Appearances can be deceptive. Just ask the advertising industry: to the outside world, it might look like the epitome of an egalitarian, meritocratic sector where the quality of your ideas is the only thing that counts, but it’s long been acknowledged that social mobility and gender equality are significant problems. Agencies overstaffed with young, white and invariably male creatives consistently fail to reflect the public they are targeting.
It’s a problem that Kelly Knight, HR director at AMV BBDO – the largest advertising agency in the UK, known as Abbot Mead Vickers before it became part of the giant Omnicom stable – is determined to confront. Specifically, she has been concerned by the low level of female creative talent across the industry; to truly reflect clients’ consumer bases, says Knight, the firm needs a workforce that better reflects society.
“We have a weird situation where women don’t seem to want to go into creative roles, and specifically become art directors and copywriters,” says Knight. AMV employs 450 or so people, around 80 of whom form the creative department, whose work has included The Economist’s groundbreaking poster campaigns and the celebrated Guinness ‘surfer’ TV ads. Yet 80 per cent of those creatives are men, roughly in line with the industry average.
Knight’s response to this imbalance has been twofold. By going into art schools and talking to female talent, she has come to believe that the abstract nature of the work and the fact that entry to the industry is so dependent on placements are the two biggest barriers to entry.
“A lot of women don’t like the entry process for becoming a creative,” says Knight. “Once you’ve been through art college and you’ve got a portfolio, people go on placement schemes. But you can be on a placement for two years and, while male students might sleep on sofas, women get put off by that aspect of it or feel the money isn’t good enough to justify it. And if you don’t come from a privileged background, it’s hard.”
To tackle these issues AMV has set up a scheme giving entry-level creatives access to full-time permanent roles on completion of a three-month, paid training contract. “When senior people leave, we’re trying to keep budget back so there is more funding for juniors and women in particular [on the scheme],” says Knight.
The second part of the solution is bolder and aimed at addressing a lack of senior women. “At senior level, salaries are a lot higher, but it’s still hard being a parent and a creative, particularly if you’re going on shoots or going abroad for meetings. A lot of women with award-winning work never come back to the industry after having children – they tend to do other things that fit more easily into the working day.”
The agency’s answer, which is currently being rolled out, is a permanent half-day contract that enables anyone in the creative department to effectively cut their hours in half. Knight is confident that it will be operationally feasible, since creatives work in pairs and can cover for each other, and the business will plan ahead so that part-timers can still be involved in shoots, as well as ensure the most rewarding work is shared equally. Over time, she hopes it will also attract new senior talent.
“We’re starting with the creatives because they’re at a salary level where they can work half days,” says Knight. “If you’re earning £100,000, that still leaves you £50,000.” It will be more challenging to introduce it among other departments, she acknowledges – many staff earning £40,000 or under don’t return to work after maternity leave, for example – but as the idea catches on, Knight plans to introduce targeted support to help with other costs.
Eventually, she hopes it won’t just be parents who take advantage of the added flexibility; carers or those with entrepreneurial instincts may benefit too: “If you want to get the most engaged workforce, you need to allow people to have other outlets for their creativity. It’s not just female talent – we want to bring something in that’s fair for everybody. We can only win from it.”
The fact that the HR department is able to get involved in root-and-branch reform of the agency’s working practices is arguably testament to how central Knight has made it to operations. This comes down, she says, to deeply embedding her team with the business while also making it self-sustaining – she has coding abilities in HR so that it can build its own websites, for example, and two people trained in data techniques work with clients on diversity statistics.
When she joined 11 years ago, it was very different: “HR wasn’t involved in anything. Nobody knew who I’d replaced. It was challenging. But you need to be forthright, to understand and care about what you do and show how you can help.
“Any HR person who comes into my team is taken completely out of their comfort zone. Too many HR practitioners don’t understand how their business works. But my team do consultations. They sit in on every appraisal. They know everything about their client group right from the first induction. If you don’t do that, how can you give the best advice?”
There are other challenges ahead – including the move to project-based work that means the workforce will become increasingly contingent, and an even greater reliance on digital skills – but Knight is confident that the resilience and centrality of her team will help it manage them. The omens, so far, look pretty good.