Why Diversity Really Does Matter

28/09/2015 17:47 BST | Updated 28/09/2016 10:12 BST

As one of few black women in a senior media role, I have a burning passion to ensure the industry embraces diversity of all types. It is morally correct, but also essential to the continued success of advertising and media agencies.

McKinsey's recent Diversity Matters Report clearly showed the value of diversity in improving business performance. Companies that are more gender-diverse are 15% more likely to outperform companies that are less so. More ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform those that are less so.

This evidence is great, but in my industry the fact that a more diverse workforce will improve business performance is just common sense. Our role is to help advertisers connect with their target audiences. That means we have to understand their audiences and, since their audiences are increasingly diverse, we will do a job better if our staff reflect this.

The Black and Ethnic Minority Population in England and Wales stands at 14% and, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising's Multicultural Britain report, England and Wales will be as diverse as London is now (with around 40% of the population from a BAME background) by 2051.

The wider media industry - as Lenny Henry pointed out in his speech at BAFTA last year - is struggling to keep up.

Certainly we're making progress. The nation's favourite soaps are meant to reflect life in the UK and we see black and ethnic minority characters in Coronation Street, Emmerdale, EastEnders, and even Doctors. We have for a long time seen black and ethnic newsreaders on our TV screens. Trevor McDonald always reminded me of my dad as a kid growing up in Reading in the '80s, then there was Moira Stewart and now the new class of Dharshini David or Gillian Joseph on Sky. The odd TV drama uses black characters in central roles: Lorraine Burroughs in The Ice Cream Girls, Idris Elba in Luther. But these dramas are few and far between - and where are their black friends and family?

As Henry pointed out, the slow progress in reflecting diversity on screen must be partly due to the low number of BAME staff behind the screen (5.4% and declining!). Meanwhile, what about the ads?

Thankfully, we have progressed since the days depicted in Mad Men. Black and ethnic minority families are portrayed in a number of fast-moving consumer goods and retailer adverts on our screens and in magazines, but there are still sectors where there is a noticeable absence.

Luxury brands still seem to veer away from using BAME models, unless a darker skin colour helps enhance a product benefit - for example contrasting a brightly coloured handbag or piece of jewellery. Why?

I suspect that the luxury sector carries a misconception that "black" is not aspirational, that there's a perception white is somehow better than black. Of course, this assumption is incorrect and dangerous - and as a black woman who works in advertising, I hope I can be part of the solution in educating these brands.

Diverse teams are more creative, productive and create a culture people want to be part of. Diverse teams, in terms of gender and race, are successful teams that generate revenue. Yet, the percentage of women and BAME groups on boards and in senior management roles is not good enough. To say we're hard to find or not qualified is nonsense. Nepotism and laziness means that senior positions go to the same sorts of people. What can be done?

The Rooney Rule

Do I believe in quotas? No. However, I do agree with Lenny Henry and recognise that there needs to be a step change to make the shift. I believe in widening the door to ensure that employers are seeing diverse candidates. I'm keen to see if US Football's Rooney Rule can be applied to business - where teams are required to interview BAME candidates for senior coaching and operational jobs, but without a quota for who actually gets hired. Has it led to more Afro American candidates being interviewed? Yes.

The Interview Panel

Ensuring where possible that interview panels contain members from a BAME background would also help shift the inequality; decoding language and culture in the interview room will ensure each candidate is allowed to shine.


To encourage diversity within my own company, MediaCom, I have set up a government approved Apprenticeship scheme. We have also partnered with organisations to help us find talent from diverse ethnic backgrounds to apply. As we're the market leader, I believe it will encourage other agencies to follow suit.

Role Models or Real Models?

My visibility is also a factor in changing the make-up of MediaCom. Since I became CEO in 2011, the number of BAME employees at the agency has increased from 12% (the industry average) to nearly 18%. People that look like me know it's an industry where you can progress, learn, and earn - and then serve and help cheerlead the next class.

Karen Blackett OBE is in conversation with Sir Lenny Henry at Thinkbox's BigThink@BAFTA on Weds 30 September. Watch the event live from 9.30am-1pm via Brand Republic