The talent tap’s off, but there’s a way we can turn it back on
James Hillhouse, the Co-Founder of Commercial Break, an organisation devoted to greater diversity within advertising, recently published an open letter criticising the industry's commitment to the cause. Here, he explains why he won't be recruiting new talent until things change and underlines what needs to be done to make those changes a reality.
Since 2012, Commercial Break has provided a pipeline of young, working class talent to the ad industry.
You’ve built an agency where all types of people can exist and thrive. Except you haven’t.
But, in the last weeks, with diversity at the centre of every conversation and at the moment agencies were clambering over each other to get to that diverse talent, we decided to turn the tap off. We won’t be turning it back on again until the industry changes. I wanted to use this article to explain why we did it, but I also want to stop pointing the finger at people and start pointing it in the direction we might all follow to make this work.
Good intentions are destructive
When Susie Burdekin and I started Commercial Break, we did so with good intentions and very little experience. We knew that we’d make mistakes, but that was OK, because we were trying to make a difference. It didn’t take us long to realise that was a crock of shit.
When you’re dealing with the hopes and aspirations of young people, you bloody well better make sure you’re not just giving it a go; you better make sure you’re doing everything in your power to get it right. Because, the truth is, tackling diversity is really easy to start, but really hard to sustain.
Above: Some former Commercial Breakers.
Acquisition is easy
Finding people is easy. There’s a bevy of schemes to help you get fresh talent, they even train them before they get to you. You’ve probably got a few of them on speed dial at the moment. But retaining that talent, now, that’s when it gets hard.
It didn’t take us long to realise that was a crock of shit.
It doesn’t sound hard. You’ve built an agency where all types of people can exist and thrive. Except you haven’t. You’ve built an agency where a very particular type of person can exist and thrive. Anyone coming in who's outside of that mould is going to struggle to feel part of it. And without knowing it, in all sorts of nuanced, accidental ways, you’re simply reinforcing that feeling every single day:
‘I never felt like I could be who I really was. If you didn’t act like they did, you were always on the outside of things.’
‘We were watching an ad about racism, and I was the only black guy, but they didn’t ask me what I thought, they just talked about how bad [racism] was themselves.’
‘They want you there, but then it’s like that’s the job done. Your job is to be the black guy from the council estate. That’s it. They don’t actually need you for anything else.’
These are quotes from some of the people we've placed, and I don’t know what’s more depressing, that many of these people don’t want to work in the industry again, or that some of them still do.
This is where the hard works starts
The good news is, getting it right is hard, but it’s not impossible. If we can summon up half the ingenuity and determination with which we’ve adapted to the current pandemic, then we can make this happen.
Put simply, you have to audit the fuck out of yourselves.
So, here are five things you should be doing.
1. Audit yourself. Hard
This all starts with you. Put simply, you have to audit the fuck out of yourselves. Garner honest perspectives and concerns from your staff. Figure out the issues that exist within your operation that are going to make you fail or succeed. It’s a big, time-consuming piece of work. If it sounds too hard, then that might tell you whether you should be doing it at all.
2. Be specific
Diversity is a really baggy term. If a client used it, we’d immediately nail them on it. So, what do you really want to do? Do you want to attract more black talent? Do that. Is your focus autistic talent? Great, do that. But don’t ever say, ‘we want more diverse people’, because that’s a group that just doesn’t exist.
3. Disband your D&I team
We might lose you with this one, granted, but unless your D&I team is the most powerful voice in your agency, shut it down. Now. Then put your D&I effort at the heart of the agency, and make it a collective focus. This is no longer an agency initiative, it’s your agency.
4. Recruit big
I’m leaving recruitment to fourth, because it’s absolutely one of the last things you should do. And here’s some advice, when you do recruit, recruit big. Don’t get in one or two people. You’re better than tokenism. Replace your grad scheme. Get in five. Get in 10. If all you ever get is a drip feed, nothing will ever really change. Jump start it instead.
5. Hold yourselves to account
You are going to get things wrong. But worse, you are going to get things wrong that you think you’ve got right. You need to be held to account, and not by yourself, but by someone independent. Get yourself some hard truths once a quarter. You might not like what you hear, but each review will make you better.
Let’s not just do this, let’s do it right.
We have a golden opportunity in our hands right now. But if we rush into it without due care and attention then we’ll let it slip through our fingers before we’ve even started.
Let’s not just do this, let’s do it right.