26 Jul 2020

Ad industry confronts diversity deficit

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 26 July 2020

In years gone by, ad campaigns employed crude stereotypes which would cause an outcry today. But are the companies that created them now more diverse than they used to be? As many media businesses examine their record on race and diversity in the wake of Black Lives Matter, Mediawatch asks if our advertising and marketing industry is confronting its diversity deficit.

Megan Clark-Cook, chair of the New Zealand Communications Council's diversity and inclusion group.

Megan Clark-Cook, chair of the New Zealand Communications Council's diversity and inclusion group. Photo: supplied/

Whether we like it or not, the advertising and marketing industries have an impact on our national life - and plenty of public money is funnelled into them on our behalf. 

This week Tourism New Zealand and a clutch of other agencies launched a prolonged multi-million dollar ad campaign to promote New Zealand as a destination overseas - even though this country is closed for the foreseeable future.  

Tourism NZ’s video campaign promoting New Zealand (currently closed):

Last Tuesday, businesses advisors urging companies to keep on spending on ads during the post-Covid slump was turned into news on TVNZ 1 News

And Covid-19 has been an advertising opportunity in itself. 

This week RNZ’s Ben Strang reported the bulk of government spending on contractors in the response was on advertising, marketing and communications. The biggest earner - multinational advertising firm OMD - was paid $12 million.

Local ad agency Clemenger BBDO Limited got $3m for its work, which is understood to have involved the "stay home, save lives" messages and the distinctive yellow-and-white stripes backgrounding the Level 4 ads that became the backdrop to all our lives during the lockdown. 

While the main job of ad agencies and communications companies is to persuade us to do the right thing in public education campaigns - or to buy certain things on behalf of advertisers - they also have to reflect the world we live in and its values. 

Recently the Black Lives Matter movement prompted many industries - including the media - to re-examine their record on race and diversity - and whether they are part of the problem or the solution. 

Hear RNZ CEO Paul Thompson talk about RNZ’s diversity policy here and how the Herald’s publisher NZME was challenged here.  

So what are the advertising and marketing industries doing about this?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, they have run a creative campaign on it - Faces of our Industry - created by ad industry news website StopPress and sponsored by Google. 

'Faces' is described as “a celebration of the diversity within our sector” by the ad and communications agencies’ umbrella group, the New Zealand Commercial Communications Council.  

The NZCCC has had an Inclusiveness & Diversity Group since 2016 to “enhance the relevance and competitiveness” of the industry.

Under the headline The Numbers Don't Lie, council chair Paul Head recognised back in 2016 that a "boys' club" had been in charge.   

"We can ensure that there is an open, constructive and meaningful discussion around the dominant leadership structures in place. We can develop and foster programmes that help support change as it occurs," he wrote.

Its initial focus was the gender imbalance but a survey of members in 2018 showed a big skew in its ethnic makeup. 

It found 87 percent of employees identified as NZ European/Pakeha and the ratio was even more stark in in senior leadership. 

Despite being one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups, people of Asian ethnicity accounted for 10 percent of those surveyed. Pasifika people represented just 3 percent. Māori were the most under-represented, accounting for just 4 percent of people working the the industry. 

But 90 percent of those surveyed said they saw diversity as a benefit.

“As an industry that’s in the business of creating breakthrough and business-transforming ideas, we miss out on a wealth of fresh thinking and innovative, creative talent when we draw from the same homogenous pool," said Kim Pick - the chair of the diversity and inclusion group in 2018. 

"Failure to develop deep-seated cultural intelligence in our organisations makes us vulnerable to knowledge gaps and cultural blind spots, and we risk becoming disconnected from the very New Zealanders our brands are looking to connect and communicate with," she wrote. 

Megan Clark-Cook, managing partner of Wunderman Thompson agency in Auckland, is the current chair of the NZCCC’s diversity and inclusion group.  

“We acknowledge that our industry isn’t as diverse as it needs to be. We know this because we spent some time doing research because we want to start with data to understand the problem,“ she told Mediawatch.

“We’ve made some progress but there are some obvious areas that need attention,“ she said.

“We have a huge responsibility . . . to represent all the people of New Zealand in the right way and in a way that is relevant,“ she said.

“People are looking at their screens and seeing the content coming out of this industry and - hand on heart - we can say that that hasn’t been properly representative all the time,“ she told Mediawatch.

Failing to recruit and retain a broader range of people will only make it harder in the long for agencies to connect with people their clients want to target.     

“We need to inspire people of all backgrounds to join our industry for (it) to be better,“ she said. 

Fine sentiments from a business that knows all about creating persuasive and positive messages. But what are they doing to make it happen?  

“We have built a strong relationship with DiversityWorks New Zealand and created specific training courses for the industry. We realise . . . we need to build diversity with Māori and Pasifika young people coming into our industry. We have commissioned a research company to look specifically at young Māori people to find out why they’re not joining our industry and for people who have joined the industry to find out why they might have left," said Megan Clark-Cook. 

"Once we have done that research we will look at a full programme for how to best communicate and ensure we have strong practices of inclusion and encourage them to come into the industry. It’s incredibly important we have them particularly in the creative parts of our industry," she said.

"We know we’re not perfect but we are going to take out the positive stories and keep moving forward for positive change,“ she said. 

Will the various agencies around the country achieve the sort of change the council aspires to if they all have their own policies on inclusion and recruitment? 

 “(The NZCCC) has an incredibly engaged board with a representatives from all of the big networks and the smaller agencies," she said. 

"I speak with them regularly about what needs to be done and they are leading this project for Māori and Pasifika. There is engagement and it’s really genuine and there was a real desire to do the right thing and make change,“ she said. 

But ad agencies act on behalf of clients and advertisers. What if they don't share that vision of diversity and think it could cost them commercially? What if they simply instructed to design campaigns to target lucrative parts of the market?      

"There's been huge change. Clients and agencies are aware they have to connect with all diverse groups of New Zealand in a better way. A lot of clients now - especially global ones - are asking to see our policies on diverse recruitment and inclusion," Megan Clark-Cook said.

"In the end they want to connect with a broad audience and that isn't always a 'premium' audience - and we have to have the right starting point in our own organisations to achieve that for them," she said.