Diversity needs positive action, not words

Why the advertising industry still has a big job to do

Leanne Silman, Head of Transformation at St. Luke's, looks at why the advertising industry still has a big job to do around talent diversity and explores how a first-of-its-kind Positive Action training scheme launched by Neil Henderson, St Luke’s CEO, creates change.

Advertising has a brand problem. Ironic, given that’s our specialism. Outside of the industry’s bubble, it’s still seen as a sector for white, middle-class elitists who hire in their own image. And that’s what those who’ve heard about the industry think. The vast majority of young people simply aren’t aware that it exists, or what it really is.

Whether this perception reflects reality is up for debate. We’ve certainly come a long way. The latest All In Census suggests representation of non-white racial groups within advertising could now be close to national representation. Reading this, it could be tempting for us to pat ourselves on the back and go home. Job done. However, these headlines belie the difficult truth that we are in fact a long way off where we need to be.

Firstly, 17% representation is well behind the 33% required to match the London working-age population, the pool from which we draw the majority of our talent. More worryingly, retention rates show that many of the racially diverse talent don’t want to stay. Kantar data shows Black (30%), Non-white (28%) and Muslim (28%) groups are more likely to leave their company in the next 12 months than the average (21%).

Neil Henderson, CEO and Leanne Silman, Head of Transformation, St Luke's

So perhaps the problem goes beyond awareness and perception. Perhaps the reality of advertising needs to evolve too if significant change is to actually happen.

Neil Henderson, our CEO, decided to tackle the problem head on with the Flying Start training scheme. And I led the team to deliver it.

Trying something different

After years of trying to improve the agency’s diversity, we weren’t creating the change we needed fast enough. We looked outside the industry for inspiration: to the UK Civil Service’s Positive Action Pathway programme. Positive Action is a legal way to treat protected groups more favourably by taking proportionate measures to address underrepresentation. To our surprise, no schemes quite like this existed within advertising.

Not wanting to take this on alone, we sought the support of partners. Lewis Silkin ensured the programme was Positive Action (legal), not Positive Discrimination (illegal). The Brokerage,  a social mobility charity, helped us recruit through their networks, tailored our communications and trained all agency staff.

Together, we developed an 8-week, fully paid, training scheme, exclusively for underrepresented racial groups; a 2-week taster of each discipline: Account Handling, Strategy, Creative and Production. A mixture of theory and practical work taught our trainees how a campaign is developed, working on a brief for our KP Snacks client.

It’s as much about helping trainees find their thing as it is about finding talent. Two of our trainees later secured places on our internship - one now has a permanent role. The third, returned to university with a determination to pursue a career in advertising.

Starting a Positive Action Scheme isn’t easy. The legality is complicated, it takes time to create course material, and staff need to be trained. To make it a success:

  1. Don’t do it alone. A legal partner like Lewis Silken will ensure the programme and communication is compliant. A recruitment partner, like The Brokerage, can give access to talent who lack industry networks and will support you in setting up and running the scheme
  2. Support trainees before, during and after. Trainees can feel daunted before they start. Sending a welcome pack with some basic information can remove unknowns to make Day 1 feel exciting, not terrifying. Taking on 2-3 trainees creates a supportive cohort. Pair them with buddies and check-in regularly. Consider their pathway beyond the programme - if it’s not a role at your agency, how can you help them get where they want to go? Our Wings Academy was set up to offer a network to help trainees find their footing.
  3. Include everyone. Involve the whole agency if you can. Whether it’s being part of the recruitment process, the training or being a buddy. It creates a supportive environment for the trainees, allows them to see a breadth of perspectives and benefits the agency staff too - they’ll learn a lot!
  4. Give a taster of everything. Have a schedule but keep the training varied and fun. Have a mixture of theory and practical work, and consider training opportunities outside of the agency: e.g. a production studio or an agency partner.
  5. Allow the time you think you need, then double it. It takes time to get right. The more time you allow for recruitment, the better the quality of candidates. We’d recommend at least 10 weeks for recruitment, 3 weeks for programme development and 3 weeks to create promotional materials.

Try it! Our trainees were impressive and their impact on the agency has been transformational.  We’d love others to join us in taking Positive Action so together we can create the change this industry so desperately needs.

Running this scheme has convinced us that a Positive Action pathway into agencies is needed if we are going to create real access for diverse candidates. We would love to see this approach extended across our industry. If you’re interested in running a similar scheme please get in touch and we’ll give you all the learnings we have.

Neil Henderson, CEO, St. Luke's

Contact us: flyingstart@stlukes.co.uk or view our course programme

Leanne Silman is Head of Transformation, St. Luke's

If you are working to create an inclusive culture at your agency then find out how you can secure a People First Promise badge of honour


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