I’m not bored of the diversity debate. I find it endlessly fascinating, like an Agatha Christie mystery, where more insight happens with greater exploration and thought. And, like one of those mysteries, you can often find something out that occurs as revelatory to you, only to discover that everyone else knew it all along and they now think you’re a bit thick…
Anyway, at the risk of holding up a giant sign pointing to that thickness, I want to discuss a new level of the mystery that I discovered for myself when I interviewed Jo Arscott.
The employment of an ethnically diverse workforce doesn’t necessarily mean the employment of an ethnically diverse workforce.
There’s a point in Jo’s interview where she (a girl of colour who grew up with a white family) mentions being somewhat surprised to discover that she’s not white. I then got the strong sense that Jo has spent large chunks of her life with that perspective: ie, that she didn’t define herself by the colour of her skin. She didn’t grow up in Hackney or Brixton, deeply immersed in the culture of the afro-Caribbean wave of post-war immigration; she grew up on a smallholding in genteel Gloucestershire, and that’s as white as it gets.
So what part of her would bring ethnic diversity to an ad agency? Yes, her experience as a woman of colour, but beyond that, the cultural elements of an urban background are missing. Would a white person from Haringey be more fully immersed in clichéd West Indian culture? Possibly. So what do we mean by multicultural diversity? Skin colour? Culture? Daily perspective? Upbringing? All of the above?
The question came up again when a friend here in LA asked for my help finding strategic talent to launch his afrocentric product in the UK. I soon discovered that there are very few planners of colour in London, and that there are even fewer with the kind of Afro-Caribbean background my friend was looking for (by the way, if you know anyone who fits that bill, please drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
UK advertising is a middle-class industry filled with middle-class people, and one could argue that it’s that homogeneity that’s stifling the diversity more significantly than a failure to include a certain number of people with a certain skin colour. And it’s only going to get worse: if you want to be able to survive in a big city on placement or intern wages, you’re going to need another source of income, and that excludes a lot of people.
So if it wants to be culturally relevant to the entire country, advertising needs ethnic diversity in all its forms. But it also needs socioeconomic diversity, because that’s what will bring the diversity within the diversity, if you see what I mean.
White, middle-class men and women can go a long way, but it’s like we’re writing music with half the notes. Find ways to being more voices into the choir and it’s only going to sound more interesting. And I get the ‘meritocracy’ argument, but the problem with that is that you can only judge the merits of the people you see. If there are whole chunks of the population that aren’t even stopping by, you don’t so much have a meritocracy as a ‘who’s the best middle-class white person’ contest.
I bet ten grand there’s a kid of colour out there without much cash, who’s thinking of a million ways to bring something incredibly creative to the world.
Unfortunately, advertising is not currently one of those ways, and until the industry changes things to make sure it is, it’s going to stagnate, atrophy and signal its death with a long and underwhelming fart.
Are you doing anything to stop that fart?