Killing the elephant in the diversity room - social class

Lisa Thompson's IPA Excellence Diploma essay 'I Believe to unlock the ‘Collective Genius’ of the industry we must kill the elephant in the diversity room - social class.'

In her 'I Believe' essay for the 2019-20 Excellence Diploma, Wavemaker North's Lisa Thompson examines social mobility in adland. Lisa was awarded the John Bartle Prize for Best I Believe essay.

In the world of brands, it can feel as though we constantly face damning headlines about the state of our industry. We’re too short term, brands are no longer relevant, our best creative work is less effective. Orlando Wood released a book telling us that the advertising brain has turned sour.

Even if the headlines are alarmist, there is evidence that our industry needs a rethink.

But this response will argue we shouldn’t be holding out for a hero.

We should be creating a culture of 'Collective Genius' that helps reinvigorate our industry to one that can better solve problems, reviving creative work and building an industry brimming with innovation. But to do this, we need to address the cultural make-up of our industry.

To frame and inspire this response the book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation will be utilised. The book analysed companies including Pixar, eBay and Volkswagen who all constantly deliver innovation. Doing so enabled the authors to smash the myth of the lone genius, and instead prove that great innovation is the result of'‘Collective Genius.' They explain that the role of the leader in innovative organisations is one who can "create and sustain an environment that unleashes the slice of genius in each of their people and then combines that 'Collective Genius' into a single work of innovation" (Hill et al, 2014). This is relevant to our industry as we rely on innovative problem solving, and groups brand representatives working together.

It is imperative that out industry creates and sustains a culture that enables 'Collective Genius.'

So how are these cultures created?

Through analysis the authors identified three abilities that innovative companies all share to continually innovate: Creative Abrasion, Creative Agility and Creative Resolution. The definitions are represented in figure 1. (Hill, et al,2014); however, all three abilities are required - they fuel each other.

In analysing these three abilities our industry isn’t currently able to achieve one: Creative Abrasion. This ability relies on two things diversity and conflict. Our industry is not diverse.

You are probably reading this and thinking of course, we need diversity, we talk and champion it a lot.

Figure 1: (Hill et al, 2014)

You may assert that just last month in Campaign, Karen Blackett proclaimed "Diversity isn’t a problem to fix it’s the solution" (Small, 2020).

You may be well versed in the statistics that “diverse companies produce 19% more revenue” (Powers, 2018).

And you may combine these three issues and exclaim that of course we need diversity in our industry because doing so helps us come up with innovative solutions, so you aren’t telling us anything new. But, digging further into Collective Genius unearths a challenge to the way our industry views diversity resulting in our industry not being able to produce Creative Abrasion. Unless solved we will struggle to innovatively solve problems.

In Collective Genius, diversity is defined as having "people who think differently." (Hill et al, 2014). The key word being think. As the book acknowledges just because "people look different doesn’t mean they’ll have divergent points of view." (Hill et al, 2014). Their analysis proves that "for innovative problem solving, you want to bring people who think differently, people who have different skills, knowledge, working and thinking styles and different preferences for how they gather, process and assimilate data" (Hill et al, 2014), acknowledging that "Different life experiences and personal identities may lead to different outlooks, but not necessarily" (Hill et al, 2014). This is crucial because it demonstrates that in order to be truly diverse, we must look beyond visible aspects of diversity. This essay will argue that as an industry we currently only focus on visible personal identities. With two types dominating the conversation; ethnicity and gender. A shift to looking at diversity through the lens of thinking differently, enables us to unlock a real challenge with the industry; we are an industry where we all think the same.

Evidence comes via the work of Andrew Tenzer and Ian Murray, in two key studies Why We shouldn’t trust our Gut Instinct and The Empathy Delusion. Through psychological research he revealed the advertising industry has a "different unconscious 'thinking style' to the modern mainstream (Tenzer & Murray, 2018)" summarising in Gut Instinct that "people in the ad industry see and experience the world differently" (Tenzer & Murray, 2018). It’s not just that we see the world differently, but we all think the same. Tenzer and Murray state in The Empathy Delusion that "people in marketing and advertising tend to be marching to the same beat" (Tenzer & Murray, 2019). The result - we don’t benefit from conflicting viewpoints and are unable to practice Creative Abrasion.

So why do we all think the same… because we’re elite

Tenzer explains his research demonstrates that the industry’s 'cognitive biases' "strongly correlate with affluence and social grade" (Tenzer, 2020). Further evidence proves that coming from a privileged background has become the industry norm. In the book The Class Ceiling: Why it pays to be Privileged Friedman and Laurison utilised survey data from the Labour Force Survey, which in 2014 for the first-time asked questions about class origin to understand the class make-up of certain industries. Within the book a chart unearths startling evidence (Friedman & Laurison, 2020).

  • Advertising is the seventh worst industry in terms of make-up from different class origins
  • 60% of those in our industry come from Professional or Managerial Origins (vs. 30% of UK workforce)
  • Only 15% of our industry come from working-class Origins. (vs 30% of UK workforce)

Furthermore, YouGov Profiles data demonstrates 27% in the industry went to private school, compared to 7% of the UK (YouGov, 2020).

This reveals that as an industry we are not recruiting those from working-class origins. Resulting in us not bringing in those that think differently to help create the culture of Creative Abrasion.

And whist more common diversity topics such as gender and ethnicity will help bring in some different outlooks, it is important that we don’t just look at personal identity measures as a true reference for diversity. This is because looking purely at the two in isolation could still result in recruiting only those from privileged backgrounds. YouGov Profiles (YouGov, 2020) demonstrates this is happening:

  • 63% of women who work in the industry went to University.
  • 75% of those that are BAME in the industry went to university. 69% of those that work in the industry who are BAME were privately educated

This reveals that without broadening the definition of diversity to include social class, we will not be ensuring that we recruit those from more working-class backgrounds, only those that look different, not those that think differently.

And the reason this is happening: there is an elephant in the diversity room

The IPA Diversity Census released in 2019 doesn’t acknowledge social background as a measure focusing purely on ethnicity and gender. Campaign’s Diversity issue doesn’t tackle the subject. But this isn’t a criticism, addressing and monitoring social background is hard. Friedman and Laurison explain that class became a difficult word in the 80’s and 90’s with politicians and academics lining up to "proclaim the end of class" (Friedman & Laurison, 2020). Social mobility was seen to be increasing and there was a "misconception that Britain become socially open" (Friedman & Laurison, 2020). However, since then political and global factors have created a “growing consensus that class divisions are hardening” and "inequality is again increasing" (Friedman & Laurison, 2020). Linking back to the industry, conversations with Leila Siddiqi, IPA Director of Diversity unearths that in 2017 the IPA Census looked to include factors that would help analyse social backgrounds, but agencies didn’t have the data and "this is a problem nobody’s cracking" (Siddiqi, 2020).

However, it is a problem we must collectively solve.

We must add to the definitions of diversity.

We must build on the extremely important conversations about gender and ethnicity.

We must talk about social class.

We must broaden our definition of diversity.

This will create an industry more able to build a culture where Creative Abrasion is possible. In addition to the benefits we will see from making our businesses diverse from an ethnicity and gender viewpoint, we will be able to make our industry more innovative by bringing in different thinking styles found in those from different classes. Research by Deloitte "shows that diversity of thinking is a wellspring of creativity, enhancing innovation by about 20 percent" (Bourke & Dillon, 2018). Broadening our definition to include social background supercharges our efforts.

And if you need further proof, we have evidence from the history of our industry. Orlando Wood’s book Lemon details the decline in creative effectiveness and the reason is we have become too left-brain in how we approach creativity. As well as providing further evidence that we all think the same, he also explored ages at which creativity peaked, and the period between the late 1960’s and 1980’s was deemed a golden age for UK advertising. In his book there is a key line which proves different classes working together creates better work. He asserts "London Creatives had cognitive diversity; they were coming through from both middle and working-class backgrounds" (Wood, 2019) proving that ensuring a more varied make-up of the industry can yield brilliant results and a "golden age" of creativity. You could argue today brands operate in a more complex world, but if this is the case this is a problem for us to creatively solve. And to do this it is imperative that we get the right culture to meet these challenges. This relies on addressing the challenge that we currently don’t recruit from working-class backgrounds and have diversity of thought.

So how do we tackle these problems?

Collective Genius demonstrates problem solving requires different thinkers to solve any challenge. This is the same. Therefore, to develop ideas I have identified diverse thinkers from a variety of fields specifically those with expertise in ensuring industries recruit from different social backgrounds. One key collaborator is Sarah Atkinson, CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation. Below are three steps that will start to solve this challenge.

Step 1: Measure

We need to understand the challenge we have in the industry. Therefore, I recommend the IPA partner with the Social Mobility Foundation to measure the current status of those from working-classes in the industry.

This isn’t one simple question, and usually starts with a base of three questions; whether you attended private school, did you have free school meals and did your parents go to university? (Atkinson, 2020). Each of these factors contribute to the level of disadvantage you face when getting into a career. Multiple questions are required because this area is complex, and multiple factors impact how easy it is for you to start a career. However as stated above only 7% of the UK population went to private school, Sarah explains that anything above that in the industry demonstrates that the industry is more privileged than the average.

In addition, we must also track those who answer prefer not to say, because this factor offers guidance on how inclusive the industry is. From this we would work with the Social Mobility Foundation to set targets, and re-measure at agreed points. We should set bold objectives to for a certain number of IPA partners to appear on the Social Mobility Index, of which no creative agencies feature and only one media agency does.

Step 2: Creating the right culture for Creative Abrasion

As well as having targets it is important that we ensure our culture is fit for purpose. We must ensure different thinkers feel welcome and bring all of themselves to work.

The biggest mistake we could make is create an industry where we bring in those from different social backgrounds and mould everyone to think the same. This won’t create the culture for Creative Abrasion. This is especially crucial because as well as diversity, Creative Abrasion requires conflict. Whilst conflict can make us flinch, it’s critical because "when alternatives compete in a marketplace of ideas, they actually get better" (Hill et al, 2014). If the culture is right within an industry "collaboration of diverse individuals produces healthy conflict, and that produces more and better ideas" (Hill et al, 2014).

Conflict is "so important that its absence constitutes a flaw that limits innovation", without it you get something "pretty average" (Hill et al, 2014). However, whilst conflict is required, the right culture needs to be created, which only happens if people “feel motivated and psychologically safe.” (Hill et al, 2014). Therefore, if we are pushing to recruit different thinkers from diverse social backgrounds, we must ensure we create a culture in which they feel motivated to be themselves. This relies on stories…

Listen to stories from within the industry

Sarah explained data is often hard to talk about, and as well "as numbers from your measurement, you need stories" (Atkinson, 2020). We need to actively seek out those within the industry who are from different social class backgrounds and understand how it feels for them in the industry. We must talk about the issue.

Listen to stories from other industries

A challenge like this requires our industry to change processes in creating the culture for Creative Abrasion. We are not alone in this challenge, and great work is happening in other industries. For example, Manchester Health and Care Commissioning (MHCC) have seen brilliant results in recruiting a team of those that think differently resulting in a more successful team.

Cat Duncan-Rees whose role as Lead Community Facilitator, explained to me in an interview that MHCC "threw away the rule book in recruiting for a new development team, ignored usual checklists, interviewed anyone with a passion for Manchester and the work we did, regardless of what 'specific' experience they had. We didn’t follow the rules of usual interviews, and when they started their posts, we made sure the team had plenty of dedicated space and time to get to know each other, work out for themselves the best way to work together and with people and communities in North Manchester. The result is a group who all get on but would never have connected in any other circumstances, they are all different bringing different perspectives, there is a 50/50 gender split, they are ethnically diverse and come from different backgrounds. The senior managers recognised that if we recruit more of the same, we perpetuate what it is that isn’t working currently. We are 9 months into a 5-year programme, and we are already seeing the benefits of a team given permission to work in ways that make sense to them and the communities." (Duncan-Rees, 2020).

Therefore, as an industry we should seek out and learn from these examples, inviting them to speak to the IPA Diversity team and industry leaders, helping us develop best practice for recruiting and retaining different thinkers.

Step 3: Build our industry brand

We need different thinkers, and we need them to want to join our industry. However, there is probably little awareness of the roles within the industry. Therefore, as any good brand builder will assert, we must increase the audience who understand what we do. Our industry’s success will be built on having the best different thinkers want to come and work with us.Therefore, we must act like government advertisers such as the DfE or Royal Navy who advertise for staff to the masses on mass reach media. We create a campaign that advertises for different thinkers from all backgrounds, showing our industry to be inclusive and one where the best brains regardless of background are needed. We ask our media partners to donate space, we ask a diverse group of people to create the campaign. We rally cry for different thinkers. We can’t presume building brands is a career that currently appeals to everyone, we must make it desirable. Of course, alongside this, we continue the great work of initiatives like Advertising Unlocked and Creative Pioneers, both are doing brilliant work showcasing our industry to young people. But we must do more.

To conclude, our lack of focus on social class means that we are not creating the right conditions for creativity and innovation. This is crucial for brands to develop new products, create great campaigns and grow businesses. However, by broadening our definition to include social class we are creating an industry best set-up to creatively solve problems. This shift will help us fuel our industry for the future. Collective Genius acknowledges diversity of thought helps recruit great people because it means "creativity and energy and therefore excitement" (Hill et al, 2014). But it won’t just be a positive for the industry. Patrick Collister explains in the documentary John Webster: The Human Ad Man great work enables us to "build factories, keep people in jobs and support brands" (Werber, 2013). Building a culture of 'Collective Genius' enables our industry to grow the economy.

Lisa Thompson is a Planning Director at Wavemaker North. This essay earned Lisa the the John Bartle Prize for Best I Believe essay on the 2020 IPA Excellence Diploma.

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Last updated 01 May 2024