Why I’m discriminating with my new agency’s hires

peter bray 2015In this guest post Peter Bray says it makes no sense for agencies not to reflect the communities they are supposed to be targeting. 

I am involved with launching an agency in a few weeks here in the US that shall remain un-named, and we are in the process of “staffing up”. However, we already have a big problem: the founding partners are white males.

Most of our VC partners are predominantly led by white males. So the problem of diversity is one that is front of mind right now.

Potential multicultural clients have already asked if we have people who understand their audience. These are clients that any agency would kill to have. Already I have to say no, we aren’t the right company for you. We are working on it, but lets not pretend.

And this hurts. A lot.

How can we compete against a specialist multicultural agency with any hint of credibility? We can’t. It’s a bad business position we have ourselves in already. Those specialist segments add up, especially in the world’s largest advertising market.

So, I am happy to say it: I have every intention of being discriminating with all our future hires.

Will we actively seek out talented females? Yes. Will we actively seek out people from multicultural backgrounds? Yes. Does this mean that the people we will choose to hire are somehow less talented? Absolutely not.

The mind boggles as to why so many people jump to the “but you should hire people on their merits” retort. Yes we should and we will, and I am confident we will find the people we need and address the imbalance.

Campaigner Cindy Gallop hit out at Leo Burnett's all-male creative hires earlier this week

Campaigner Cindy Gallop hit out at Leo Burnett’s all-male creative hires earlier this week

Here is the fact that can’t be ignored: if you have 70% of a talent pool that is male, and 30% female in creative industries (it is actually worse than this), logic says that if you want to have a balanced workforce, you need to make more effort to hire females.

The same goes for hiring people from minorities. The likelihood of having a diverse workforce is simply less likely unless you focus on it. If you want more than the 3% of female creative directors that currently exist (Fast Company, 2013), or more than the 2% of creative directors that are black (The 3% Conference, 2013) we need to get more diversity at the start of the career funnel.

There are people in some companies that don’t want to make that effort. Good for them. I’m not going to tell someone else how to run their company. That said, I do think we have both business and moral reasons to take this stance.

In the USA social issues become politicized, viewpoints are actively encouraged to be contrary and polarized, though within this is an incredible cultural melting pot that at times is a source of tremendous anguish, but at other times is astoundingly inspiring.

Cultures exist within cultures, but here is what I have noticed with regards to the US advertising industry: people recognize that it takes people from a culture to be able to most effectively communicate with that culture. Hardly a surprising revelation. Most brands and agencies in the USA understand that having a white guy write copy for the Hispanic community is not only naive, it is fairly dumb from a business perspective.

Likewise, insights are even harder to develop about a culture when you are an outsider. Unless we fix the problem from the start, we are going to miss out on opportunities. I could extrapolate to the issues with having a creative department full of guys from roughly the same ethnic and socio economic backgrounds. How does that make sense for a company that is communicating to a diverse range of people?

To borrow a phrase, advertising should be created “by the people, for the people.” Does it not make sense to try and mirror the makeup of the people we are talking to in order to gain even a 1% edge when it comes to our understanding?

Forgetting the moral implications for a moment, diversity results in better work. Many US agencies still have massive diversity issues, the difference to Australia is that many clients here regard diversity in the agency they are hiring as a key factor.

And then there is the matter of doing simply what some feel is right.

If I was judging our industry from Mumbrella comments alone, we come across as a bunch of insecure assholes.

gallop comment thread example

Some may even argue that to be true more generally. However, we all know that this isn’t the case. Almost everyone I have met in advertising has been intelligent, friendly, questioning and interesting, even when faced with vehement disagreement.

So given this, and the fact we are experts in an incredibly influential medium, why would we not choose to actively address social imbalances? People win their Cannes Lions by doing that big pro bono piece, but what about the rest of the year? Indeed, I would argue we can choose to have a moral duty (note that I do regard it as a choice) to ensure that our depictions of all races, religions, beliefs, genders and sexual preferences are recognized in the advertising we create.

Though we are a mirror we do more than just reflect. How can we be a mirror if within an agency we are all coming from such similar starting points?

For those who may feel ashamed about the advertising industry, think about this: every day you have the direct ability to influence how someone else regards another person. That is real power.

You want to make effective campaigns? Work with more people that have informed opinions about who you are trying to talk to. Saying “that’s just the way it is” or that “we searched and searched but couldn’t find anybody” is a cop out. We can have all the task forces and industry initiatives we want, the change starts in the buildings we are in. We can all do better business and better for the people around us, myself included.

  • Peter Bray is currently starting an agency in the US, and is the former head of digital at Saacthi & Saatchi NY

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