Diversity: time for the marketing industry to make urgent improvements

Diversity: time for the marketing industry to make urgent improvements

A report from think tank Global Future released last year found that nearly seven out of 10 of the 2,000 adults in the UK it surveyed agreed that diversity has improved our culture.

Yet in its ‘PR and Communications Census’ last year, the PRCA found that white practitioners made up 89% of the industry. Of those practitioners, which includes marketers, the number of White British practitioners had risen from 78% to 80%.

The industry is well aware of the issue and the need to catch up with how the country views diversity. So what steps should it take?

Towards a more diverse industry

The need to improve diversity in marketing comes in two forms: recruiting from a more diverse pool of talent and more authentic representation in campaigns.

Recruitment would seem to be a straightforward challenge. But in a recent post on LinkedIn, Koray Camgoz, Head of Communications at the PRCA, highlighted a case where job applicants to the industry were only offered interviews after altering their names to make them sound more Anglo-Saxon. Clearly, mindsets need to change.

But some agencies are making efforts to address the problem.

London-based PR agency W Communications launched a social enterprise agency last year to attract talent from a lower socio-economic background. It targets people for whom a career in marketing and PR had seemed unattainable.

The new agency, WX, has an almost 50/50 gender balance (there are five employees) and is naturally multi-racial given London’s diverse population.

Zoe Stafford, WX Programme Director, says, “It’s about improving social mobility and diversity in our industry. So we wanted to do something rather than talk about how to change the pipeline of candidates.”

The first cohort of talent was recruited in September via Instagram and trips to schools. Five candidates, aged 18-21, with no further education or university background, were given an opportunity to shine on enthusiasm, talent and curiosity alone.

The first cohort at WX

The team has been contributing ideas and insights to existing campaigns, ideas for new pitches, undertaken desktop research and developed campaign proposals. The long-term plan is to spin-off WX as a standalone agency.

“Their insights have been very refreshing. Our role as communicators for different brands is to engage our audiences in an authentic way, not relying on assumptions and stereotypes. Inclusive recruitment should attract a diverse workforce so we have these insights in-house and can create great work that connects with diverse audiences,” says Zoe.

Diverse representation

Authentic representation in marketing is also a clear winner for brands.

A recruitment campaign in 2019 for the University of Bradford managed to turn around a fall in student applications by enabling its students to tell their own authentic stories of life as a student at the university.

Robert Pepper, Strategy Partner, PS London – the agency behind the campaign – says, “Diversity is about authenticity and its opposite is tokenism. Most universities use stock images of happy, smiling students. We decided to hand over the voice of the campaign to the students.”

Robert Pepper

It was a daring decision that radically altered perceptions of the University. For Gen Z audiences, turned off by traditional marketing, this approach made the university distinctive.

Students created their own videos telling stories of how their experience of Bradford had shaped them. In one example, a muslim girl describes being able to ride a bicycle at the university as a lease of personal independence (see main image).

“The story of a muslim girl finding independence through riding her bicycle is relevant to a white boy who wants his own independence. It cuts through race and gender; you just see the challenge and the story. You can’t generate that artificially,” says Robert.

As a result of this approach, the university saw a 14.8% increase in UK undergraduate student applications last year.

Plugging the ethnic marketing gap

In the gaps where marketing is failing to speak directly to ethnic groups are a small handful of agencies that specialise in connecting with these audiences.

Among them is GottaBe! Ethnic. The company claims that only 1 in 5 UK companies reach out to ethnic groups as individual consumers and yet ethnic groups represent a market with spending power of £300 billion.

The company works with Asian and Eastern European clients and employs staff with six different nationalities. GottaBe! Ethnic was the first agency to place non-English-language ads on bus stops and phone kiosks, using Polish to target the expatriate community in 2012.

Polish-language advertising at UK bus stops

One of the strongest arguments for a culturally diverse workforce in marketing is the need for cultural sensitivity, says GottaBe! Ethnic Managing Director Tomasz Dyl.

“Saying ‘Happy New Year’ in Chinese to the Chinese community in a campaign is not enough. You have to understand what it means to that community. In worst case scenarios, you can get it very wrong and create negative PR and brand damage that takes a long time to repair,” says Tomasz.

Time for action, not words

With diversity rising up the agenda at recent industry conferences, marketers should be taking greater steps to improve diversity.

Failure to do so not only risks damaging commercial prospects for brands but also putting the industry out of step with the society in which it operates.