Black talent feel ‘cultural fit’ would shut them out of advertising

A report from Ogilvy suggests young Black people are well aware of opportunities in the industry, but also the barriers to entry.

Over the last few months, it has become impossible for anyone to claim ignorance about the fact that representation for Black people in Canada’s ad industry is not where it should be, falling well below the number of Black people in the population as a whole. This discrepancy suggests there are barriers keeping them from entering the field, and the fact that the number falls even more when looking at senior positions suggests that those who do enter the agency world do not stay in it long enough to reach a leadership position.

And a new report suggests that young Black people are well aware of the ad industry, and even think they could succeed in it – but feel that inherent biases and systemic racism would prevent them from even beginning their career in the first place.

Research conducted by Ogilvy Canada and Environics Research and provided to strategy found that Black respondents – which made up 301 of the 815 online survey takers – were three times more likely than their peers to express a desire in advertising as a career path. However, 68% of them noted that barriers, such as racial prejudice in the hiring phase and worries about not fitting in with the image of an “ad professional,” were obstacles to entering the field. Black respondents also over-indexed in believing that the industry seems like one that “would be difficult to break into.”

John Killam, CEO of Ogilvy Canada, says the one factor the agency was interested in learning more about was the fact that young Black students and professionals felt confident that if they could get into the advertising industry, they would be successful. The assumption that there is a lack of interest in or awareness of the ad industry among Black people, the report found, is not the main issue that needs to be addressed to improve diversity.

“It’s an important learning to guide how we invest our time and money against this issue,” Killam says. “The biggest hurdle Black young people face, and the one we need to focus on addressing, is helping them get in the door.”

A primary barrier that emerged from the study’s focus groups was that some individuals felt advertising appeared to be “very image conscious” and that advertising companies may not be interested in bringing on someone who didn’t fit “the look.”

Focus group participants cited things like “hip fashion,” “dark frame glasses” and “being slim” as physical attributes they felt most people in the industry had, but that they didn’t possess – or had different definitions for than a predominantly white industry. Concerns around fat-phobia and “lookism” emerged as barriers as well.

“We need to reassess what we mean when we talk about ‘cultural fit’ – away from how someone dresses or where they buy their coffee and shift it towards aligning with an agency’s core values,” Killam says.

He adds that based on the research, there are inherent racial biases in the industry’s hiring processes. To address this, Killam says, agencies should be training its employees on bias and diversity, as well as revamping hiring processes to account for cultural difference and including a diverse group of both interviewers and interviewees. That’s especially important for roles like creative and strategy, which have more direct influence over outputted work but where Black people have typically seen even lower representation .

But the report found that, among Black respondents, the worries did not end once they got their foot in the door. “Participants discussed how racial bias may persist even after they land a job – especially in industries known to lack representation. They felt that they wouldn’t feel comfortable trusting those who didn’t look like them with their experiences of racism as it could be frowned upon and could hurt employment stability,” the report states.

Respondents also felt like it might be hard for them to be seen by non-Black superiors to have an ability to balance hard skills with soft skills, such as understanding consumers, the ability to brief and assess creative and exhibiting professionalism – the latter of which has been shown to have a bias when defined by non-Black standards.

Black respondents perceived improvement in proper representation in advertising in recent years, and 66% felt advertising had a positive impact on society. Tom Kenny, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy Toronto, said this is partially due to the fact that several higher profile brands had been visible trying to embrace diversity, which led to a hope among respondents that it would create more equitable employment, resulting in a cyclical effect that would further improve representation in advertising and media.

Wendy Zhu, a researcher at Environics, noted that those who didn’t have a favourable perception of advertising also didn’t know much about the industry, or anyone who worked within it; this correlation suggests the possibility that providing a greater understanding of the industry could make them view it favourably. The report suggests doing secondary school outreach to inform young Black people about the industry while they are still enthusiastic about it could help them picture themselves in it.

Showcasing creative and strategic aspects of the industry would help as well, as respondents were interested in creative fields but saw that more associated with fields like music, entertainment, architecture and graphic design. Conversely, Black respondents were more likely to associate the industry with business-related opportunities, such as building a business from the ground up or achieving a higher salary than other fields.

Ogilvy has acknowledged the fact that it is not exempt from needing to address these issues. Some of the steps it says it has taken include last year’s launch of Ogilvy Roots (an effort to coordinate initiatives looking at focusing on diversity and inclusion), signing on to the Call for Equity letter in June and teaming up with the Black Business Professional Association to help diversify hiring pools.

Mark Read, CEO of Ogilvy holding company WPP, acknowledged in July that the company “had a huge amount of work to do” when it comes to diversity; according to its most recent diversity numbers from 2018, only 6.2% of global staff were Black, a number that dipped to 2.2% when looking at senior and executive levels (the 2018 numbers were the most recent the company had available, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the U.S. halted data collection due to the pandemic; as such, it doesn’t include any acquisitions it has made since then, or capture how layoffs in recent months may have impacted these numbers). The company has also pledged $30 million to inclusion efforts, including matching employee donations to anti-racism charities, launching a mentorship program with 300 schools globally and creating an Inclusion Council.