How to pass on the baton of change to create a more diverse and inclusive marketing industry

As part of Propeller Group’s commitment to giving a voice to young, diverse talent, we invited three Brixton Finishing School graduates to our latest Escape Zoom to share their experiences of navigating the advertising and marketing industry in the wake of its efforts to be more diverse and inclusive. 

Together with an audience of industry leaders we listened to their stories and asked how we can do better to pass on the baton of change within our organisations. 

The session was led by Rose Bentley, Propeller Group Director of Clients and Strategy, and held under Chatham House Rules to encourage a free-flowing conversation among guests. The graduates sharing their experiences were: 

Arafat Olayo, Production Affairs Assistant at Mother

Obinna Udekwereze, Creative Intern at Engine

Mickey Jones, Copywriter at RAPP

Each of the panellists explained their experience of the industry and their journey to their current role.

Obinna graduated with a graphic design degree and spent a year researching advertising courses before arriving at Brixton Finishing School, which facilitated his entry into an art director role at CDM London. 

Arafat had no idea how to get into the industry without a degree but a friend mentioned Brixton Finishing School and after doing the course and with support from the programme, she secured a job at Mother. 

Mickey went to university but it was only after stumbling into the wrong lecture that she learnt the advertising world existed and was introduced to the world of creativity and copywriting and is now at RAPP.

Finding A Way In

Getting a toehold in the creative industries has always been tough. It’s even more so for those who don’t know about how the industry works and lack connections with people already involved.

For instance, aspiring creatives need to assemble a portfolio with useful feedback from agencies to help them find an internship or full-time role. If you are not plugged into the system, then figuring out how to put such a ‘book’ together is a challenge.

 Obinna pointed out: I had to build an ad school-type portfolio without having gone to ad school. It took quite a while to do it. You have to build up your network but even then, it won’t get you a job, it’s more like a three-month placement.”

Other barriers that can prevent people from diverse backgrounds joining include financial resources and geographic location – the industry is still very London-centric. For some the ‘work from home’ period has worked in their favour and allowed them to save while on probation.

The experience of being hired

All three of our guests were wary of being employed by the industry as a tick box exercise. This wariness means recruits from diverse backgrounds can feel like a token hire and not employed on their merits. It also reinforces the natural shyness any recruit feels.

Arafat highlighted this issue and said: “I found with my manager as well I did not want to ask too many silly questions, so they don’t think maybe she’s not up to the job” 

Such feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’ can hinder confidence and make new talent reluctant to challenge briefs or ask what they feel might be obvious questions. It can also make it hard to approach senior executives with suggestions or questions or negotiate a better salary package.

Mickey made this point and said: “As an ethnic minority and as a woman, I feel like when you’re given amazing opportunities you have to be super grateful and accept everything. But generational wealth is really low from someone of my background so I needed to fight to get my foot on the ladder and get as high as I can for my talent.”

The panel were keen to stress they have been hired to make a difference and bring fresh perspectives and they all expect projects or briefs that stretch them so they can help the agency’s performance.

Advice and quick wins for organisations

  • Be accessible. Create an awareness programme for young people from ethnic minorities who might want to join your business and put some budget behind it. Devise agency schemes to enable young creatives to develop a portfolio.
  • Don’t just recruit from the usual places. Start conversations with community projects, youth clubs and other ‘non-traditional’ routes into the industry.
  • Have a plan to get the best out of any diverse hire. As the panel said:Know who you are hiring and why you are hiring us.”
  • Focus on training and development but also how to continually progress recruits. Training isn’t enough without conversations with the individual about how that training is helping them develop.
  • Pair up new hires with relevant mentors who can help them learn and apply their skills. And don’t feel this has to be someone also from a similar background.
  • Agency leaders should be receptive to any hire reaching out with a request or suggestion and not be anxious about saying the wrong thing. Learn from your new hires.
  • The senior team needs to lead the necessary changes in agency culture and start it filtering down. The whole agency must be on board and ready to have uncomfortable conversations

The path ahead

Everyone agreed that the industry had made strides in recruitment of people from diverse backgrounds but the ‘inclusivity’ part of the equation was still lagging. Diverse hires are still not finding the welcome they had hoped and the opportunities to progress.

Obinna commented: “There’s definitely a conversation to be had in terms of the agency adapting to [diverse talent] rather than [diverse talent] adapting to them.”

Ally Owen, founder of Brixton Finishing School, summed up where the industry is at: “There has been a lot of goodwill that’s turned into investment which we are thankful for. There has also been significant posturing of goodwill without action.  The next horizon is inclusion.

The highway in is great but once you’ve arrived at your destination how are you going to be made to feel at home? If you’re from a non-majority background you’re constantly moving to accommodate others but are they moving to accommodate you?  I think that’s where we need to get to, where we have equity of accommodation and mutual respect combined with opportunity within our workplaces”.