From David Ogilvy's triumphs as a British ad man on Madison Avenue to the rise to prominence of the Jewish Iraqi-born Saatchi brothers in the London of the 1970s and '80s, there has been an obvious value in recruiting advertising and media staff whose cultural background differs from advertising industry stereotypes.
But while Britain has never more obviously contained a comprehensive mix of colours and cultures, a recent IPA-backed study has found the creative and media worlds of 2005 to be remarkably monochrome.
According to the Ethnic Representation in Agencies report authored by COI senior campaign manager Mehboob Umarji and published in June, ethnic minorities account for only 8% of the media and creative agency workforce and almost half of those staff can be found in back-office functions.
Statistics like these might be taken as a portrait of an industry facing a crisis and if nothing were to change in the coming years, they could prove to be that. But rather than seizing the opportunity to indulge in a bout of hand-wringing, Umarji's report focuses on ways in which media and creative agencies can address this subtle and complex issue.
The survey itself arises out of the industry's own attempt to address the imbalance.
In 2003, Stephen Woodford, chief executive of WCRS [the then president of the Institute of Practioners in Advertising], issued a challenge to the advertising industry to redress the internal imbalance of ethnic minority employees and to refashion itself according to the changing geo-demographics of British society.
In response, COI Communications deputy chief executive Peter Buchanan approached the IPA and offered to second Umarji for six months to assess the extent of the problem.
Whose problem is it? The report finds that most pressingly, it belongs to the advertising and media industry itself.
Many industries are periodically attacked for their lack of attention to ethnic minority recruitment. Often, the thinking has frequently been driven largely by concerns about integration and social equality. But as the sector which bears the responsibility of relaying commercial messages to an ever-diversifying population, the British media has a professional incentive to cast its recruitment net as wide as possible.
"If you look at our demographics and how they are going to change in the next 10 to 15 years, the proportion of ethnic minorities, particularly in urban conurbations, is going to increase dramatically," says Umarji. "The advertising industry needs to be prepared for that and to have people at hand who understand the particular issues which affect ethnic minorities as consumers."
Across Britain as a whole, ethnic minorities make up 9% of the population and by 2020, an estimated 18% of the total UK workforce will come from those groups. In London, where the advertising and media industries are overwhelmingly concentrated, more than 30% of the population is non-white and it is this figure which crystallises the need for a more representative workforce.
According to Umarji's report, industries benefit from a diverse workforce in a number of ways:
? They are more able to recognise potential new markets and consequently attract a wider customer base;
? Organisations with high quality human resources or personnel systems are proven to deliver better products and services and ultimately add greater shareholder value;
? They will invariably house a wider portfolio of skills within the organisation;
? They will have a better feel for customers, leading to a more tailored service which goes further to meeting individual needs;
? The development of all kinds of role models encourages staff to stay and become the leaders of tomorrow.
In the course of his research, Umarji says he saw clear evidence that the agencies which embraced diversity were also the most successful in terms of new business wins.
"These were the agencies that were not afraid to hire bearded Muslim media planners or Iraqi account handlers," writes Umarji in his report. "Indeed, these were the agencies that had an even mix of female to male creatives. They reported the highest number of inquiries from prospective job seekers currently employed by competitor agencies and aspiring graduates and school leavers seeking to enter the industry."
Colin Gillespie, managing director of All Response Media, is in agreement with the need for staff who collectively represent the broad ethnic profile of modern Britain.
"From my perspective, the real key driver for getting ethnic minorities involved in more front-line roles, where they are able to have an impact on marketing strategy and creative development, is the background these people come from," he says.
"The society we live in is very diverse and to be a media planner/buyer in the 21st Century, one needs to have experiences and, ideally, backgrounds which are reflective of that," he adds.
Like most others engaged in the debate, Gillespie says he is wary of the spectre of positive discrimination which hovers over the area. He recoils at any suggestion that entry requirements might be adjusted for ethnic minority students, not least because he feels the right staff are out there anyway.
"Merit and merit alone should be the criteria for selection, not ethnicity," he says, adding that ARM has 20% UK ethnic and non-UK nationals as permanent staff.
And just as positive discrimination is not the answer, Umarji is adamant that endemic racismis not at the root of the problem.
"Racism is not an issue," he says, "because at the end of the day, employers in media are looking for the best people."
But are media employers equipped to recognise the best people when those people come from backgrounds which are untypical for media recruits? And just as pertinently, are the best people looking for them?
To deploy the ever-popular fishing metaphor, the media industry has two major problems when it comes to bringing in ethnic minority staff. To begin with, it is still largely focusing on the same pools in which it has always fished and where it is unlikely to catch anything very different from what it has caught before. And when it does find a spot where the potential catch is more interesting, the fish in question are often not too impressed by the bait.
"The best Asian and black graduates are not necessarily looking at advertising as a career," says Umarji. "It is just not on their radar. Medicine, pharmaceuticals, law and accountancy are all much more credible careers than advertising for them."
In the final quarter of last year, MediaCom formally launched its CultureCom arm, which is dedicated to helping MediaCom clients understand cultural communities within the UK. Director Sanjay Shabi says the agency's own demographic make-up is far ahead of the apparent industry average, with between one in six and one in seven staff coming from ethnic backgrounds.
"That is not with any hidden agenda," he insists. "The ratio that is in place is a longstanding ratio. Critically, it all boils down to making sure you have the right candidates. It is incidental whether they are from ethnic minorities or not."
He admits the idea of actively attempting to correct an imbalance is not one with which he feels particularly comfortable. "I feel a bit strange that it's being talked about," he says.
"We are completely unaffected by it. And to be honest, my feeling is that there is only so much the industry can do, because so much of it is caused by cultural issues."
Shabi is well aware of the prevailing line of thought among many ethnic minority students and their families. "If you were to go into why ethnic communities came to the UK in the first place, going back to the first generation from the '50s and '60s onwards, a significant proportion came to improve their economic welfare," he says.
"For that reason, there was a lot of investment that went into the second generation in terms of making sure they could qualify for better jobs and that usually meant the ‘classic' professions."
The IPA has taken steps in recent years to build the industry's credibility as a profession, introducing its Continuous Professional Development programme this year and offering a wide range of qualifications. It has now seen 700 people go through its exams.
"We can see there is an appetite for qualifications and there is definitely an appetite among ethnic minority staff which is greater than the percentage of ethnic representation overall," says Ann Murray Chatterton, the IPA's director of training and development.
Some of those professional jobs, most notably law and management consultancy, lure the best graduates with generous staring packages. Inevitably, media, with its low starting salaries and low profile among graduates in general, inevitably has trouble competing.
Umarji's suggestion is that the media industry reviews its salary structure – though whether many can afford to do this in times of narrowing margins is another question.
Aside from the issue of graduate indifference, there are certainly barriers to entry too, however organically they may have developed. Given that many media graduates come to the industry on the recommendation of a family member or a friend, the demographic make-up of the media world's intake of new staff inevitably perpetuates itself.
Unconsciously or otherwise, those media industry staff who come from ethnic backgrounds will inevitably promote the industry among family and friends. But while awareness of the profession travels best by word of mouth, graduate intake programmes need to be more visible – media agency positions are less liable to be found advertised in national and local press than equivalent jobs in competing industries.
Likewise, work experience is more likely to be available to those with a connection or with the money to support themselves and in this respect too, Umarji suggests ethnic minority applicants are generally less able to compete.
For this reason, links with local schools are judged to be an extremely important means of selling the industry to prospective recruits at a time when they can still benefit from unpaid work experience and have not necessarily set their sights on anything else. The IPA already markets the industry to ISCO (Independent Schools Careers Organisation), but there is clearly a need for a greater presence in more disadvantaged areas.
"The IPA and the agencies themselves need to reach out to communities in Tower Hamlets and Lambeth and Camden and get the attention of these kids at a young age and tell them what can be achieved in this industry," says Umarji. "That way, you inspire a generation which, in four or five years' time, will aspire to work in the industry."
Those ethnic minority candidates who go so far as to apply for jobs in media are often hampered because their education has not followed the most-travelled route for media first-jobbers. Umarji believes a formof unconscious sifting takes place at the recruitment stage. The result is that ethnic minorities may be discriminated against, not for explicit racial reasons, but for other reasons which nonetheless go hand in hand, such as their educational background. This sifting and its implications for prospective staff are not so pronounced in media agencies as in the creative world it seems, where private school backgrounds and an Oxbridge education are common.
John Wilson, a former advertising executive and now an executive performance coach specialising in advertising and marketing, says media agencies have a natural advantage over their creative counterparts when it comes to even-handed recruitment.
"It is much easier to differentiate good sales people," says Wilson. "A good salesman will out. On a creative agency level, it is harder to tell who is good and who is not, so it is easy to fall back on unconscious prejudices."
The media industry certainly draws on a wider social pool than the advertising world, although those with recruitment responsibilities need to be aware of a prevailing tendency to recruit staff who fit naturally into an existing set-up. "People do tend to recruit in their own image," says Wilson.
According to the report, 71% of media staff come from comprehensives, but 61% of them progress via the 19 research-intensive Russell Group universities, which occupy all but two places in the Top 20 of the university league table. Many of those universities already have a lower-than-average intake of ethnic minority pupils and that in turn inevitably skews the demographic profile of their output.
One thing the industry can do is to broaden the range of its milk round efforts, taking care to cover those universities which have a high proportion of ethnic minority students. The report commends the IPA's Ethnic Diversity Committee for doing just this.
Using ethnic staff as ambassadors to universities is something that agencies might consider and it is something OMD has done, albeit almost coincidentally, according to managing director Steve Williams.
"One of our new-ish graduates has been to two universities to talk about her experience of working in media for the last two years, giving people a ‘day in the life of a media planner' talk," says Williams, who says OMD's ethnic staffing ratio stands at 12%. "It wasn't specifically an ethnicity thing, or to promote OMD, but we chose her and she was very pleased to represent us with the thought of representing a minority group."
The emphasis on graduate recruitment assumes, of course, that media industry recruits need to be graduates at all – which as last week's issue of Media Week revealed, (Media Week, 26 July, page 22) is not necessarily the case. The report echoes the belief of many long-term media industry staff that there should be routes into the industry which do not require a university degree.
Umarji's suggestion is for an IPA-sponsored apprenticeship scheme which allows school leavers to work their way up from the lower levels in a fashion which is simultaneously time-honoured and virtually obsolete.
"The industry is quite obsessed with graduates," says Umarji. "That is what the climate dictates, but it means we don't seem to recruit the Frank Lowes of the world anymore – people who started in the post room and ended up on the board with their name on the door."
When it comes to recruitment, Williams says it is imperative for agencies to keep an open mind. "Don't restrict to blue-chip universities," he says. "Talk to schools about recruitment for roles that don't necessarily require a graduate education; talk to your people constantly to make sure you have an environment and culture at your agency that encourages diversity; be active in encouraging work placements from any background."
The final point might be: don't seek or expect a quick fix. These issues do not belong to the media industry alone. Also, the clock cannot be turned back overnight. As Wilson puts it: "Having identified what the problem is, the solutions may take 10 years to filter through. But you have to start somewhere."
SANJAY SHABI, DIRECTOR, CULTURECOM
"It all boils down to making sure you have the right candidates. It is incidental whether they are from ethnic minorities or not"
COLIN GILLESPIE, MD, ALL RESPONSE MEDIA
"The real driver for getting ethnic minorities involved in front-line roles…is the background these people come from"
JOHN WILSON, EXECUTIVE, PERFORMANCE COACH
"The advertising industry needs people who understand the issues which affect ethnic minorities as consumers"
STEVE WILLIAMS, MANAGING DIRECTOR, OMD
"One of our newish graduates was very pleased to represent us with the thought of representing a minority group"
? Ethnic minorities will make up 18% of the UK workforce by 2020, but currently only constitute 8.5% of agency staff
[Source: IPA Census 2003, which takes into account all nationalities]
? Umarji's survey of 19 creative and media agencies discounted non-UK ethnic minorities such as Australian, American and South African nationals and found that 8% of media agency staff and 7% of those in creative agencies were from ethnic backgrounds
? 29% of ethnic minority staff in media agencies work in media buying, 24% in media planning and 47% in back-office roles
? 61% of media agency graduates went to Russell Group universities. Some 19% went to former polytechnics and 7% went to Oxbridge
? 74% of media agency staff attended a state comprehensive, 10% went to grammar school and 16% attended a fee-paying independent school
Five-point action plan
The report's recommended courses of action:
? The IPA should develop a mentoring scheme and involve London schools
? Agency work placements should be more professionally and actively marketed
? The industry should consider a form of modern apprenticeship linked to IPA endorsed qualifications
? Milk rounds and roadshows should include a wider range of universities and should focus on those with a higher proportion of ethnic minority students.
? The selection methods agencies deploy should be sensitive to the different circumstances that pertain to ethnic minorities