How the ad industry can take the next step on DE&I

Jason Pollock
By Jason Pollock | 1 November 2023
Simon Wassef.

 The Create Space Census from the Advertising Council Australia (ACA) opens today, with every advertising and marketing professional working in Australia asked to spend 15 minutes completing the anonymous industry-wide survey.

The findings will be used to benchmark the industry’s progress on DE&I, revealing strengths, pinpointing gaps and again highlighting priority areas for ongoing action.

Simon Wassef, Clemenger BBDO's chief strategy and experience officer, thinks the industry is making progress around diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) but in others ways is just beginning to scratch the surface.

"In 2021, even conducting the census, there was still a lot of questions about ‘why do we need this’ and 'we thought we were doing okay'," says Wassef. 

"It presented a combination of surprising, shocking and reassuring ideas about where we were at as an industry.

"The last two years, I've certainly seen a serious, dedicated effort - seeing what colleagues in agencies do to take the learnings and take the action plan and change policies, change some of the practices, create different ways to engage, create safe spaces and working groups - it's not ‘what do we need this for?’, but it's a conversation and moreover, it's got action in it."

Wassef says that such efforts are ongoing and never over, as the more agencies and advertisers delve into the issues others are potentially revealed, so it can sometimes feel like taking a couple of steps forward and a couple of steps back.

"This is not a project that you come to the end of it; it is always on, an always ongoing conversation and challenge and in some cases, we're doing pretty good and in others, we've got a long way to go," he told AdNews.

Wassef says that both before and since the census was launched, the advertising industry has always prided itself on being a safe and inclusive space, whether championing something like LGBTQI+ rights or the work that's been done in the accessibility space.

"We've always been proud of ourselves for being on the vanguard of those issues, but I think it's one thing to be proud of it and to have those initiatives but it's another to do some of the harder things," he says.

"Changing policy and changing, in the case of perhaps especially the holding companies, how things work internally - that's a bit of a harder slog.

"As much as we'd love to be an inclusive industry and be at the forefront of things and use creativity to do interesting things, there comes a hard reality on policy and on the way certain things are set up whether it's parental leave or mental health leave or issues around accessibility of physical or digital places."

This is something Wassef calls matching the optimism with the pragmatism; although the industry is naturally optimistic on the whole, his observation in the last couple of years has been that the industry has had to be more pragmatic and admit that there's trends and behaviours that are "really not cool and actually uncomfortable".

"It's a majority female industry and yet we struggle to retain female talent, so having the home truth to discuss that and be willing to make changes, that's probably been the pragmatic bit that we're doing okay in some cases, really well in others and probably finding it harder than we thought it would be in some instances too," he told AdNews.

"My take on this is we've got the optimism, we've got the belief - now it's about matching it with the pragmatism.

"To the point about women in the industry, it’s still addressing those barriers: the fact that we lose female talent, the fact that we uncovered insights around what is a microaggression, what is the double jeopardy effect for women of colour? Those are things that now it's out there, you’ve got to address it and we’re maybe still figuring out the real scale of those problems."

On what the industry can do as a next step going forward, Wassef's advice is simple - believe the census.

"I think one of the main barriers in the way is a little bit of scepticism that remains that says ‘is that really a problem?’, ‘is that my problem?’, ‘that’s happening somewhere else’, ‘we're doing pretty good over here’ etc," he said.

"Not to say that everyone's doing terribly, but it's more just believing that it's there and really happening.

"I think we can do better at going ‘no, that is not just a niche issue or something that is happening down the road - that's happening everywhere, at your place, at our place’. Don't carry the scepticism around that says, ‘oh, this is some niche answers in a survey somewhere’ – this is the industry speaking, so it’s real."

Wassef urged those in the industry to simply take the survey, because with the data, it can then be understand where the industry is at, policy can be developed and change can be enacted.

"People will go ‘I did it last time, do I have to do it again?’ - yeah, it's even better if you do it again, because then we're going to see how things are changing," he says.

"If you didn't do it last time, now's your chance to take it. And if you did it and you thought ‘my opinion or my feelings weren't necessarily heard’, take it again and the Ad Council is going to look at it again and do the analysis again.

"I urge everyone to take it; it's 15 minutes and it makes a huge impact. We've made more progress in the last two years than in the last 10 probably, so think about how your voice counts, take the census and we can keep working."

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