Line managers: lynchpins to a more equal ad industry?

Black, Asian and ethnic minority candidates value having 'great managers' in their choice of future employer.

UM's Michael Brown breaks down new research from the IPA indicating that line managers have the power to transform young talent’s experiences of entering and staying in the ad industry.

Many questions have been asked over the last months about how to find and retain diverse talent in the ad industry. I recently worked with the IPA to organise the Opening Doors forum for agency leaders to consider how to make progress around this important area. The event launched findings from a survey amongst over 1,500 young people in the UK. The data indicates that the answer is all around us: line managers have a crucial role to play.  

When asked how important a series of factors are in influencing their choice of future employer, 68% of Black, Asian and ethnic minority respondents considered 'great managers' to be 'very important', compared to 53% of White respondents.

But what makes a great manager? You might think that this is a subjective matter that varies from person to person. In fact, the research has found that in fact there is a series of characteristics that stand out amongst all groups as being the most important traits in a great manager: 'believes in you' (81%), 'challenges you' (77%), 'patient' (61%), 'realistic' (60%) and 'kind' (57%) were the five most important qualities in being a good boss.

Drilling down into the data by ethnicity, however, revealed two key differences: Black Asian and Ethnic Minority talent over-indexed in wanting a manager who 'believes in you' (85% compared with 80%) and who 'cares about diversity' (53% compared with 36%). These are vital findings, showing that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic talent seek careful support, as well as clear allyship and agency cultures where everyone can belong.

This confirms what we already knew at Media for All. BAME talent can often feel the 'imposter syndrome' that comes with being in a minority. Our work in coaching ethnically diverse talent around self-belief and confidence is crucial in helping overcome these barriers to thrive. Regular feedback, for example, should be prioritised with BAME talent in order to help address self-doubt. Agencies should train line managers on how to be supportive to all talent, with a particularly close eye towards the real strains that can come with being in a minority.

Naren Patel, founder of Media for All, the mentoring organisation for Black Asian and Ethnic Minority talent

Filtering the data by gender also revealed important contrasts in what female and male young talent consider to be ideal traits in a manager. Female talent was likelier to seek a manager who is 'patient' (66% compared with 53% male) and 'kind' (64% compared with 47% male). Female talent also seeks a manager who 'cares about diversity' (51% compared with 32%), indicating that inclusive agency cultures deliver impact amongst broad employee bases.

The starkest findings yielded by the research, in my opinion, were those capturing that Black Asian and Ethnic Minority talent are more likely to consider a career in advertising than white respondents:. 34% vs 27%. And yet, when we look at the 2019 Agency Census figures, at entry level the numbers are disproportionately in favour of white people entering at business: 86.3%.

The data therefore clearly points to a significantly greater openness amongst ethnically diverse talent joining the industry, but we need future research to drill down into specific heritage types, to help illuminate whether there are indeed barriers amongst certain communities.

Interestingly, our female respondents were also more likely to consider joining the industry: 32% of this group said they 'definitely would', compared with 24% of male respondents. While this is reflected in the 2019 Agency census figures for entry level by gender – with 59.5% female, the travesty, however, lies in the industry not retaining, nourishing and elevating both female and Black Asian Minority Ethnic talent to its highest levels.

Despite young BAME and female talent considering joining our industry, the latest IPA Census indicates that only 34% and 5% of agency c-suite leadership are respectively female or Black Asian Minority Ethnic. The likely role of intersectional disadvantage (i.e. a being female of colour) is also worth considering, as this group is even less represented in board rooms – let alone other circumstances such as having a caring responsibility, or being disabled. In short, the odds are grossly stacked against groups who over-index in openness to enter adland.

The question of finding diverse entry-level talent is a big challenge for our industry, and one where progress is being made by invaluable initiatives like the IPA’s Creative Pioneers apprenticeship programme and the Brixton Finishing School. Our recruitment net needs to be cast wider, and our admission processes scrutinised, to ensure that we don’t continue to admit self-perpetuating talent pools.

The task of retaining that precious talent, which enriches and strengthens agencies’ ability to create effective work that considers and reflects the full UK population, is more complex and systemic. And, as the data suggests, it starts with you and it starts with me.

Agencies can act on this by designing training to empower line managers to be the best leaders they can be for all people, and also for talent from under-represented groups, who seek particular support.

You always remember a great manager – and now we know that maximising empathy, emotional intelligence and inclusion in people leaders, skills still too often dismissed as ‘soft’, will be key in building the diverse workforce that we need if we are to be a futureproof industry.

Michael Brown is Partner of Insight and Cross-Culture at UM and a member of the IPA’s Talent Leadership Group

Download the full research
Last updated 07 October 2020