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Diversity – Your Right, Or Just Right?

The advertising industry spends a lot of time preaching about how their clients need to transform their business but not enough time looking at how it needs to can change itself. And top of the list should be diversity, writes David Hayes.

The #MeToo movement was a definitive point of inflection, fuelled by the power of social media that highlighted sexual harassment and the broader issue of gender inequality.
Women spoke out and demanded change, and it worked.

#MeToo also helped cast a positive spotlight on the broader issue of diversity, particularly in the workplace. It opened conversation and debate about diversity in our organisations and industry. We pat ourselves on the back because we’ve got a few more women in senior positions. The unpleasant truth is, that despite changes that have been made in the past few years, we haven’t gone far enough to call ourselves diverse. For many years we’ve been hiding behind convenient excuses as to why our industry is not diverse. We blame the lack of women in senior positions on the demands of rearing children. We say that the reason there is a lack of people from lower socio-economic groups is that they don’t attend the universities we recruit from. The reason we don’t employ people from ethnic groups is that none of them ever apply for our jobs. Convenient excuses, of course. It’s never our fault, just circumstances beyond our control.


Clearly, diversity is the right thing to do for a pluralistic, mature democracy. Hopefully, that is obvious. But diversity also makes business sense.

Trevor Beattie writing in Campaign several years ago bemoaned the fact that the graduates he saw coming into advertising were mainly white, middle-class people. They had wealthy parents from the Home Counties who could afford to subsidise their children while being paid meagre graduate salaries. Good advertising, he argued, was created by strong consumer understanding and insight. But how could an industry that was increasingly populated by a small, niche pocket of British society, craft advertising that appealed to a growing range of ethnic, cultural, and social groups that had emerged in Britain over the past 20 years?

The advertising industry in the main is very good at adapting to change. Our industry is evolving so quickly that adapting to those shifts is almost do or die. This means that we are very good at reacting to and enacting change.

Diversity may well be the exception. As an industry, whether it’s Creative, Media, PR or Experiential, we’re very good at problemsolving. We’re also good at peering into the future and getting a grasp on what might happen next. Not so diversity. We need to ask ourselves why this is so. Is it because we’re a male, middle class dominated industry. One that is afraid of and uncomfortable with, admitting people that don’t look and act like us into the boardroom. Or is it because most businesses in our industry are SMEs and diversity is more difficult to do in smaller companies. Maybe it’s because we’re so busy solving other people’s problems that we don’t have time to solve our own.

IAPI produced a staff census in 2018. On the face of it, we look like we’re gender diverse with females representing 52% of people in our industry. However, only 31% of senior agency positions were occupied by women. When it comes to age diversity the picture is worse.

Only 20% of people in our industry are aged 41 and over, despite 40% of the population being in this age group. The survey did not measure family social class or educational background but I’m guessing we’re far from being diverse in this area either. The same goes for people with disabilities. Let’s face it this is not about diversity, this is discrimination.

I left school at 17 years of age with an average Leaving Certificate and didn’t make it past the interview stage for the advertising course in the College of Commerce in Rathmines. In those days I didn’t have any problem finding an agency to take a punt on me. Today I wouldn’t even be brought to the college interview. I have two daughters and two sons. My daughters should have the same career opportunities as my sons do. Having children should not have to mean that your career is over. Yet that is just not the way it works
in most industries and advertising is no different.

But the maths just don’t add up. If we don’t do something urgently to reverse the trend of older women leaving the industry, then we are facing a serious shortage of senior people over the coming years. If we don’t have a culturally diverse organisation that represents not just women but people from all corners of Irish society, then how can we really hope to solve our clients’ business problems. Clients have already begun to filter out agencies in the pitch process that don’t have a diverse workforce. So in the not too distant future, it will not just be imperative for our business but imperative for new business to be diverse.


The reality is that we don’t provide environments that help or encourage working mums to return to work. We don’t provide support for people with disabilities or indeed send out any messages at all that communicate that we welcome people with disabilities in our industry. We don’t value experience; in fact, I think we actively discourage it. We consign many of our brightest and best to the scrapheap, based purely on their age, certainly not on their ability or experience.


I don’t think so. If we all make small steps, together we can make a giant leap. As agency leaders we should all immediately embark on wiping out unconscious biases within our organisations.

Women should not be made to feel guilty for having to pick up children. But it shouldn’t just about women and children. It needs to be about men as well. We should I think create a culture where we promote equality between men and women when it comes to rearing children too.

We should all champion a diverse and agile organisation and empower people who don’t want to or can’t work a five-day week. I think we’re coming close to the inception of the office of the mind rather than the office of a building. We, as an industry, should empower and equip people with the freedom to work agilely. Let’s set up an industry-wide internship program to sponsor, encourage and employ people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Let’s embrace disability and cultural diversity.

This is a real opportunity for us, an Industry to lead the diversity revolution. It’s an opportunity for us to say to the Irish business community at large that we are not agents of change, we’re drivers of change. We should be making our industry the best industry in the world for working mums, the best-equipped industry for people with disability, leaders in employing people from disadvantaged communities. As a people business we, more than most, should be embracing and driving diversity.

We spend much time preaching to our clients about how they must transform their business. I think we need to urgently look at our own, because we just may well wake up one morning and find that change has passed us by. Diversity is your right, but it’s also right for our business.

David Hayes is joint MD of Wavemaker.

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ July/August 2018)© to order back issues please call 016611660

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