The industry has been talking a good game on diversity for years; agencies big and small all quick to chip in with their tuppence worth on issues such as how to get more women to board level and why the creative floor has historically been so white, male and middle-class. Countless conferences, columns and studies have all emerged to show that they are trying to move the dial. You need only look at last month’s Advertising Week Europe, where it was a recurring topic of conversation on many panels.
But all these efforts of late have come against a media frenzy surrounding the revelation of (now former) J Walter Thomson boss Gustavo Martinez’s alleged racist, anti-Semitic and sexist outbursts to colleagues – and how complaints about the chief were handled.
This has inevitably left many wondering if all the talk was really achieving anything and whether, behind closed doors, enough effort is actually being made. Some individuals have even taken matters into their own hands and, no longer happy with just talking, are forging ahead with action.
Perhaps surprisingly, JWT is one such agency housing a woman determined to make diversity a priority for both the agency and its clients; not to court good PR or to make sure its numbers stack up on a spreadsheet, but because she believes that a gender diverse business is commercially a rather savvy move.
Group planning head Rachel Pashley (pictured above) has sacrificed four years of lunch breaks and relaxing on flights to build Female Tribes – a breadth of research on why women are good for business and actionable ways the agency could create a structure to support this in the long-term, including a radical shake-up of its recruitment processes.
The admittedly unfortunate timing of revealing this body of work (the same time Martinez’s comments were picked up by media outlets worldwide) shouldn’t detract from its promise and indication that JWT realises change will not come because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the right thing for business.
Speaking about the impact of Martinez’s comments and the consequential resurgence of the debate, Pashley says: “It’s a watershed moment in terms of making it real and highlighting that we do need to take this stuff seriously.”
But bigger factors are at play, with Pashley saying women’s anger at inequality has reached fever pitch: “I’m not even sure we could have done what we have four years ago because I don’t think we’ve had such societal debate until now. Women are getting really angry about equal pay and political representation. It’s making us all think about how we treat women. It’s almost like everything came together at the right moment.
“The step change was landing on the idea of female capital and that this wasn’t an interesting set of insights but a consistent pattern, of economic, social and cultural value; that what women were delivering was different, and powerful. It felt like it could take us away from empowerment advertising and into something more important.”
Tamara Ingram, taking over from the disgraced Martinez as global chief executive, will inject an urgency into plans already in place as will the team of some 40 people in the agency all working on 'Female Tribes' in addition to their day jobs.
“We’re doing unconscious bias training and looking at quotas for creative recruitment which we’re starting to accelerate,” Pashley adds.
The time taken for JWT to reach this point and the journey it still has ahead is among the challenges facing many global legacy agencies.
Like Pashley, Ali Hanan felt not enough was being done within agencies and set up Creative Equals in an attempt to address one particular problem – women on the creative floor. “There’s a lot of talk right now about diversity in the industry, but no real action plan for change,” she says.