Young, diverse and in need of a break; how can the ad industry welcome talent from all walks of life?
As we begin our month-long focus on diversity within the industry, Shanandore Robinson, a Brixton Finishing School graduate, shares her experiences of trying to break into an industry that isn't always as welcoming as it could be.
I have always had an interest in art and advertising, but as a young, black woman have found it challenging to find rewarding work in the ad industry. And I’m not alone.
Luckily for me, last year I enrolled on an accelerator course called the Brixton Finishing School [BFS], a programme that focuses on finding untapped talent for the ad industry, including people of colour, neuro-diverse, working class and female applicants with the drive and talent to succeed. This gave me the break I needed!
The experience of going into a place that lacks diversity can have long term impacts on your confidence.
Recent research into young, under-represented students trying to break into the industry, undertaken by BFS, showed that 100% of respondents said the industry was not doing enough around inclusion, with 71% saying they believe the main barrier to pursuing a career in the advertising industry is ‘not knowing the right people’. What’s more, 31% said their race was a barrier to entry.
Now, as more attention is given to diversity and inclusion in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, I wanted to share my personal experiences of trying to break into the ad industry, and help give some insights into what can be improved for others.
What are the big issues?
For many people of colour, the barriers to access start at the application process. You check to see how diverse a company is and, if it’s not, you find yourself asking, ‘Am I just the tokenistic hire?’. When you don’t get feedback after an interview, the question of race does cross your mind. The experience of going into a place that lacks diversity can have long term impacts on your confidence. Without even meaning to it can feel discriminatory and unwelcoming, which can be a mental barrier to overcome.
Despite being an established global agency, the person that spoke to us about working there was a black female intern who had barely been there a month.
I once went for an assessment day at a largely white office and three of the people being assessed were people of colour, including myself. They were trying to be edgy, so were playing rap music, but it included a song featuring offensive language to black people; an unbelievable move when interviewing three people of colour. When I went back there later, as part of an open day, despite being an established global agency, the person that spoke to us about working there was a black female intern who had barely been there a month. It felt like a tick box exercise, and this sort of experience is a hurdle right at the very start.
Diversity and inclusion isn’t talked about honestly enough.
There are also financial issues with finding that ‘big break’. When looking for an entry role, every internship or work experience placement I could find was unpaid. Without, at a minimum, having my travel covered, I would have never been able to gain any experience because I have to earn money to live. This removes opportunities for so many when getting experience is so vital, especially if you have no industry contacts. For that reason, I firmly believe that unpaid work experience placements are morally wrong and block vital access to opportunity for young people, regardless of background.
I firmly believe that unpaid work experience placements are morally wrong and block vital access to opportunity.
Another big issue is that diversity and inclusion isn’t talked about honestly enough. In particular, it is difficult to address race in the workplace, especially with people who do fit the traditional mould, and don’t share the experiences that minority groups have been through. The conversation is delicate, and people become uncomfortable, so vital discussions end up being pushed away and de-prioritised, but it’s vital to start making these changes.
Brixton Finishing School
Luckily, there are programmes in place to make fundamental changes within our industry to create a more diverse - and therefore more effective - advertising world. I came across the Brixton Finishing School on LinkedIn last summer. When I saw it advertised, to be honest, I thought it was too good to be true; a school for people like me? I signed up straight away, and it was so refreshing to be surrounded by people with similar experiences and motivations to push through.
I remember seeing a rainbow flag on the desk, which immediately made me feel welcome.
The school gave us the opportunity to go into agencies to see for ourselves, first-hand, what the culture was actually like. When I went to visit the Mail Metro Media, where I now work as a Partnership Administrative Assistant, I could see that it was a place I’d like to be. I remember seeing a rainbow flag on the desk, which immediately made me feel welcome. I applied for a job and, thanks to my experience with BFS, I was offered an interview and had the tools to give a presentation on social advertising. This was such a positive milestone for me, one that gave me confidence.
How can we improve the industry?
We’re lucky that accelerators exist to give that leg up some people need, but they shouldn’t be necessary. I think every business leader needs to look at the entire application process - before, during and after - and have open and honest conversations about their overall dedication to diversity, to see how it can be changed to embrace diverse candidates.
If people don’t see other people like themselves it can be very daunting to apply.
When you’re hiring, what are you doing to show that your organisation is inclusive? I completed some work experience at an organisation and, before I started, I went straight to the 'people' section on the website to find out if it was diverse. It wasn’t! If people don’t see other people like themselves it can be very daunting to apply.
When you interview them, what environment are you doing it in and who is there? The experience I mentioned previously made it very difficult for me to believe that the organisation was really committed to embracing me as a diverse candidate. Equally, if the candidate is not right for the role, what feedback are you providing to help that person improve? If you’re not sending feedback, what message are you giving that person? They might feel like it’s their race or their difference that’s the problem. And, crucially, once you have hired that person, what culture of inclusiveness are you creating within the organisation so that they feel at home and able to thrive and aren't just a token hire? These are all questions I’d encourage businesses to think about.
What culture of inclusiveness are you creating within the organisation so that they feel at home and able to thrive and aren't just a token hire?
When I joined BFS, we were able to share stories of our own personal and professional struggles, which is so important. It also opened my eyes to the many other barriers to entry that existed and the difficulties that others faced. I realised my own ignorance too; the more conversations we have about these important topics, the more we encourage an open and representative ad industry.