In this opinion piece, Margot Alais, multi-disciplinary creative lead at Paper+Spark, reflects on the importance of diversifying adland to create more exciting, innovative work.

I was once told by a top advertising executive that they had “heard every creative idea imaginable” and that creatives today were merely creating variations of already executed ideas. Imagine the gall you would need to have to both criticise the lack of diversity in creative thinking but continue to hire from the same homogenous pool?

You don’t really need to imagine, it’s just the reality of our industry.

We have a people problem in advertising. And this is no minor matter — people ultimately shape companies, shape culture, shape work. Our people problem comes back to diversity and inclusion. Not just in regard to gender or race but also relating to other axis of identity such as class, age, ability or neurodiversity. In my opinion, every issue we face as an industry today could be drastically shifted by embracing and championing diversity.

Our industry has been predominantly one class, one colour, one gender, one ability for so long. How can we expect fresh, diverse ideas if the people behind the ideas aren’t diverse themselves? How can we expect to stay relevant and current, if we keep repeating the same patterns?

Three out of four ads on Australian television feature all white casts. By contrast, the 2016 census found that 49% of the population are either born overseas or have parents born abroad. Would the data have been the same if we had more diverse departments? The landscape would look entirely different if our industry resembled the actual make up of Australia more closely — this would create a ripple effect in the work we produce, but also in the way we think, the way our clients think.

If we can agree there is a people problem, then the most obvious first step is to change the way we hire and who we hire.

There are so many creatives hustling to break into the industry, to network, to get those internships, to complete prestigious and competitive courses like AWARD School, and yet falling short of finally grasping those job opportunities. The fact is it’s not hard if you went to the right school, know the right people, and fit the mould of what people think “fresh thinking” looks like — which is often just a youthful, mostly white, mostly male, package.

We need to get comfortable with venturing outside of AWARD school grads and consider other kinds of valuable knowledge and experience. We need to stop nepotistic hiring practices. We need to put an end to unpaid or low-paid internships that automatically disqualify candidates who can’t afford to take the position. And we need to be intentional and conscious in seeking out diverse applicants.

I recently attended B&T’s Changing the Ratio with my colleagues at Paper + Spark and had the privilege of hearing Marlee Silva, co-founder of Tiddas 4 Tiddas, speak on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in our industry. I sat in shock as I heard her say that the percentage of Indigenous people in the arts and media industry was statistically insignificant. This should not be where we are today. We cannot keep excluding marginalised groups, intentionally or unintentionally, and we need start consciously and intentionally seeking diverse voices.

A diversely populated industry, however, isn’t the only pillar to strive for. Aiko Bethea, a diversity and inclusion expert, says “you can have diversity and not have inclusion”.

This is where we are most at risk of being tokenistic and performative. If you are committed to championing diversity in your workplace, then you must remember to listen to the diverse voices you hire, and hear what they are saying.

We need to fundamentally change the way we hire as an industry and stop letting a narrow image shape the way we judge creative talent. Diverse perspectives are crucial if we want to survive and thrive as an industry.

Exciting, new ideas are still out there, but we cannot shut out their authors.

First published on B&T in May 2021.

   adland, advertising, creative
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