For way too long, class has been the forgotten child of the diversity, equality and inclusion movement. In particular, it’s been an area where the marketing sector has grossly under-performed, as the latest pay gap figures show. But at least we’re talking about it now. So why does it matter and more importantly, what can the industry do to accelerate change?
Well, as with all such considerations there’s a basic ethical issue at the heart of this conversation: it’s plain wrong to discriminate against people because of their family origins.
But beyond this, it’s simply stupid for an industry that depends on human insight to exclude 29% of the population from our thinking. Especially when that audience is the source of so much creativity – from music to literature, fashion to social media content, TV programming to gaming, startups to social enterprise. Leaving aside the inarguable moral arguments, it is just commercially idiotic to ignore this talent or worse still, actively shun it.
So the challenge is how we overturn this ludicrous self-limitation as swiftly as we can. Given the deep roots of the problem (as any foreign visitor will tell you, class is still much more engrained in British society than we care to admit), it won’t be easy, but here are a few actions that all organisations should be pursuing, at pace.
First of all, don’t view the issue in isolation. Class intersects with all the other aspects of D,E and I that we need to be thinking about right now, such as race, gender, age, sexual preference and disability. So make sure you’re approaching it in a joined-up way and measuring your progress in the round.
It’s time to do the right thing. It’s time to take class seriously. It’s time to open more doors.
Next, take time to learn. Listen to colleagues and friends from working class families (you do have some, right?) about their experiences. Be mindful of your own background and potential biases – unconscious or otherwise. And read up on the facts: I recommend Sam Friedman’s landmark book The Class Ceiling for a great overview plus Lisa Thompson’s IPA Essay, Killing the elephant in the diversity room for a more marketing-specific perspective.
Then review the way you handle recruitment. Actually no, scrap that. Start by auditing your existing culture, because one of the big mistakes organisations make (this is true across the D,E and I spectrum) is to prioritise more diverse hiring without ensuring that people will be coming into an inclusive environment.
While this is often born out of a good intention to get moving, it isn’t fair on the individuals concerned and is counter-productive in the long term as disenchanted newbies churn out and you’re back to square one again.
The tricky thing with a class audit is that the biases are sometimes subtle or at least so embedded in middle-class assumptions that they appear to be invisible. But step out of your posh loafers for a minute. How might a working class recruit feel about that black tie event, swanky restaurant, golf day or ski trip that you’ve suggested?
What would they think of your Chav jokes, dismissive references to ‘C2DEs’ or patronising pen portraits? I’ve seen some of these that are so lacking in empathy that they might as well have been labelled ‘Stupid Sharon’, ‘Downtrodden Doreen’ and ‘Feckless Frank’. Maybe get some external experts – from the likes of Commercial Break or Creative Equals – to cast a friendly eye over how you show up and help you to improve?
While you’re at it, don’t forget some of the basic building blocks of our job – as biases have a tendency to creep into these too. For instance, do you routinely exclude working class respondents from research (this is all too common, even for mainstream brands who depend on their custom)?
Do you market products in a way that discriminates against under-privileged groups, whether that’s by reinforcing their health inequalities, increasing their debts or exploiting their communities?
And what about advertising – do you ever represent working class people in your communications and if so, do you repeat the usual clichés of sad/stupid/dodgy/lazy oiks? Again, an objective view – perhaps from an organisation like The Diversity Standards Collective – could help here.
OK, now you can return to recruitment. Again, it pays to go through every aspect of your process, with fresh eyes. For instance, where are you looking for people – and how could you cast the net wider, so that you reach a much more diverse group, who might not have the qualifications, connections or frankly the bus fares of other candidates but have just as much talent?
Class intersects with all the other aspects of D,E and I that we need to be thinking about right now.
Internships are a particular watchout. Obviously make sure you pay a decent wage, but also consider subsidising candidates’ living expenses and travel costs, to make sure you’re not limiting yourself to wealthy kids. Be mindful of accents too – while these don’t always represent class distinctions, there’s obviously an overlap and they’re often viewed prejudicially by interviewers.
On that point, it helps if the recruitment process is handled by a diverse team who are sensitive to these nuances and actively looking to expand your talent pool, rather than hire more of the same.
Finally, take a leaf out of Warren Buffett’s book. You might think that one of the richest men in history has little to teach us on this subject, but he’s been honest enough to acknowledge the role of luck in his success. He admits that being a born a white, middle-class male in 1930 was the equivalent of “winning the Ovarian Lottery”.
Now some of us may simply have won the more modest “Social Scratchcard”, but I still think it’s helpful to be conscious of our inherited privilege and do what we can to lift others up. For as my mum (a coalminer’s daughter and the youngest of 11) once taught me: wealth is a very poor predictor of intelligence or talent, but it does open doors so make sure you’re not just opening them for yourself.
In summary, I think this is an incredibly exciting time for marketing – but also an era with many challenges. We will not be able to seize our opportunities and overcome our problems if we exclude a huge section of the population and talent base. It’s time to do the right thing. It’s time to take class seriously. It’s time to open more doors.
Andy Nairn is the founder of creative agency Lucky Generals and the author of Go Luck Yourself: 40 ways to stack the odds in your brand’s favour. He’s donating all the royalties from his book to Commercial Break, to help working class talent get into the creative industries
Marketing Week’s Opening Up campaign is pushing for the democratisation of marketing careers. Follow our coverage of the challenges and opportunities over the coming weeks. Read the first feature in the series here.