Working in a communications agency as a person of colour

Starting your first job in marketing is daunting for anyone. You have to simultaneously decode the dress code and decipher the lingo (why are PowerPoint presentations called ‘decks’!?) whilst learning new skills, meeting new colleagues and adapting to the workplace culture. 

However, this apprehension can be amplified when you are a person of colour, entering what is a predominantly white space.

We know that people of colour are under-represented in the marketing industry. According to the PRCA 2020 Census, 88% of the PR and digital marketing industry in the UK is white, leaving just 12% of the industry made up of people from a wide variety of other ethnicities and backgrounds. People of colour in the UK are often accustomed to predominantly white environments, but working in a creative industry, can bring new and challenging experiences which our white colleagues may not even realise.

At Splendid we’re on a journey to better understand and support diversity, including, but not limited to, race and we are aiming to foster and ingrain a wholly inclusive culture. After conversations with other colleagues of colour, we came up with some suggestions for communications agencies to avoid common pitfalls and make D&I efforts as authentic and successful as possible.

1. One size does not fit all - keep an open mind open

Many of us have a great experience working in the industry but that doesn’t make it universal - there is definitely no ‘one size fits all’. When companies lack diversity, it can be easy to look to the few to speak on behalf of the many, but this is unlikely to give a complete view.

Well-meaning attempts to uncover and act on partial insights will fail as we are not and cannot be the spokesperson for our entire demographic. 

It’s important to get a diverse opinion and we are, of course, happy to help but are just sharing one opinion. It can be daunting to be singled out, especially if what we say has the potential to shape a company initiative.

Talking about race brings us pressure because it’s so personal and emotive. Additional research, reading and training more widely among the company will make these decisions less dependent on individual opinions. When we are then asked, our reply is taken as an opinion and not a definitive recommendation. This will reduce the pressure.

At Splendid, we recently took part in an unconscious bias training session which was incredibly insightful and eye-opening for us all. Initiatives such as these educate the wider team about the experience of minority groups and ease the burden on those who belong to them.

2. Diversity is much more than just race

Having people of colour on your team is a start but understanding that diversity is more than just race is essential to reap the benefits of a truly diverse culture. Companies must appreciate how different diversities intersect and in turn will benefit from an associated richness of insight and creativity. Class, disability and neurodiversity, sexuality, gender, parenting/caring and faith are also important, and how they intersect is something companies must acknowledge.

So, whilst race is perhaps one of the most visible diversities, and a good place to start if you’re at the beginning of your journey, do focus on the bigger picture. To educate ourselves on a breadth of experiences at Splendid, we’ve integrated our diversity and inclusion agenda with our established Book Club. We started with books such as ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ and ‘Queenie’, followed by ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ and then ‘All Boys Don’t Wear Blue’ to celebrate LGBTQ+ history month. This enables us to delve into perspectives we may never have seen or considered before. Discussing them together is an invaluable opportunity to broaden our collective horizons as a company.

3. Keep on top of the news, but think long term

Traumatic events, such as the murder of George Floyd, can bring a whole host of emotions to the surface. Memories of personal encounters, or the experiences of loved ones, can return and bring added distress. 

Clara Amfo spoke honestly and candidly on Radio 1 at the time, about the impact of what happened on her mental health. I praise her for speaking so publicly, as she was voicing something that many were struggling with internally. For many of us this isn’t just today’s news. This is a dark aspect of everyday life dragged into a harsh spotlight and plastered on every media type we consume.

Events such as these can be the catalyst for change. Reach out to your colleagues, ask if they’re okay. Different people need different support and implementing staff wellbeing initiatives will show people you genuinely care.

Following a traumatic news event, it is a good idea to diarise a drop-in session where people can come together and talk if they so choose. Thinking more long-term, a monthly or bi-monthly drop-in session with the Diversity Officer/Champion is a great way for people to talk freely and flag issues. Creating a safe space is incredibly important. At Splendid we now have a Head of Wellbeing who is another valuable resource for support and advice.

4. Carry inclusion through your whole company culture

Inclusion is all about making sure employees feel safe, heard and part of the team, and while it can be easy to focus on this in a work context, its important not to forget about company culture in the less formal sense. Many of us (myself included) are inclined to a post-work-Prosecco on a Friday and this can feel like a fun activity to take part in with work friends and colleagues, but what about those who don’t or can’t drink? Or must collect children from school or look after elderly relatives? If this is the only way to socialise then it has the potential to alienate. At Splendid, this is something we’re aware of and we’ve evolved our social calendar and activities to be more inclusive. In addition to optional drinks with our Splendid Loves meeting on a Friday, we provide a variety of other regular and ad-hoc activities. Examples of this are our book and film clubs which happen on a weekday evening and breathing and relaxation sessions which take place over lunch time to catch those who want a mid-day refresh. We’re constantly looking for ways to come together and make sure everyone is included. While these things may not be breaking news, they are important nonetheless, as they boost collective morale.

5. Actions speak louder than words

Ultimately, diversity and inclusion initiatives and schemes are built to support those within a business, enriching the workforce and boosting outputs. Having a People-First, internal approach with consistently open dialogue is so much more important than external comms; we don’t do inclusion for external industry fame, we do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Diversity needs to be genuine and embedded, not tokenistic or a way to tick boxes. Imposter syndrome is real and can leave those who think they were chosen to fulfil a quota extremely paranoid and subsequently unable to do their job to the best of their ability. My view is that while quotas and the like are useful to make sure you reach a wide variety of candidates; they shouldn’t influence the hire decision. Besides, if you have a truly thorough system in place for attracting a truly diverse talent pool, diversity will follow organically and there will be no pressure to hire simply to hit a target.

This is important as agencies bring in the next generation of talent. As we recruit the latest intake of Splendid interns, we have systems in place to ensure a diverse set of candidates who are selected with objective and fair criteria to minimise unconscious bias (as bias is unfortunately not completely erasable). This includes advertising on diversity job boards, with our job descriptions as open, neutral, and impartial as possible. An automated system anonymises all applications for the first review, and we follow objective scoring to assess candidates’ performance through the process. Our interview panel comprises gender and ethnically diverse members of the business that helps both to assess candidates fairly and enable them to see people who might look like them already working in our organisation.

These are easy steps for agencies to put in place. When first looking at D&I it can be daunting and a source of possible guilt when gaps are uncovered. The most important thing is to be authentic, with clear purpose and celebrate diversity rather that ‘sell’ it to the external world. Take it step by step and keep communicating to your employees - together you can make your organisation a more inclusive place for everyone.

 Written by Sophie Barnes, senior account executive at agency Splendid Communications