Digital Publishing Interesting and Timeless
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AOP CRUNCH: The Great Resignation… or the Great Opportunity?

The media industry can be a hostile environment for people who aren’t straight, white, cisgender, male graduates. While diversity is improving at entry-level, there is a drop-off at each consecutive level of seniority, with some board rooms still sadly reminiscent of the 1970s. 

But now, the ‘Great Resignation’ has shifted the balance of power towards the talent. And this talent wants to work for companies as diverse as the world around them.

At the AOP’s latest CRUNCH event, diversity, equity, and inclusion champions from across the world of media were invited to discuss how the Great Resignation can be used as an opportunity to tap into talent that is too often unfairly excluded or pushed out. 

Chaired by Ellie Edwards Scott, Co-Founder of The Advisory Collective, this is what the panelists had to say.

Diverse talent can get their foot in the door — but they don’t stay

Bobi Carley, Head of Media and Diversity & Inclusion Lead at ISBA, opened the session with sobering statistics from the All In Census, which surveyed over 16,000 advertising and marketing professionals to understand the state of play for representation in the industry. There’s no sugar-coating the findings: 32% of Black people, 27% of Asian people and 20% of people with disabilities said they would leave the industry because they don’t feel they belong.

These findings were used as the basis for a series of key actions, developed so companies can improve the experience and representation of Black, disabled, working-class, female, Asian and older talent — all accessible on the All In Hub. Companies that can prove they have taken action can then apply to be All In Champions, giving them the opportunity to showcase and share their successful DE&I initiatives. 

“Everybody’s on a journey, this is not something you can tick a box on, this is something that you continuously work on,” said Carley. “There are companies doing great stuff who can help. This is an area that is so lovely, people are so happy to share initiatives.”

Sumran Kaul, Client Lead at Brand Metrics and MEFA member, shared additional insights from the MEFA Measures Survey, where 300 respondents from minority ethnic backgrounds shared their experience in the industry.

“The headline finding is there’s been progress in terms of recruitment of more diverse talent, but that’s where the positives stop,” said Kaul. “… Most don’t feel there’s enough support in their companies to thrive, most don’t feel there’s equal opportunities for progress, training and development. Not surprising is that three-out-of-four don’t see role models who look like them.”

Drilling down into the figures, it’s clear certain demographics fare worse than others, particularly where underrepresented identities intersect, with Black women feeling most negatively about their treatment within the industry.

It was the same story when Sue Unerman, Chief Transformation Officer at MediaCom, conducted research for her book: ‘Belonging: The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work’. When gathering data on the feelings of people typically excluded from boardrooms (anyone not white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, and male), one in four felt marginalised, jumping to more than 40% among under 30s. Most alarmingly, a third had experienced harassment, which continued even during lockdown when people worked from home.

Thankfully, there was a glimmer of hope: the confidence to challenge bigotry and harassment has gone up in nearly every demographic, and people holding the power are feeling nervous about the consequences of dragging their heels on tangible DE&I initiatives.

How companies can improve representation

One of the most impactful measures Sue discovered in her research was micro-affirmation training: “the Tinkerbell to the micro-aggression troll”. These are demonstrations of support that people can give one another to counteract the micro-aggressions – often labelled ‘banter’ – that can create a toxic workplace. For example, if someone is repeatedly talked over, a micro-affirmation would be to turn the conversation back to that person; to acknowledge their point and give them room to speak.

Continuing the actionable advice for companies seeking to improve representation, Femi Taiwo, Head of Consultancy at Assembly Global, recommended adding a ‘B’ to DE&I initiatives: ‘belonging’. With diversity dropping off at senior levels as people from minority backgrounds become disillusioned, ‘belonging’ refers to the way in which companies must ensure people continue to be supported throughout their careers, not just when they’re hired. 

“We have mentoring programmes, where [young hires] are mentored by people they admire in the business, but also by all the executives,” said Taiwo. “Then we also expose them to the global business … the people in our London office and in our various pods around the world don’t have to be mentored by somebody in their office, which gives them the chance to be … exposed to more kinds of cultures.”

Gary Rayneau, Co-Founder of DE&I consultancy Project 23, urged companies to be authentic and vulnerable if they are to attract and retain a diverse workforce. Talent is looking for more than ping pong tables and boozy Fridays, they want to be a part of a company with a purpose.

“I don’t want to see any more pictures with a white hand, a brown hand, a black hand. They’re not real, they’re stock images — be authentic,” said Rayneau. “If you’re not there yet, if you’re on a journey, then say you’re on a journey. If you’re not as diverse as you’d like to be, then be honest about that and have objectives and targets around that. Nobody expects you to be the perfect employer yet, but people do expect you to have an objective to be better in the future.”

Supporting young, diverse talent in their first steps

Ally Owen, Founder of Brixton Finishing School, introduced the concept of “talent whisperers”, who make sure the school’s alumni are supported in their crucial first three years in a company, providing a point of contact for any complaints that would be too sensitive to bring up directly.

“They sit outside of the company, so you don’t have to go to HR, they’re part of us,” said Owen. “If something’s bothering you, it’s very unlikely you can take it up internally, because you are not holding the power.”

Two Brixton Finishing School alumni, Freena Tailor and Nicole Flores, shared their experiences of going from the school into internships at Mail Metro Media and then onto full-time roles, where they are mentored by Ryan Uhl, Mail Metro Media’s Chief Brand Strategy Officer.

“[Our first strategy for improving diversity] was recruitment. We were not looking in the right places. So, when Ally [Owen] came to us with this opportunity to work with her … we were given the opportunity to speak to young people to understand how they feel and what they want,” said Uhl. “… Some of those conversations have been quite tough. The first year we did it, we got some very stern feedback from the young talent which we had to deal with and consider, how do we work against this and make them understand we’re moving forward and progressing?”

Freena Tailor was instrumental in improving the internship programme. She pushed for the rotations within teams to be increased from one week to two, for interns to be given a week at the start dedicated to learning about the company, and for there to be regular catch ups and feedback sessions throughout the internship. By listening to those who had gone through the internship programme, Mail Metro was able to refine its future iterations, to the benefit of Nicole Flores who joined its new and improved version, branded NXT Gen Nation.

Flores had advice for companies thinking of hiring young, diverse talent: “Be welcoming to your talent, highlight them. Remember, we are more scared of you than you are of us, so please pick the right person to guide them. I was very lucky that Freena [was the first person] to introduce me — it took away 50% of my nerves and made the experience far better to see young people like her working at Mail Metro.”

Combatting ageism, the -ism that gets forgotten

“We’re dropping the word ‘old’, we’re using the word ‘prime’,” said Ally Owen as she opened the topic on ageism. “It’s the biggest -ism in the world!” 

Owen addressed the sad irony of the publishing industry lamenting a talent shortage while simultaneously ignoring talent among over-45s: “There is so much talent that’s exited our industry — or is available to come in if we embrace transferrable skills — that we are ignoring … it just doesn’t look exactly how you want it to.”

Providing an example of successful outreach to this prime talent, Owen spoke about Visible Start, a scheme from Brixton Finishing School in collaboration with WPP and the Uninvisibility Project. Visible Start offers women over 45 — with a focus on those from minority and socially mobile backgrounds — eight weeks of free courses to increase their confidence, unlock transferrable skills, and introduce the advertising ecosystem with a focus on paid media buyer roles.

“We had 98 graduates and 18 are now employed at WPP, in roles that range from very senior client leaders to entry-level. We proved it worked, and WPP doubled their investment this year,” said Owen. “One in two women over 50 don’t have any pension savings — there is such a penalty when it comes to being removed from the workforce as a woman.”

Owen wrapped up the section with a warning: “If you don’t think it’s going to happen to you: it will. When we look at the make-up of entrepreneurs in this country, they tend to come from communities that don’t thrive in the corporate world, [they] have to step sideways and make their own future, and that’s just such a loss of talent.”

Create a welcoming environment for neurodiverse people

Amy Williams, Founder and CEO of purpose-led ad tech platform Good-Loop, offered a simple and free tool to help companies accommodate the needs of neurodiverse people. Williams, who has dyslexia, was tired of having to keep explaining her condition to people she works with, so introduced a ‘How to Work with Me’ document.

“It’s an activity people do on their first day at Good-Loop,” said Williams. “They create a document.. that explains how they like to be communicated with, how they like to work, and what hours suit them best. It’s really a one-stop shop for how to make you feel most included and most welcome. Then, of course, for new joiners, they can read everybody else’s.”

Similar documents can be found at Manual of Me, which includes free templates — so there really is no excuse for companies not to create a welcoming environment for neurodiverse talent.

Richard Reeves
Managing Director, AOP

The UK Association for Online Publishing (AOP) is an industry body representing digital publishing companies that create original, branded, quality content. AOP champions the interests of media owners from diverse backgrounds including newspaper and magazine publishing, TV and radio broadcasting, and pure online media.