. Listen to brown and black voices. Listen to LGBTQIA voices. Listen to people with disabilities. I learned what a micro-aggression is. I learned what performative activism is. I learned what allyship is. I learned what a safe space is. I learned what psychological safety is. I learned what cultural appropriation is. I stopped trying to control the conversation and let those voices advise me. 

Break it, build it: There’s a bit of Chris Rock standup where he talks about the neighborhood he lives in: a very wealthy neighborhood with very wealthy residents. People like Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy. And the white man that lives next door? A dentist. Rock sums it up when he says, “the Black man gotta fly for something the white man can walk to”. 

That is a broken system. It’s not an accident. It was designed that way. Look around: how many hurdles must minority groups jump, just to get to the playing field we like to think is level? Breaking it down in order to rebuild it is not some kind of reverse discrimination. Stopping a meeting because the faces around the table all look and sound the same is not ‘being difficult’. It’s the right thing to do.  

Allyship: It’s not on marginalised people to keep being strong. It’s on us to reshape the business so that they are not the only one in the room. It’s on us to create the space for those people who are typically marginalised to just get on with their jobs. Allyship gives emerging and mid-level talent a voice. It’s that voice that will drive transformation. It’ll come from the middle.  

That is why Create Space is here. It is a chance for everyone to objectively answer the questions that will give us the cold hard data from which we can make a plan. A plan that, bit by bit, will help us dismantle an old structure that was designed to serve a select group at the exclusion of others, and build an entirely new one that is designed to include everyone.  

Simon Wassef is chief strategy officer at WhiteGrey and a member of Advertising Council Australia’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.


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