THE BLOG

Why Diversity Matters So Much to Communication Firms

09/03/2016 10:59 GMT | Updated 09/03/2017 10:12 GMT

A few weeks' back I blogged about the trends that will shape the medium-term future of the communications industry, and in particular the need for us to "change ... the way we look and feel" through much greater diversity. On International Women's Day it seems entirely appropriate to expand on what I said then and to add some new thoughts about why diversity is particularly important for communications firms.

There is no room for complacency when it comes to diversity. Sometimes us Brits like to kid ourselves that we have banished sexism and racism from the workplace, and that we are more meritocratic than ever before. It is true that we have made progress, and it is demonstrably better to be a woman or from a minority group in the UK than in much of the world. But as The Economist pointed out this morning, we actually lag many other comparable countries in terms of the environment for working women, for example. This is sobering, as is the fact that fewer than ten FTSE Chief Executives are women.

So today, on International Women's Day, we should admit that we have a whole lot more to do in terms of inclusion for women - and also for ethnic minorities, for the disabled and for people of different social backgrounds. There are points to be made that apply across all industries, such as that companies with greater numbers of women arguably tend to make better decisions and many make better financial returns too. But there are particular points for the communications industry, given that even now it is packed with all too many white, middle class, graduates, and that the path for women to the most senior posts may not be easy in every case. This is morally wrong and bad for business, as it is for every industry, but it is specifically damaging for those trying to communicate.

There are two reasons why. The first is that we are meant above all to be outward-facing, and we are not best-placed to claim to understand the communities we are communicating with on behalf of clients if we in no way resemble them. As I've said before, watching a middle aged, comfortably off, man talking about how to reach out to disengaged 'yoof' is always mildly embarrassing. To have genuine insight into what will change the behaviour of a group of people we have to be able to understand not only what media they consume and where and when but what, deep down, motivates, moves and inspires them. Hard to do when you have no one in your firm who can even vaguely relate to the audience.

The second reason is that our industry increasingly recognises the importance of the 'big idea' in changing behaviour or perceptions of organisations and products. Big ideas come from leftfield and creative thinking. If one word sums up award-winning and impactful work it is creativity. Academics tell us that a key ingredient in innovative thinking is bringing together a group from different, mixed and diverse backgrounds: there are endless studies which prove this point. But we don't need Harvard Business Review to tell us that homogenous teams lead to group-think and 'not invented here' syndrome - and that bringing together diverse views and experiences leads to new and better ways of answering challenges posed by our clients.

So what should we do? There are obvious places to start: for example, The Economist identifies that as a country we are lagging on maternity provision and on paternity provision. We can change both of those, and we can take a more progressive view of flexible working too. We can create informal support networks for any group potentially facing discrimination. We can recruit from a broader range of institutions than the Russell Group and private schools, and we can change our application processes to be more 'blind'. We can create diverse opportunities for people to join our firms by embracing apprenticeships and paid internships. We can ensure that all of our people are trained to recognise the more subtle forms of discrimination, in attitude and atmosphere as well as in policies and decision. And perhaps most important the leaders and owners of the organisations we work for can make clear in words and actions that they will promote to senior posts people of all backgrounds on merit.

These steps, and many more besides, are the sorts we need to take to make sure the communications industry is truly committed to diversity in all its forms. International Women's Day seems like a very appropriate time to pledge again that we must and we will change, and that we must and we will become much more diverse. If we don't we are failing our clients, we are failing our businesses and we are failing ourselves. Time to grasp the nettle.