Interviews

Solving Adland’s class issue will take time and effort

Common People Co-Founder and Wavemaker Business Director Lisa Thompson shares her experiences as a working class woman in the advertising industry

Georgie Moreton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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29% of the UK is from a working class background, yet the ad industry is home to just 12% of working-class talent. 

For Lisa Thompson, Co-Founder of Common people, an industry forum for working-class people in adland and Business Director at Wavemaker, this statistic is not just about representation in the work, nor is it immovable. As she explains: “Class is the elephant in the room that needs to be tackled if we’re going to create better work, because at the minute we have lots of people who all think the same.”

Thompson, who is from a working-class background herself, began talking about the issue of class whilst undergoing an IPA Excellence Diploma. For her final piece, Thompson wrote about what she believed to be the future of brands and cited a book called ‘Collective Genius’. Her thesis stated that in order to create the best work, the industry needs diverse thinking. This means a diverse workforce that includes people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. 

The root of the issue

Unlike many other diversity issues, classism in advertising has actually gotten worse. Thompson explains: “If you look at the industry 20 to 30 years ago there was a really diverse class makeup. You would hear stories of people like Dave Trott who started in the mail room and worked their way up.” Yet, working class people in the industry today may struggle to find these stories; so necessary not just for showing what is possible, but paving a trail for the next generation of talent.

Thompson believes that in a bid to ‘professionalise’ the industry, organisations have focused on graduates rather than entry-level positions. While the increased London-centricity of the industry is also to the detriment of its diverse class make-up.

The fact it [Common People] got so much buzz so quickly showed that there were a lot of people in the industry frustrated by the fact it wasn't talked about and wasn't measured.

Lisa Thompson, Business Director, Wavemaker and Co-Founder, Common People

Reflecting on her own entry into the industry Thompson explains that while writing the essay she realised out of her group of friends at university, half had attended a private school. She explains: “Just me and one other friend actively worked during university time, everyone talked about rugby Union when I was familiar with League, it all just felt a bit weird.” 

Her own experiences of the class divide found Thompson inspired to take action; “I wanted to do something about it and started to do lots of different things - chatting to local colleges and writing training modules for the IPA. Common People was founded, not by accident but in a moment of serendipity.” she says. 

The industry forum for working-class people in adland, Common People, was founded by Thompson with the help of Jed Hallam, Global Head of Strategy, Arcadia, at Snap amongst others. The launch followed conversations between Thompson and Hallam whilst he was on the panel marking her essay. Hallam, who is also from a working-class background, shared Thompson’s passion for bringing the issue of classism to light. Common People is now on a mission to change the creative industries for the better, by making Common People more common. 

“It [Common People] actually started with a tweet one day from Jed. He had seen something that tipped him over the edge and did a tweet like ‘who wants to join?!’ In 24 hours we had over 250 people join a WhatsApp group” explains Thompson. “We thought it was just going to be a community for people to chat but people have shared their experiences, a lot of them quite negative in the way that they've been treated. It’s helped people get jobs and become a real space.” 

Where it started as a Whatsapp group, Common People has now become something bigger. The organisation has teamed up with the 94% Club, a charity working toward greater state school representation at university and launched the Creative Club, “which is all about coming together to make common people more common in the creative industries” explains Thompson. “The fact it got so much buzz so quickly showed that there were a lot of people in the industry frustrated by the fact it wasn't talked about and it wasn't measured” she adds.

Barriers to entry

Classism is a diversity issue that often gets overlooked as it's hard to define what working class means. Thompson explains that “The Social Mobility Commission defines class with three things - whether you went to private school or not, the occupation of your parents and whether you had free school dinners. ”

Yet, Common People “don’t put any restrictions in place like you have to have all three,” says Thompson, sharing that she only fits into two of the three categories. “My experience from a working-class background can be different to other people's experiences in the group.”

We joked at a recent conference that if you couldn't find the venue you just follow the people who look like they work in the creative industry. There’s a lot of social currency that's expected in the ad industry that if you're not used to it you come in feeling really alien.

Lisa Thompson, Business Director, Wavemaker and Co-Founder, Common People

While the working class experience is unique, barriers to entry are shared. One of the biggest factors at play is that the advertising industry doesn’t advertise itself and many people aren’t even aware that it's a career option “it's not even on their radar” she says. And for those whose radar it is on, internships and entry schemes favour graduates or are only accessible if you live inside of London or have a relative to get your foot in the door.

As well as tangible barriers like expensive interview trips and job application skills, there are also social barriers at play. “We joked at a recent conference that if you couldn't find the venue you just follow the people who look like they work in the creative industry,” she shares. “There’s a lot of social currency that's expected in the ad industry that if you're not used to it you come in feeling really alien.”

Creating space

With the ‘great resignation’ and the ‘war for talent’ at the top of the industry agenda, addressing classism is increasingly vital to both attracting and retaining the best talent. “It’s not just a recruitment issue it's a retention issue,” explains Thompson. “There's a lot of people who start and leave, feel like they don't fit in or that they're not supported. A lot of that is solvable. If you put a proper induction in place, if you train staff, take a look at what you're doing, it's absolutely solvable.”

“It’s the same as industries dominated by men, you can get women in but if they don’t feel comfortable they will leave.” Creating an inclusive space needs to be a priority for the industry as, in order to create the best work, people need to be able to focus their time on creativity rather than worrying about their identity: “You get a lot of people probably masking who they are to fit in and that's exhausting. You just want people to come in and feel like they can be who they are. You want to feel accepted so you can bring your whole self to work,” Lisa adds.

Representation matters

From biases in the workplace around accent that mean working-class people are less likely to be given client-facing opportunities to a lack of representation on screen in advertising, classism in the industry is rife. Creature’s Class Polish campaign brings to life accent bias and shows how people often use empty words like ‘polish’ to insinuate that there are certain qualities working-class people don’t have based on stereotypes and assumptions. 

You get a lot of people probably masking who they are to fit in and that's exhausting. You just want people to come in and feel like they can be who they are. You want to feel accepted so you can bring your whole self to work

Lisa Thompson, Business Director, Wavemaker and Co-Founder, Common People

“We are quite guilty of stereotypes.” adds Thompson, “Recently I read a really interesting article about ‘Hullraisers’ in Refinery29. There have been loads of shows about middle-class women like Fleabag and Catastrophe but up until this point TV shows about working-class women would almost position them as being quite downtrodden, not having a fun life.” She continues; “Hullraisers shows three women from a working-class background openly talking about things, having a ball not being downtrodden. When I read that article and watched it, it was really right. It’s bright, colourful.”

This positive portrayal is vital to greater inclusion as Thompson stresses the need to move away from associating socio-economic status with a state of wellbeing; “There are a lot of people that have had traumatic lives from working-class backgrounds but there’s also a lot of people who are from middle-class backgrounds with traumatic lives,” she says. “I've not had a traumatic life at all, we could do things, I wasn't downtrodden, it's just my world is different from the world I then experienced with my friends at university. It's that negative perception that saps the joy out of it.” 

Building an inclusive future

Reflecting on the changing nature of the workplace over the past few years, Lisa has seen both positives and negatives come from the pandemic, “Common People started in the pandemic. Me and Jed talk regularly on the phone, we’re good friends and we’ve never even met in real life” she says, “the pandemic and the switch to virtual allowed us to start something that we might not have started had we not all been sat at home.”

On the flip side Thompson acknowledges that for people entering the industry, remote working has made training and progression much harder. Sprinkle on top a mounting cost of living crisis and it's no wonder that “there's probably a lot of young people feeling quite disillusioned.” she says. 

She points to the pandemic grading scandal in which students from less affluent areas had grades penalised by an algorithm due to location bias. Even for those that were graced with good enough marks by the computer, many were reluctant to pay tuition fees for remote learning.

Yet, Thompson is optimistic that it is in acknowledging and being aware of such setbacks that we can begin to make meaningful change; “there are some big barriers we need to be aware of and have on our radar but I’m always a glass half full girl, we need to put some actions in place and if we are positive we can solve things.”

At the IPA’s Inaugural Talent and Diversity Conference, Thompson presented a session alongside James Hillhouse, Co-founder of Commercial Break that offered practical advice on how businesses can be a part of the shift toward a more inclusive workplace. She urges agencies to start by measuring and then consider inclusion in every aspect from recruitment to company culture. For it is only when inclusion is embedded within every part of a business that people can truly be themselves and the best work can flourish.