Getting to the heart of advertising’s access issue

To truly address the diversity challenge agencies have to address the access challenge

Rowenna Prest

Chief Strategy Officer Joint


It’s widely acknowledged that the advertising industry has an access issue. Only 20% of the industry claims to come from a working class background, compared with the national average of 40%. London remains the advertising hotspot with 85% of staff working for the six biggest agency groups based in London. And whilst the 18% of employees who consider themselves “any minority ethnic” is greater than the 14% at a national working population level, it seriously under indexes vs. the London working population which is 38%, problematic given the industry’s London-centricity.

And it’s not just a moral issue, it’s a commercial one for both our Clients and our own bottom line. I don’t buy the argument that poor representation in agencies means they can’t create work that talks to the wider population. It’s the role of the strategist and researcher to insightfully bring audiences to life. However, I do think having diversity within an agency will only lead to more ways of looking at the world and ultimately lead to better, more effective, creative work, improving the ROI for Clients. Diversity is also proven to deliver financially healthier agencies as McKinsey’s latest study found, “The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.”

And it’s not just a moral issue, it’s a commercial one for both our Clients and our own bottom line.

Rowenna Prest, Chief Strategy Officer at Joint

Organisations like Creative Access and the Brixton Finishing School do a brilliant job at the sharp end of the issue by upskilling and helping underrepresented people at the start of their careers get into creative industries. At Joint, we work with Creative Access and the talent they’ve sent through has been excellent and it’s been a really positive experience for all involved.

However, I think as an industry we have to take a step back and be honest with ourselves as to why our recruitment looks like it does in the first place. This is certainly not exhaustive but I think there are three key areas to consider: industry culture, pay and education. All of which are systemic and therefore harder to fix, but we must start addressing them now because otherwise our drive for better access, even if it’s well meaning, will only ever be tokenistic.

The advertising industry may not realise, but it has a really strong, pretty singular culture. Despite having come fresh from Oxford University, I socially felt incredibly out of my depth when I joined my first ad agency. I didn’t know anyone already in the industry. I wasn’t privately educated. I didn’t realise pinky rings were such a thing. I’d never been skiing. Coming from Cornwall, I wasn’t abreast of the South-East centric social calendar of Wimbledon, Chelsea Flower Show and Lords. I’d never been to a “posh” restaurant before.

Whilst some of these examples sound flippant, they all drove moments where I felt very different from the advertising majority; where I was excluded from the conversation - which, in such a relationship focused industry as ours, really matters. So, whilst it’s really shocking, I’m not surprised that 1/3 of Black colleagues currently feel like they don’t belong in the industry.

Agency leaders have to recognise that this type of culture exists and then work hard to change it. It will take humility as it will be reliant on an “outsider” coming inside the agency to point out cultural blind spots. And it needs to be at a total level from how we operate in a business context, what’s deemed “professional”; to how we grade and support employee progression; right through to our approach to agency socials.

The second area is pay. The IPA Census from 2020 found the entry level pay range was between £14,000-£38,000/year. The UK Living Wage for the same year was £9.50/hr, which if you assume a 37 hour week is just over £18,000/year; London’s Living Wage was £10.85/hr would have been £20,875/year. So, in some instances, employees were unable to live on the salary they were paid. That means a broad sway of people who don’t come from London (where most agencies are) or don’t have other means or family support are instantly excluded. 

But the pay question isn’t just whether people can afford to work in advertising - that’s a pretty arrogant stance. The average London graduate salary in 2020 was £31,423. So, the question is why would someone choose a career in advertising when they could earn significantly more elsewhere? Now, obviously, I can make the argument for why (!) but the notion of choosing a career that you love rather than considering the pay packet is a pretty privileged stance and will disproportionately favour those from more affluent backgrounds.

So what can agencies do here? Firstly everyone should at least be paying the Living Wage and that should be applied to internships as well as jobs.

Beyond that, we need to be more transparent about earning potential. If we want to attract the best, most diverse range of people then we have to show them the full picture. Maybe it’s ok to take a lesser paid creative job now, because in the future it’s going to be alright. And to make sure the future is going to be alright, more transparency would also help. Our industry doesn’t just have a gender pay gap, there’s also a shocking ethnicity pay gap of 21.1% in favour of white employees. For this to be outed would hopefully stop it and ensure a more fair distribution of salaries. Fairer pay for all means a fairer future for all those at the start of their careers.

Finally, we come to education. The Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre found that class inequality in the Creative Industries is rooted in unequal access to arts and cultural education. In a sample of 20 private schools, they found there were 33 theatre spaces and all schools offered a specialist provision ranging from photography, sculpture, ceramics, textiles and digital media. Contrast this with state schools where not only are the facilities lacking but they don’t even have the staff - the number of Design and Technology teachers has halved between 2011 and 2020.

There are ad hoc programmes where advertising agencies go into local state schools. But it’s very sporadic and often to promote a career in advertising rather than to help the children learn creative skills that may or may not result in them choosing advertising. As an industry we should formalise our approach and relationships with schools. Giving more children the opportunity to experience what creative thinking is and the opportunities it could give them in the future.

To truly address the diversity challenge agencies have to address the access challenge. This is a complex question but by considering the above and trying to make as many meaningful changes as possible I am optimistic for a better, fairer future.

Guest Author

Rowenna Prest

Chief Strategy Officer Joint


Rowenna has just returned from maternity leave; she arrived at Joint in 2017 as Group Strategy Director and has worked across clients such as TSB, Vue, Amazon and Reach. Her career spans roles at AMV, BBH, RKCR/Y&R, Lowe and client-side at BSkyB.

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