Authentic Representation in Advertising

Collaborating with black-owned initiatives to foster inclusivity

Maria McDowell, Founder of lollipop mentoring, discusses the significance of authentic representation in advertising and the need to retain talent and collaborate with black-owned initiatives to foster diversity and inclusivity in the UK.

Research has shown that 68% of Black women have experienced racial bias at work, with that figure rising to 84% for those occupying senior management positions. Inequalities are also present in terms of career progression, according to a recent McKinsey Women in the Workplace report. It found that black women are more likely to be overlooked for a promotion in comparison with their non-Black female colleagues, whilst also being the least likely to benefit from the positive impact of career development and training in organisations.

The 2023 All In Survey revealed that three in ten Black people stated they were likely to leave the industry due to a lack of inclusion and/or discrimination. Furthermore, according to the 2022 Major Players Survey, Black women are paid £20k less than white men, despite similar educational levels.

Why authentic representation is important

Most people would agree that authentic representation at all levels is vital for promoting diversity and inclusivity in advertising. It involves creating opportunities for people from underrepresented backgrounds to have a say in decision-making and be part of the process. This creates a culture of inclusivity that benefits the company and the wider community. At the moment, there seems to be a huge focus on only hiring entry-level staff, perhaps because the perception is that it has proven to be less of a challenge and in the short term it quickly improves diversity statistics. The thing to note with this is that Black people research companies that they are interested in working for. Specifically focusing on the ethnic and gender diversity of the senior leadership team and board before accepting a role. If they do accept a role at a company which lacks diversity, the general approach is that the role is not a long-term option and merely a 'stop-gap role' because they feel that there is a ceiling on their progression longer term.

People are looking for genuine effort and commitment. You may not be there as an organisation yet, but what our mentees tell us is that they are looking for candour. What is your organisation trying to achieve? What is the end game?

Maria McDowell, Founder of lollipop mentoring,

The problem with performative actions and virtual signalling

It is great there are surveys out there trying to take the temperature of the industry. The dial is moving, albeit slowly. Often, we see organisations are quick to jump on LinkedIn and shout about new initiatives without checking on the people who are supposed to be the beneficiary of it. This, and the slow improvements in representation, has meant that there is a real distrust when it comes to comms from organisations. People don’t believe the PR headlines and the slow movement of change and are prioritising their mental health and so are conducting their own research. Trust needs to be rebuilt and trust is built on honesty and candour.

Supporting Black-owned initiatives

Black-owned initiatives provide essential services and safe spaces for psychological safety but often struggle to receive the support they need to continue their work. Allies are important – all protected communities need co-conspirators and supporters; Black people need people who look like them to speak up and advocate for them. Practical support, such as sponsorship and partnerships are needed. For example, there is a concerted effort to ensure gender representation – women often get to represent themselves regarding gender issues, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Black representation. The advertising industry must make a concerted effort to support Black-owned initiatives and listen to their voices. As a Black-led organisation, I am not seeing enough of this. We must work more with black-owned initiatives to promote authentic representation not just at the junior levels.

Retaining diverse staff

Retaining diverse staff is crucial to promoting diversity and inclusivity in advertising in the UK. How are you supporting the talent you have? How are they doing? Are they comfortable expressing to you how they are feeling? Younger generations are more likely to pay attention to the makeup of senior leadership teams and make decisions about their career paths based on this information. Retaining diverse staff requires creating a culture of inclusivity that promotes authentic representation and provides opportunities for people from underrepresented backgrounds to have a say in decision-making. We wholeheartedly believe in inclusion at all levels and to this end, lollipop has decided to expand our services to also mentor junior diverse talent. There are great initiatives supplying talent and we are there to support this talent after the settling-in period has ended. We have a large and growing network of diverse mentors so if you have talent that needs help, there is support – speak to us.

How to promote authentic representation

To promote authentic representation, companies must take meaningful steps, including the following:

  • Revive the energy they had during the summer of 2020.
  • Speak to their staff and follow up on their concerns.
  • Recognise that diversity does not begin and end at the junior levels within the team.
  • Put measures in place to ensure people feel safe expressing their concerns.
  • Listen to what people are saying in their exit interviews.
  • Look at their suppliers and assess their diversity.
  • Consider using Black-owned suppliers, not just those that are "Black-fronted."
  • If you must make redundancies, consider what the social and ethnic make-up of your teams will be post redundancies.
  • If you have company-wide surveys, don’t just focus on and PR the ‘wins.’ People are savvier than you think. They see the spin. Talk about the challenges, commit, and communicate how you will address them.

Promoting authentic representation in advertising is crucial for promoting diversity and inclusivity in the UK. The advertising industry must create a more inclusive and representative industry at all levels. By providing practical resources and support, the industry can help to retain diverse staff and promote a culture of inclusivity that benefits everyone.

Find out how you can help improve diversity and inclusion in our industry.


Maria McDowell is the founder of lollipop mentoring, a non-profit organisation which brings together mid-level Black women with senior industry mentors from all backgrounds to help them navigate their careers and get them into leadership roles. They are in year two of our journey and we have had some fantastic sponsors and companies step up and show real support and allyship. Allyship has taken many forms including providing guidance, resources and access.

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 01 May 2024