Last week saw the launch of the Social Mobility Commission Toolkit for Creative Industries; advice on how to identify and remove barriers in the workplace for people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
For the advertising industry, the situation is quite dramatic. New research has highlighted the class problem of industry – that no matter how many working class people the industry “lets” in (and they don’t let enough in – only 23). % of advertising and marketing comes from a working class background.) – we always seem to expect these blue-collar workers to submit to the âdominantâ middle-class culture that governs the creative profession.
I come from a working class family in Sheffield, and although I moved 10 years ago, it still changes my perception of myself and the world. Growing up, the world of media and advertising was largely unknown to me and I certainly didn’t think it was a place I could fit in – not a place for someone. “like me“.
Getting into this industry makes me a âsuccess storyâ – the after photo to the before photo – but I can’t claim that I didn’t have to soften the edges of the working class to do so.
My Nordic accent is (or at least was) strong enough, and colleagues imitated my way of speaking and saying certain words, with my long o’s and my hard a’s. A bit of a joke, sure, but when you’re trying to move up the career ladder, you’d rather people listen to what you’re saying rather than the funny way you say it.
There is also the question of money. When you start out, waiting for payday has an added sense of danger without a safety net – will you make a rent, can you buy a new pair of shoes to replace the old scuffed ones, can you afford the casual lunch your boss invites you to?
Or even drinks after work – a staple of most people’s introduction to the world of work, but a source of anxiety for me. Do you forgo the opportunity to network with your coworkers and senior executives, or risk making a fool of yourself by tactically avoiding paying for a game you really couldn’t afford?
I (maybe wisely) picked the latter and had to awkwardly push back the gybes about the sponge.
And as awards season approaches here in Adland, there are fancy parties, charity galas, and dinner parties. When your fancy night out experience is a table at a TGI Fridays in a retail park, suddenly being sitting in a hotel ballroom on Park Lane is pretty mind-boggling.
Being able to network with your peers is amazing, but how do you network when you feel like you have nothing in common? When you’re afraid to say the wrong thing in response to their talk about ski vacations and second homes.
Nodding in agreement when someone complains about the horror of food, when you feel like you are eating something straight from Chef. Or having to turn back the person selling Â£ 50 charity raffle tickets by saying you’ll get one later (the reader, later never shows).
I certainly don’t want to complain about attending such wonderful events: pretending to be a chicer version of myself for a night out was (and still is) exciting – plus I love the phone call to my mom. the next day, giving her a full debrief of what happened, always encountered “oohs and ahhs”.
But these social experiences affect the way you see yourself and your sense of belonging. Are we really the fun, open-minded, creativity-driven industry we want to be if working class newcomers feel like they have to pretend they have Â£ 400 to invest in a deal? at a charity auction?
Now I am aware that all of this may seem like it has a chip on my shoulder. And maybe I do. But maybe that’s not surprising, because when I talk to colleagues with a similar education, the same word comes up over and over again: luck.
This learned attitude that you acquired thanks to a stroke of luck (luck of having parents or teachers who support you, luck of having met a mentor, luck of having had a chance). And with that feeling of luck comes the feeling of having to constantly prove yourself and be grateful that you got to where you are; so may God help you if you don’t adapt.
This is all about the kind of place most of us say we want to work, but what about the work itself? Here too, there are urgent reasons for change.
Make adland more inclusive for all
As Reach’s 2019 white paper (edited by Andrew Tenzer) showed, the gap between advertisers and the people we talk to through our work is vast. And as other industry players have pointed out, even perhaps well-intentioned attempts to reach out to the masses more often than not resemble obvious pimping.
At Reach, we have started working to address this issue and I am incredibly proud to be co-chair of our very first ReachPotential social mobility network. We recognize that social mobility must be a key part of our D&I strategy, especially since it so often intersects with other diverse characteristics such as race, disability and gender.
We have collected data on our workforce and evaluated our performance, in order to get an honest picture of our current situation so that we know where we need to go next. We have also just launched an awareness program to show children from less privileged backgrounds that we exist and that our doors are open to them. – this week we open the Mirroreditorial conference of more than 100 students.
But there is so much more to do. Awareness programs only address half of the problem. What can we do in our workplaces to advertise a career path that allows workers to succeed, even lead, instead of hanging around the edges feeling lucky and agreeing with the people who Really “belong” there?
We need to address and challenge unwritten social rules, rewrite them if necessary. We need to foster environments where money is not a taboo subject and put in place systems to provide better financial support, from overhauling spending systems to generalizing career start scholarships. or simply to be more attentive to our trainees and juniors. And for our colleagues in lower paying and âless sexyâ positions, what mentoring and training can we offer?
As I recently recalled, honest conversations about social mobility aren’t just about Cinderella stories (I went from TGI Fridays to Park Lane, and you can too!). We need to make sure that the working class people right in front of us don’t have to act, take out payday loans, or fade into the background feeling “lucky”. We are not all in charge of big things but we can all afford little niceties – even if it’s just to shut up the next time junior slips into the pub.
Jenny Shevlin is Director of Planning, Invention / Reach Solutions at Reach, and Co-Chair of the ReachPotential Social Mobility Colleague Network