How can we solve Irish advertising’s other diversity problem?

“Diverse groups of people have better, more innovative and more creative ideas. Diversity is just good business.”

Steven Johnson, ‘Where good ideas come from

“A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own.”

Bertrand Russell, ‘On avoiding foolish opinions

“Teams solve problems faster when they’re more cognitively diverse”

Harvard Business Review, March 2017

Irish advertising has another diversity issue beyond our shocking gender split and age problems.

It’s a subconscious bias rooted deep within our industry. It’s an issue that has been slowly creeping upon us, as Ireland’s society changes, urbanises and modernises, something that is harming the creative capability of our businesses, biasing us towards certain approaches and creating an unhealthy filter bubble around the industry.

The problem?

We hire too many of the same type of people.

Funnel of talent

Start at the bottom of the ladder and take the way we hire interns as an example. The average internship is low paid and based in Dublin, which is fine if you’re within commuting distance and can afford to live at home.

But what happens if you’re a brilliant young intern from Donegal, Cork or Waterford? The cost of surviving in Dublin, rent, food, commuting, is far beyond the average internship salary. How many brilliant people are we losing to the industry simply because they can’t afford to take an internship?

The result is that the funnel of talent into the industry is overwhelmingly from the Dublin commuter belt, white, liberal, urban, middle-upper class, college graduate range.

Don’t get me wrong. The people coming into the industry from this background are fantastic. Indeed, I’m in that exact demographic, so in theory I should be biased towards them!

But if they’re 90% of new entrants, then we have a problem. It causes a homogeneity of culture to emerge, an accepted way of thinking, and a lack of understanding of the common Irish consumer.

 

Empathy

Not having walked in someone else’s shoes makes it difficult to have empathy with them. We can only project our own thoughts and feelings onto a problem. Sure, we can do all the research we want, and that helps to a point, but your background will always shape you.

Not having people from ethnically diverse, rural, lower income backgrounds, when we’re constantly trying to market to these people, makes no sense.

As my old boss Gary Brown would say,

“don’t forget we’re talking to Mary from Mallow as well as Brenda from Blackrock.”

If I were a recent graduate in 2017, I really don’t know whether I would’ve ended up in advertising like the 2010 version of myself, and I’m a middle class white Irish male from the  edge of Dublin commuter belt.

Luckily, I had enough savings and a family rich enough to support me, plus I managed to get a full time role straight after graduation. But full time graduate roles are the exception to the rule now.

I definitely wouldn’t be in adland if I graduated in 2017, was from a lower income background or from a few degrees further south.

To me, that’s wrong.

Look at it another way. 90% of the interns we hire tend to come straight from university. A degree is certainly very valuable, but it also shouldn’t be a prerequisite to being a brilliant creative, a great strategist or a suave account manager. Again, we’re biasing the opportunities towards a certain type of person, and potentially missing out on a huge pool of talent that can’t afford to go to college, or isn’t academically strong but is a creative firecracker.

Aliens

This is also a self perpetuating problem, a circular issue. If, in 20 years time, there’s only a certain type of person at the top of agencies, then the circle will continue. Because we tend to hire in our own image, support our locality and bias towards our old schools.

As Jerry Daykin said recently, I don’t believe that active discrimination is the problem. But rather a set of systems, norms and subconscious bias that means we’re not doing enough to proactively recruit from outside the typical adland bubble.

All of this is not only discriminatory, but it’s also bad for business.

It biases us towards certain media choices (yes, there are plenty of people out there watching Mrs Brown’s Boys and ‘Dancing With Stars’ who haven’t a clue how to use Netflix). When it comes to media consumption, us young, digital native urban adlanders with great broadband are atypical. As I said at DMX, we’re aliens and the rest of the country are the majority.

It also means we can’t solve creative problems as effectively as we would like. As the quotes at the start of this piece say, having diverse backgrounds means more creative, innovative and faster problem solving. Most of the brands we’re dealing with are nationwide, selling to both Mary from Mallow and Brenda from Blackrock, so it makes sense that we need people with experience outside the adland bubble to inform the solutions.

But what’s the solution? How can we start to overcome this diversity issue and make the industry more empathetic and open to all?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, but I believe there are two ways, an internal approach and and a recruitment approach.

1) Spend more time outside your bubble

What’s the best way for those already in the industry to avoid naval gazing? Getting outside the bubble as much as we can. It’s all great learning about how other people live online, but nothing beats real life contact, the chance to chat to someone eyeball to eyeball or observe situations. In theory, this is easy, in practise, most of us never do it. We get caught up in the office, and don’t know how to ask for time to go and explore.

According to a recent survey, primary research informs less than 2% of creative briefs. For 94% of planners, their main research inputs are “the internet” or other secondary data. That’s not good.

Ogilvy in the UK have taken the decision to get out of London and do some primary research in towns across the UK:

“We’re sending all our planners rogue. Every month, they will get on a train. And visit Bradford. Torquay. Grimsby. North, south, west, east (and we don’t mean Bethnal Green). Bustling urban centres and remote rural outposts. They will go out into the streets and talk to people. Real people. Take a hypothesis. Test it. And report back. Not with PowerPoint slides. But with photos, video, words.” 

Their ‘Get Out There‘ approach is a fantastic idea. Up to now, it seems to be mainly for strategists, but I believe should be expanded to every part of the agency.


Rothco did something similar last year with the ‘Taxi Driver Report‘ too. Another great way to collect disparate, diverse viewpoints and see life from another angle.

In a brilliant post on Linkedin, MEC strategy head Peter Buckley outlines that “best practice for those designing products is to spend at least 2 hours every 6 weeks with the people they’re designing for.” The ‘2 in 6’ rule. That’s a nice approach to take.

Let’s stop thinking of ‘consumers’ and numbers on a sheet, and instead start thinking about people.  

As Jim Carroll says, “we all believe that at its heart good marketing understands and addresses the changing needs and desires of consumers. But we can only understand consumers if we think of them as human beings.”

Getting outside your immediate environment creates novelty and the space for creative thinking. So let’s do that more often eh? After all, a marketer’s secret weapon is simply talking to people.

2) Open the pathway and positively discriminate

The second way to solve this diversity problem is more difficult and debatable. But here are my thoughts.

Let’s start promoting talent from outside the normal routes, offering scholarships and better conditions for talented, ambitious people that otherwise wouldn’t have a hope of entering adland. Like some UK agencies have done, let’s stop prioritising academic success and the university degree so much, and instead bias towards creativity.

You don’t need a degree to be a good fit for advertising.

Let’s treat our interns better. According to a survey by agency Chemistry, the majority of Irish interns are unpaid and a third feel ‘unfairly treated’.

Pardon the French, but this is fucking mental.

We’re in a war for talent with huge, attractive companies like Accenture, Google and Facebook and yet we can’t afford to invest in young talent attraction? Get the finger out adland. 

Chemistry’s new internship approach is fantastic, and Core Media have done a great job with their graduate programme, but such approaches are too few and far between in the Irish industry. Let’s change that.

Positive discrimination is obviously fraught with danger, but if we want to get atypical people into adland, we need to think about it.

In Summary

Wow, that was a rant right? I’ve been waiting to get that off the chest for a while.

One of the key revelations we’ve all been woken up to over the past year (Trump, Brexit etc), is the fact that we all live in increasingly smaller filter bubbles. We seek out opinions and ideas that conform to our own, and fail to engage with a broader spectrum of perspectives, whether they’re wrong or right. In adland, this is particularly pervasive.

I don’t for a second believe that Ireland is as polarised a society as the US or UK. But Irish adland is moving that way, unless we do something about it.

I’ve had a very similar conversation with three leading Irish agency directors recently. All three were very aware of this, along with other, more pressing diversity issues. IAPI have done some stellar work in the area too. There is a desire to change this.

The future is bright, just so long as the future is open and diverse, not closed and uniform.

 

Disclaimer: I completely see the irony of a white, middle class male complaining about discrimination! Age and gender are two far bigger discriminatory issues that need to be tackled first in adland. But the above is a serious issue too. I’ve written this piece because I feel it’s something I have enough knowledge to talk about. 

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