Channel 4’s CMO on using its power and influence to tackle racism

Channel 4 has made six commitments to anti-racism in light of recent global events and hopes it can use its influence to accelerate real, tangible change across the industry, both on- and off-screen.

Channel 4’s The School That Tried To End Racism

Channel 4 wants to use its power and influence as one of the UK’s biggest broadcasters to accelerate systemic change in a society that still has many issues with race and racism.

The broadcaster was one of more than 200 signatories on an open letter from ad land in response to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this month, committing to ‘take action’ against racism in an industry that is still predominantly white.

Channel 4 has also made six commitments to anti-racism, including ensuring 20% of staff – as well as 20% of its top 100 most highly-paid staff – are black, Asian and ethnic minorities (BAME) by 2023. It has also pledged to double the number of BAME-led independent producers commissioned from by 2023 and spend 50% of its remaining commissioning development spend in 2020 with BAME-led, Nations & Regions or small independents.

“The reason we did the commitments now was we recognised that we probably haven’t made as much progress and there’s still more to do,” Channel 4’s CMO Zaid Al-Qassab tells Marketing Week. “It felt right to look at those, make sure we have the right regiments and targets in place, make sure that we’re trying to accelerate progress.”

Channel 4 has a long history as a champion of diversity and inclusion but declaring itself ‘anti-racist’ is a new kind of commitment.

Brands need to make demonstrable change in what their core business is rather than just make statements.

Zaid Al-Qassab, Channel 4

“In the light of the George Floyd events, we felt it was appropriate to make a commitment and redouble our efforts particularly on one part of having a diverse and inclusive society, which is race,” Al-Qassab explains. “We felt it was right to go further than we have before in declaring ourselves a deliberately anti-racist organisation. That’s new terminology for us and we felt it was the right thing to say.”

Many brands and agencies have used current events happening across the world as an opportunity to declare themselves as anti-racist. Al-Qassab says it remains to be seen how many of those organisations come through with concrete action and make definitive change, but that Channel 4 will continue to be transparent with its progress so it can hold itself and its staff to account.

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“I can only be responsible for what Channel 4 is doing and making sure that we have a plan, we’re measuring it, we’re involving our staff and we’re trying to improve even faster,” he says.

“We are at our heart a broadcaster that makes fantastic content. The most important change we can make is in that content being relevant, educative, engaging, on the whole topic of diversity and equality and in this particular case anti-racism. That’s what we try to do: commission relevant content that shows the lives and experiences of BAME audiences, make sure that’s reflected in the programming and the output because that’s the core of our business.”

Channel 4 recently commissioned a series of long- and short-form factual films called Take Your Knee Off My Neck, which explores race in modern Britain following the killing of George Floyd in the US last month.

The broadcaster is also airing a new series called The School That Tried to End Racism, which explores a programme that tests for unconscious racial bias in a class of 11- to 12-year-old pupils.

Channel 4 consulted with many of its ethnic minority employees, particularly black staff, when it was drawing up its commitments, which Al-Qassab says have been received “pretty positively” across the organisation.

“There is, as there is in society, a wide variation of opinion about what sorts of commitments brands and organisations should make and all sorts of different ideas continuing to emerge in how you can suitably educate your workforce, suitably measure these commitments,” he says.

“It’s not a simple area, a lot of these things are not easy to measure. We’ve got some areas that we’ve made really good progress on being able to very clearly measure our targets, but there’s always more we can do.”

Currently, 17% of Channel 4’s staff and 14% of its on-screen talent are black, Asian and ethnic minority, the latter of which is in line with the national average.

Channel 4 is striving to improve these numbers, as well as its “significant” 15% BAME pay gap and BAME representation in its supply chain – who is behind the camera. Al-Qassab says this is notoriously difficult to measure but it knows 11% of suppliers on its main channel are BAME.

Another of Channel 4’s six commitments is around using its influence as an advertiser-funded broadcaster to ensure black, Asian and ethnic minority representation in advertising. It will be dedicating its next annual Diversity in Advertising Award, which offers £1m worth of commercial airtime to the winner, to advertising which is specifically focused on BAME representation.

“That has the effect of galvanising the industry to think about that topic more fully and to develop advertising well beyond that which wins the award,” says Al-Qassab.

“That’s a little bit of our own power we can put trying to further that aim. We’re looking at a number of other things in the area of using our influence, our research tools, knowledge of diverse audiences to encourage more diverse representation in advertising.”

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Al-Qassab is clear that Channel 4 does not see itself as the arbiter of what is or isn’t acceptable.

“Channel 4’s point of view is that it works with a very wide range of advertisers and we’ll ensure that the advertising they air is legal and help to ensure that it adheres to the ASA CAP code,” he says. “It’s that we should encourage the industry in the right direction and encourage brand owners to do the right thing.”

Al-Qassab was CMO at BT before he joined Channel 4 in September 2019. It was during his four years at BT that he introduced annual auditing of its advertising to ensure it was representative of all diverse groups.

“Those are relatively easy things that CMOs in our industry can do to make a change on what people actually see and what people see on screen has great effect on how society considers these things,” he says.

“[Channel 4’s] approach has been to focus on concrete steps that we can take rather than empty promises. Brands need to make demonstrable change in what their core business is rather than just make statements.”

Al-Qassab does not believe the marketing industry is considerably behind or ahead of any other part of society with regard to race and diversity.

“It’s a broader societal challenge and many in the marketing industry have been deliberately making positive steps on diversity and inclusion for some time,” he says. “But there’s a recognition that there’s a lot more still to do and not all companies are at the same stage and not all brands have learned how to measure and progress at equal speed.

“To put the real point on it here: it’s not about how the industry has been in the past, it’s about what level of change and commitment it can make now.”