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Advertising’s Problem with Working Class People

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Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, on why advertising spends so much money on understanding the largest portion of society, but never hires it, writes LBB’s Zoe Antonov

Advertising’s Problem with Working Class People

Young talent in the advertising industry has faced and continues to face more challenges as the economy of the UK worsens, the shadow of the pandemic lingers and opportunities get slimmer. It is no secret that some 20 years ago young professionals could get their foot in the door of the industry through many ways, and today that seems to be much harder for all. But, one thing remains the same - the way into many rooms is non-existent for those from a working-class background. 

This fact is proven further by this year’s Employer Index, the leading authority on employer-led social mobility, carried out annually by the Social Mobility Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is to work with and for young people full of talent and aspirations, whose career paths have been hindered because of their background, families, places they’ve grown up in, the schools they went to. This year’s Employer Index saw notably low submissions from the media, advertising and creative industries, with zero submissions from businesses in the creative arts.

Yet what is more important is the worrying statistics that the Index unearthed, showing that working-class people continue to struggle not only entering, but remaining in top professions including a growing rural and urban divide, with employers’ school outreach and social mobility cold spots being far more likely in cities such as Liverpool rather than rural areas such as Babergh. 

The Index, designed to support employers who want to understand more about social mobility or the barriers that get in the way of talented young people, has run for six consecutive years. It also helps gather information on what employers are doing and not doing enough of, and through rising awareness on the issue, can mobilise more employers to get involved and focus on what will make a difference.

Chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, Sarah Atkinson, however reminds us that there is an upside for the industry to learn from. “Although we have only a few participants from the advertising and creative industries, some of them have been rated in the top set of five, so they’re doing something right and something to be proud of.” She explains that although within the industry we have seen a push for outreach and bringing people in, we’re not seeing enough attention on how advertising companies ensure people progress and succeed. “We should also see many more employers actively collecting data and really building the evidence based on this,” continues Sarah.

Even though she points out the issue companies have with talent retention, she also understands that there are issues both prior to and after entering the creative industries. “Some sectors are better than others at working on the barriers for getting in. When I think about advertising, marketing, and creativity, I still see some really significant barriers at the entrance,” she says. “There is still a huge reliance on unpaid internships and work experience. If you are a young person from a low-income family, and on top of that if you don’t live in London or potentially Manchester, accessibility becomes zero.” So, unpaid internships and work experience for young talent as a way for them to get stuck in should not be seen as a sustainable way to provide equal opportunities for people from all backgrounds.

Sarah continues, explaining that not only do these unpaid work placements hinder the potential of young people, but also further deepen the divide by not being advertised equally to everybody. “Often these placements go to people that advertising organisations know already. That also presents a barrier because it’s not just about the money, but also about the network. Some researchers suggest that you are five times more likely to get into the advertising industry if your parents are in it too.” Moving on from the issues of entering the industry, we have the issues of remaining in it, which are still very much tied with finances and the burden of working on low wages in cities that do not allow you to do so. “The rewards in these industries are very generous later in your career, but we know a lot of people in their early days working so hard on quite low salaries, which puts such a strain on them when they don’t have any family money.”

Besides this, Sarah points out some serious cultural and societal problems that people from lower-income backgrounds may face once in the industry. “Advertising and marketing is not necessarily terribly formal,” she explains. “However, there’s that ‘right way’ to be informal. There’s the right kind of trainers, the right kind of T-shirt, knowing exactly who can put their feet on the desk and swear when in a meeting. Why is that okay? These kinds of rules require a huge amount of competence and understanding about these kinds of environments.” Sarah concludes that when young people who haven’t had the proper training in these social situations due to their family or friends being part of the industry, they can face discrimination and exclusion. “Even once you gain that success of getting in the industry, you need to learn from scratch how to navigate that success and operate in the right way. That feels very alien to people from different backgrounds.”

When having conversations on the exclusion of people from lower income backgrounds from the industry it’s important to take note of any intersectional issues that also come into play. Sarah explains that the difference in earnings between someone from a lower social background compared to somebody from a more middle-class privileged background across the UK workforce is nearly £7,000. However that gap widens significantly when you compare a working class woman with a middle class man, or anybody from an ethnic minority. “There can be a double, a triple, a quadruple disadvantage when we look at those things,” she says. “When we talk to people from ethnic minorities from lower income we find they explain that their income is less visible than their ethnicity or gender, so things are very levelled. When you ask for help on more than one of these levels, people often report that there is a sense of ‘we can only help you so much and no further’.” However, Sarah shares that recently we have been seeing some progress within the advertising industry in terms of initiatives to help people from different minorities progress. “People don't as often feel evil to say ‘I have talent, I have motivation, I have skills I can offer you, but you will need to recognise that I need a little bit of help’.” 

The gap between opportunities, however, can also be traced back to universities in the UK, with Russell Group candidates not only being more likely to get the job they’re after, but also having the prior connections necessary to integrate within their desired industry. “We are all aware of the statistics showing the successes of candidates from Russell Group universities. Therefore, we tend to assume that that’s what all of them deserve, regardless of output. Before you even meet someone, knowing they graduated with a distinction from a particular university, you’re already predisposed to think they are bound to be successful and impressive.” Those unconscious biases end up being the key to the advantage their graduates have over those who didn’t get the same chance. “These universities give their graduates a kind of halo effect, which is very advantageous. There are so many people from other universities that are so skilled and able, but don’t get treated equally and don’t carry that positive prevailing wind. That makes a difference.” 

Those people subsequently end up having to overachieve and prove themselves ‘against’ expectation, especially when surrounded by those who attended the ‘right’ institutions, were born into the ‘right’ families and had the ‘right’ upbringing. Sarah adds, “Sometimes it even happens that people from lower income backgrounds become the receiving end of out-of-touch curiosity or uncomfortable questioning. ‘Oh, I didn’t realise! I’ve never met someone who grew up in that area. What was that like?’ And sometimes, let’s be honest, much more pejorative questioning.”

In the end, the class divide in the UK is no secret to anybody. But, when looked at through the specific prism of an industry full of promises, summits, and many words about progress, class seems to be quite well hidden in all the nooks and crannies. It just so happens that this particular industry is hindering its own creative output by narrowing down the voices it allows in. “The goal of advertising is to ultimately understand different groups of the public and tell them something. Yet its every conversation is drawing from a small subset of that public. You’re missing an enormous amount of expertise and respect, and you’re risking not understanding and patronising your audiences,” says Sarah. Especially during the financial crisis, we have seen and continue to see examples of exactly that - out-of-touch patronising of audiences, ending in dire consequences for brands and companies in the long run.

“First and foremost - recognise this problem exists,” pleads Sarah. “Recognise it is present in your industry, in your field, in your organisation, in your own sector.” And regardless of the overbearing voices of those that claim the class divide is an ‘old fashioned thing’, in Sarah’s words, statistics keep proving that argument wrong. “Listen to working-class people in your organisation, pay attention to them, trust them. Connect with those outside of your organisation and work harder to be able to seek them out. Start collecting data and support numbers, not to find out if you’ve got a problem, because I promise you have it, but to start measuring where you are right now in that problem. Is it stemming from you not bringing enough people in at an early stage, or not supporting them enough to stay? Does it affect men or women more? Do you support interns and employees financially well enough for them to retain their position? Are your internships available to truly everyone? Are you hiring from a pool of people you simply already know?”

To Sarah, and to the Social Mobility Foundation, the most pressing issue is that the industry has been too slow to wake up and realise the barriers working class people face within it. “This is hurting your creativity and your business,” she concludes. “The irony is that in these businesses so much money is spent understanding, analysing and strategising towards these parts of the public. So why aren’t you hiring them?”

If your company wants to get involved in supporting young people from working-class backgrounds within the creative industries, the entries to The Social Mobility Foundation’s Employment Index open in March 2023. 

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LBB Editorial, Tue, 24 Jan 2023 17:11:21 GMT