Tackling advertising’s class issue

At the IPA’s Talent and Diversity Conference, Lisa Thompson and James Hillhouse shared practical action to make the industry more inclusive for the working classes.

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


As the advertising industry makes attempts to tackle its diversity issue, the issue of class and socio-economic diversity often remains the elephant in the room.

To break the silence that often surrounds the lack of economic diversity in the industry and make progress on the issue the IPA’s Inaugural Talent and Diversity Conference hosted an interactive workshop.

Lisa Thompson, Business Director at Wavemaker and James Hillhouse, Co-founder of Commercial Break ran the event which focused on meaningful action toward making the industry more inclusive for the working classes. 

The workshop discussed how the classism issue is one the industry desperately needs to tackle as in order to create great work, it is essential that people from all socio-economic backgrounds work together. The session referenced the ‘golden era’ of advertising where in the past, the industry was far more open to everyone and the work created was reflective of that. Now, the UK population is 39% working class, yet the UK advertising industry falls short at just 19%.

Breaking the London bubble

The increased London-centricity of the industry and a lack of paid entry-level programs has closed access pathways, mystifying the industry and removing advertising as a career option for many people from working class backgrounds. And, even for those that manage to enter the industry, exit rates are high as cultures that have been created prove to be isolating. 

Thompson, who helps run Common People, a network designed to open up the creative industries to those from working class backgrounds, started the session by identifying some of the root causes of the advertising industry’s socio-economic diversity issues. 

  • The advertising industry isn’t advertised enough: Ironically, not enough people are aware of the advertising industry and the various roles on offer. Careers talks where senior people claim it is a career they ‘fell into’ due to various existing connections and knocking opportunities are simply not good enough and clear pathways need to be publicised.
  • The intern model isn’t up to scratch: Unpaid internships favour those that live with their parents or force people to take on second jobs leading to burn out. Internships need to focus on education, have more of a clear structure showing a pathway into a full time position and help people reach their full potential.
  • Cultural fit isn’t fit for purpose: Agencies that focus on finding a cultural fit perpetuate a culture of narrowmindedness which leads to a lack of diversity in the work they create. Instead an agency’s culture should strive to be one of inclusiveness that welcomes people from different backgrounds, creating a unique culture that all contribute to rather than conform to.

To combat these issues Thompson stresses that agencies need to have their house in order before bringing in new talent and commit time and effort to making meaningful steps towards inclusion. As a first step, she suggests questioning how much you know about your own employees and considering what working class talent means. 

There are three key questions that help identify what working class means; What someone's parents did, if they got free school meals and whether or not a person went to private school. Yet, Thompson highlighted that there are still nuances within these categories and to gain true insights it's essential to be open and honest with people about your intentions to do better. She pointed to the Social Mobility Index which is a free resource that companies can use to help better measure progress.

Being busy isn't an excuse for kindness to drop

Lisa Thompson, Business Director at Wavemaker

De-mystifying the industry

As part of the session, Hillhouse highlighted some common mistakes that people make that create further barriers. He pointed to the fact that “people are leaving the industry feeling deflated” and that the goal should be retention, making people feel as though they belong. Agencies need to put the focus on talent, creating clear paths of progression and modifying ways of working to be more clear.

To level the playing field Hillhouse highlighted the need to reach the right audience, job boards like Linkedin aren’t always the right place to advertise new roles and it's essential that placements go to the right people that need and value them. Inclusion has to be considered from the off and job descriptions need to be jargon-free, clear and open to questions. Exhibiting kindness such as explaining dress code or offering to pay for interview travel will see people encouraged to apply and put at ease by the process.

There are so many things that people within the industry take for granted, even those that entered from a working class background many years ago grow accustomed to the industry's intricacies. Acronyms and initialisms, free client lunches at swanky restaurants with dishes that are hard to pronounce, pitch processes, reporting stats, even words like ‘deck’ - for those in the know it seems second nature but it's important to afford time to guide people through things and explain.

Ultimately, a key takeaway from the session was to be a little kinder; afford a bit more time and remember that the best work happens when people from all walks of life are in the room. “Being busy isn't an excuse for kindness to drop” added Thompson as a closing remark. A compelling reminder that in order to create true diversity across all aspects of the industry listening and learning from others is key.