Karen Blackett On Future Proofing Business
September 12, 2020

Industry AnalysisKaren Blackett On Future Proofing Business

Karen Blackett explains the importance of diversity for the future success of our industry. She explains how she's tired of being people's "one black friend".
    • Group M CEO and Manager of WPP UK Karen Blackett spoke at Campaign’s Media360 conference this week. She raised the issue of diversity, doing enough to address it and her pet peeve of being everyone’s “one black friend”.
    • Homogenous teams lead to less lateral thinking- the end result may see campaigns failing to resonate with varied communities in our society. 
    • There are limited barriers to entry. You tend to learn your skills on the job. But economic barriers remain, with unpaid, low-paid internships and low starting salaries.
    • Next steps for employers include unconscious bias training for teams and creating structures that encourage diverse new talent e.g. internship programmes

We all know that our industry suffers from too much homogeneity in the UK. I’ve worked in massive PR, market research and brand strategy consultancies in London and in total transparency, it’s always puzzled me how few other members of minority ethnic groups we have in our teams. Especially given these companies are based in central London, which is one of the most diverse places in the world. It’s been common for mine to be the only brown face in the room. Based on this, Karen Blackett’s words about the UK ad industry failing to future proof itself resonated with me. And I’m thinking of the handful of colleagues I’ve had over the years from similar or parallel backgrounds to mine, who this will also resonate with.

This week Campaign hosted their 360 events online. During the Media360 conference on 7th September, Group M CEO and Manager of WPP UK Karen Blackett was interviewed by Campaign Editor In Chief Gideon Spanier, Karen was very clear that people in our industry are failing to recognise the importance of diversity not only from an ethical point of view, but also in terms of its necessity for future proofing businesses.

Homogeneous teams, homogeneous results

Ultimately, if you have people solely from a homogeneous background creating your brand campaigns, it is likely that the end result will only resonate with fewer people. People similar to those who created the campaigns in the first place. This does make the obvious case for focusing on your brand’s target audience and really getting to know them. Solid market research, audience research and UX are key. But building teams with diverse backgrounds will always allow you to do better research on your audience in the first place through asking better, more diverse and relevant questions.

Creative agencies in the UK need to do more

At Media360, Karen went on to praise the industry Creative Equals petition that was created in response to George Floyd’s police killing in the US. However, she was clear that this is not enough and that as an industry action needs to continue “not just in words, but deeds as well”. She went on to explain further “I struggle to see why people can’t see this is about futureproofing your business and growth. Britain is a beautiful fruit salad of people. If you think about where your growth and audience are coming from, it’s understanding that fruit salad, your current and future consumers… If we create content that does not have authentic stories, we’re just not engaging, they’re not going to buy that product and have an affinity with that brand.”

Karen went onto explain that action-base change can’t just be left to the minority groups, “I am tired of being everybody’s one black friend. I’m like a unicorn in the industry. All the questions [about diversity] can’t be directed at me” and “When you see something happening that isn’t right, you need to step in as an ally. I am absolutely seeing that, whether it’s people that sign up to the Creative Equals pledge, that people are committing and stepping forward. It’s just making sure that it continues and we hold each other accountable for that change.”

The barriers to entry are economic ones

There are actually very few formal barriers to entry in our industry, sure some people have degrees in communications, media, design and so on. But these are by no means a prerequisite of getting into the industry- there are so many varied roles available so there’s something for all skill sets. Most things you can learn on the job. The only issue here is that much of this begins with unpaid internships, low-paid internships and really low starting salaries. These all mean that for most people starting out in the industry, they probably need support from family… assuming the family can afford to subsidise living costs. The other option is to endure a difficult quality of live in the big city- bare it until you’ve worked up the ranks and are finally earning enough for a more comfortable life. That might take a few years though.

Based on this, it’s understandable that many talented members of minority ethnic groups opt for entirely different industries like financial services (banking, insurance, accounting etc) and medicine if they have been fortunate enough to find routes into elite industries that is.

In the words of Karen: “We won’t survive as an industry unless we really do take action to remove those systemic inequalities and those barriers that do exist…”

Next steps

In my humble opinion, two simple action I would recommend employers rolling out would be unconscious bias training and internship programmes like the one created by Andre Bogues for Omicom’s Fleishman Hillard Fishburn. Internship programmes could reach out to groups of society who don’t normally get access to or see our industry as an option. And  unconscious bias training will teach everyone how their opinion is inherently influenced by their own personal experiences. Awareness of the issues causing lack of diversity and inclusion is the first step, and building routes into the industry can be done simultaneously.

Karen Blackett Illustration

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