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Unstereotyping Advertising

July 25 2017

Prompted by Unilever’s #Unstereotype proclamation - that it will strive to portray different people in more progressive ways within its ads - the group of diners at The Blueprint’s Working Dinner discussed discrimination within the ad industry.
 
Making ads themselves more diverse was considered one of the less taxing challenges facing the industry in this regard. Constantly checking your work and ideas with people from different groups is a good way to ensure you’re not misrepresenting a group, or pandering to stereotypes. And as much as this sounds like a no-brainer, one complicating matter still emerged: society is set up to embrace certain prejudices and, if it’s advertising’s job to mirror culture, can it ignore the ugly parts and still remain effective?
 
That philosophical question notwithstanding, most guests agreed that making the industry more diverse is the tougher challenge.
 
‘We are only just beginning to tackle the prejudice problem within the advertising industry’ said one guest. He relayed how many staff at his agency had refused to take a test for unconscious bias and of those that did - mostly likely the ones most mindful of the issue - all found they possessed their biases. This shows the insidious nature of bias - it runs deep and many people won’t even engage with the topic because they don’t see it as a big enough problem.
 
Another creative chief, again illustrating the ingrained nature of bias, said that when she asked her HR department for the top 30 candidates to fill a position she received an all-male shortlist - and that list was delivered by an HR department that was predominantly staffed by women.
 
Aligning your business with an organisation that supports certain under-represented groups was regarded as the easiest way to begin organisational change. Hiring more diverse talent was next on the list, where progressive headhunters can play a key role in identifying diverse shortlists of talent for their client, rather than the usual suspects. Positive discrimination, it was agreed, has its place. Some are put off by the rigidity of the practice but most believed in its power to achieve good. For example, one diner mentioned how the BBC set a target to achieve a 50:50 gender split in its tech and creative departments and managed this within two years, through positive discrimination.
 
But, ultimately, it means nothing to hire women or people from underrepresented groups if they are being hired into an unreceptive cultural environment. Board members and holding company CEOs must think about diversity when planning their succession, in addition to all levels of the agency.
 
Some were also frustrated by the argument that diversity makes business sense, because homogenous groups are more likely to think the same and therefore fall into the same traps. No one doubted the argument’s validity, but rather its priority.
 
Fortunately, the issue of shooting for equilibrium is clearly front of mind on an industry-wide scale. In 2017, The Blueprint facilitated the hire of a female ECD into one of London’s largest agencies, and a first for their business across Europe. Positive discrimination geared to turning the tables is a must, in order to redress the balance.
 
One diner wrapped it up with ‘first and foremost we should pursue diversity because it’s the right thing to do.'