There’s a serious split of opinion about how good creative agencies are at supporting a more diverse, equal and inclusive working culture. 23% of US and UK agency leaders feel they are ‘really good’ at diversity, while 18% admit they are poor at it and should be doing a lot more.

That’s one of the insights from a survey of 1,349 agency leaders revealed in our The Truth About Talent report. But dig deeper into this apparent divide and it soon becomes clear that the ‘really good’ camp is somewhat deluded in its confidence. How do we know this?

A catalogue of issues

Alongside the survey, we conducted in-depth interviews with 26 of the US and UK’s most dynamic and progressive senior agency staff, and those interviews revealed a breadth of diversity-centred anxieties and frustrations.

They told us that there’s a lack of senior role models to attract talent from different backgrounds, because an obsession with recruiting award winners and anyone with existing industry reputation restricts diversity at the top.

They also reported risk-averse behaviour and too much weight given to traditional qualifications. There’s tokenism, and a fear of getting diversity wrong – and the potential public backlash. Overwhelmingly, there’s a sense that the industry is lagging way behind other sectors.

Lack of senior role models

The industry is consistently failing to create radical solutions, which means that we remain stuck in familiar ruts. According to a UK-based global chief creative officer, the UK advertising industry is 12 years behind the television business. “DEI is not at the top of enough people’s lists,” they said.

Another added: “It’s time we stuck our fingers in the scabs and poked around.”

Time and again, the lack of role models at the top, with leadership teams dominated by white male faces, were raised by leaders as barriers to the implementation of effective DEI strategies.

While the industry has made significant improvements in gender representation at a senior level, the lack of diversity at the top is an obvious source of frustration – a difficulty that is magnified by the scarcity of diverse candidates with the relevant experience to fill these roles.

Positive action

That’s not to say that there isn’t positive action taking place. On both sides of the Atlantic, we heard how agencies are innovating to implement their DEI strategies.

The leader of an independent UK agency explained how it’s vital to have enough resilience in the business to keep these strategies going when times get tough, bearing in mind that DEI is not paid work. They have built a collective which represents every part of the company. “It’s part of everyone’s job. We measure ourselves against IPA targets and check the constitution of the agency,” they said.

Elsewhere, a group CEO advocated a ‘press pause’ policy they have introduced for the casting process – giving people the opportunity to raise an alert which can then be discussed openly. “It means people can take a step back, press pause and make the right decision,” they explained. “This policy can deal with any kind of incident from racism to harassment. It’s a symbolic decision in a good way and says a lot about our agency. ”

What’s next?

But despite such pockets of focused innovation, we’re not shifting the dial. For that to happen, we’ll require a lot more internal investment from agencies than many are currently giving.

Agencies need to work a lot harder at investing in people from diverse backgrounds that show promise. They need to step in, mentor, nurture and develop the next generation of diverse agency leaders.

But more than that, agencies need to build symbiotic relationships with their talent, and workplaces need to be adapted to the people that work in it, or they risk the ‘organ rejection’ of people simply not being integrated. The one size fits all approach is dead.

Here is a list of provocations that we suggest all agencies should consider:

Are you clear on your strategy for achieving workplace equality and critically have you got the resources and budget to implement it?

‘Organ rejection’ and the following churn is a big blocker for diversity. How can your structure and culture adapt to allow diverse talent to thrive?

Due to the scarcity of diverse talent in our industry, could you be more open to finding people from different markets and adjacent industries, in a more skills-based approach?

An equal and diverse talent set does not exist ready-made, are you prepared to mentor and invest time in training if they are not yet qualified for the exact roles you need?

Give it some serious thought. Can you honestly say that you’re doing everything you can to support a more diverse, equal and inclusive working culture? Or are you suffering from a Diversity Delusion?