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Grey’s Sarah Jenkins on Representation

/ January 14th 2019
Front Foot Quarterly

Grey is actively investing in representation and inclusivity – why is that important particularly, for our industry?

Because we’re an industry that is generally based on talent, we don’t really have special formulas or secret prototypes or big fat physical infrastructures: we’re literally built on our people and our talents. So if we’re putting talent at the front of everything we do, it’s insane to be ignoring the 10, 20, 30 percent of the population who are considered diverse.

I think language is actually super important when it comes to this area. Diversity is seen as something that is challenging or difficult or complex or, even worse, politically correct. We try and talk about inclusiveness, or being able to bring yourself to work, or being yourself – that’s far more important. We do a census every year at Grey, and we don’t say it’s a ‘diversity census’, we say ‘we’re doing a census; we want to know who you are so we can build a better agency.’


Why are agencies better when they are inclusive?

On a rational level, creativity comes when you get a collision of perspectives and ideas, so rationally when you have different people together, you’re going to get better ideas. But also emotionally, people being allowed to bring themselves to work, be open about their sexuality, their disability, mental health problems, all those things – it’s super important that you’re able to come to a business as intense as ours and be yourself.

How important is it to future talent in the advertising and marketing industry to feature the stories of people who don’t necessarily fit the traditional ‘ad executive’ mould?

It is literally an imperative. If we don’t start celebrating and pushing our more diverse role models, we aren’t going to attract the best talents. If you can’t see it, you can’t believe it – it’s simply not possible for a young kid to come into our industry and think ‘it’s cool; I can also make it.’ You can flip that around and look at the incredible impact someone like Karen Blackett had on our industry as a black woman – you know that if you’re great at your job as a black woman you’re going to power up and smash through those glass ceilings.


What are the endemic issues that are in the way of true representation?

You said ‘what are the endemic issues’ and I think that is the challenge – these are entrenched, endemic issues and we’ve got to recognise what our place is in the world as an industry. It’s an industry that I adore and that I love, and I can always celebrate it, but the reality is that for an eighteen-year-old kid on a sink estate in Hull, advertising doesn’t have the allure that it would have done 20 years ago. If you say advertising to a group of school kids now, they talk about ad blockers and annoying ads, digital banners and stuff – advertising is not, in young kids’ minds, what it was 20 years ago, and we need to recognise that.

I think there’s a lack of awareness of how glorious our industry is, for many young people. It’s an incredibly opaque world as well, because even if you think ‘actually advertising sounds quite interesting and I’d like to work with some cool brands,’ how would any young kid understand that there’s a job such as UX Designer, or Graphic Designer, or New Business Manager? We’ve got probably 500 or 1000 different job titles in our industry, and there’s no way a young kid could possibly navigate that and work out that they could a) play a role, b) be brilliant and c) that they don’t need a degree to get there. All those things, we don’t make clear enough for young kids, or their teachers, or politicians for that matter – all the people that could influence and help them, we aren’t doing a good enough job explaining how brilliant our world is or how accessible it is if you are talented and curious and creative and all those great things that make a great ad person.


Why do you think that the perception has changed over the last 20 years?

I think the world has just moved on;20 years ago, people would say advertising was more entertaining that the programmes themselves, and I think programmes have got richer and more entertaining and more incredible, and we haven’t always kept up. It’s not always true – the latest Nike ad Nothing Beats A Londoner is genuinely brilliant pure entertainment, so when we get it right we are still incredible. You’ve got all the Christmas advertising; some of the really smart work guys are now doing in digital and activation stuff – we can still do brilliant, brilliant work, but we don’t always get it right. There is too much quantity and not enough quality, and I think digital has been the trigger point for that.

The point about how tricky this whole area is – I think there are three endemic challenges. One is the lack of awareness, as we talked about – young kids don’t know we exist and if they do they certainly don’t know that there are these incredible jobs they could be brilliant at. Another big challenge we have is that there is a lack of opportunity: there are still too many lazy, quasi-graduate recruitment schemes – I don’t even use the word ‘graduate’; you don’t even have to have a degree and that’s going to turn off a lot of kids – too many people still looking in the same places to get their interns. We’re not paying, as an industry if I’m honest, we’re not paying the right salary to attract the best kids to live in London – it’s physically impossible to live in London without parental support or a mate or a relative who you can crash with on the starting salaries, so that’s another endemic challenge: the opportunity isn’t there. And then finally and probably most worrying – until recently, there’s been a real lack of substance to our efforts as an industry.

There’s been lots of headline-grabbing and lots of thinly veneered approaches to fixing things up, but with very few exceptions, as an industry over the last five or ten years we haven’t really done enough actual practical initiatives to fix stuff; we’ve just talked a lot. So those are the three endemic problems: lack of awareness, lack of opportunity and lack of substance. That doesn’t take away from some brilliant initiatives; there are pockets of brilliance over the last five or ten years, but not enough at scale and not enough from the bigger agencies.


What are some of the endeavours designed to tackle those issues that are really worth flagging up?

I think there are some real standouts. You look at an agency like MediaCom and the amount of work and energy they’ve put in to genuinely making themselves more accessible – they’re one of the smartest and strongest at using apprentices properly, and really making it much more accessible at entry level. You’ve got Ogilvy, what they’re doing with their roots programme is really really leaning in and tackling these big gnarly challenges around ethnicity. I think Saatchi’s done a brilliant job around the London living wage and making it right for interns, and that meant doing some really hard remodelling of their salaries. It’s not all the big ones; there’s Liberty, who are a user-based agency down in Brixton, and they are setting a standard for how we get more young kids in and doing work experience through their Digify programme, so I think they’re four standout agencies that I would mention.


What can Front Foot or AA members do to improve the situation at their own workplaces?

I think the easy answer is that if they haven’t already, they should sign up for the Advertising Diversity Task Force, which Grey and MediaCom formed about two years ago with about eighteen founding agencies, and that’s a collective of the most progressive agencies in London, and we’re using our skills and our energy and our chequebooks to try and shift the dial, because although diversity and inclusion and all this stuff is complicated, we fix complicated business problems every day for our client. This is certainly no more complicated than that; we just have to turn the lens on ourselves and use our smartest planners and smartest creatives and our smartest, sharpest suits to pull together, identify initiatives and actually work at scale and at speed to make changes.

The benefit of all that is that once you’ve got one big holding company signing up, it means another one will. No one wants to be the last agency to sign up for something, so there’s healthy peer pressure. That’s the Advertising Diversity Task Force, and it’ll get better the more agencies we have signed up for it.

That’s the easy thing to do, and then I think there’s practical stuff: if you do want to shift the dial on diversity it has to be exec-led, or at least have a clear exec sponsor. It has to be top-down and driven with authority and momentum, in which case it has to be the CEO, the Chief Creative Office, the MD: someone who’s really prepared to say ‘this is what we’re doing as an agency’, so I think one: it has to be exec-led.

Two: know who you are and get the data, so find a way of running your own annual census. HR can’t ask those questions, because some of these are really personal – they can ask if you’re male or female, but it pretty much stops there. After that, how are you going to find out how many people are from low social mobility backgrounds, or how many people have had some mental health challenges in the past? Know your data.

Three – we’ve talked about it: be respectful of language. Don’t use words like diversity, talk about being yourself, bringing yourself to work. A key learning for me actually is that the more you achieve the more you’re going to disenfranchise white, straight, middle class men. You’ve got to take them with you and be respectful of them and how they’re feeling, the more you power up something like this. Know what success looks like – don’t allow yourself to celebrate tokenism. Having one black person on the board doesn’t mean you’ve fixed anything.

Finally, because it is tricky, find incredible experts, and there are some really really good ones in this field. I’ve already talked about Digify, which is great for giving opportunities for BAME use. Another one is Creative Access, who are absolutely incredible at finding the best BAME talent and getting them into your agency. There’s the Hobbs Consultancy, which is a brilliant one for gender. There’s the Shine consultancy, which is able to empower literally 80 women in two days – their course is incredible so I definitely would like to give them a shoutout. It’s a complex world and we need experts, so get people like Shine to come in, talk to whoever’s leading this from an exec point of view, and they can find you fast solutions that work.

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