Andrew Soar 05 Dec 2017 // 8:11AM GMT
As UK comms professionals, we spend most of our time talking about evolution and how we can tap into people’s socio-cultural needs, but how can we do that when, as an industry, we still hire from the format of university educated candidates from London and surrounding areas?
A lack of diversity is one of the principal issues threatening the industry today. It not only defies our credibility but it also means that our creativity is stifled and, therefore, businesses are not as effective as they could be.
Though a couple of organisations and agencies have stood up and pledged to make a change, has it happened, or is it just a good PR story? Over the years, I have watched on as several groups of Taylor Bennett candidates, eager and hopeful for the opportunity, visited agencies I was working at. Not surprisingly, I never saw any of them ever again.
We pay lip service to diversity in the workforce. Whether it’s based on ethnicity, educational background or nationality, agencies like to think they’re inclusive. But truth be told, we are still in a liminal state of going nowhere fast. This needs to change, not only for the industry’s relevance but, more importantly, for the quality of the ideas we create.
Writing this piece made me reflect on my own career. My CV is more like a Forrest Gump narrative: you can’t simply read through it, you’d have to sit on a park bench with me while I take you through the story, full of twists and tales that make you blush, squeamish and think ‘what the hell?’.
I left uni after two months to play and coach football. Then I worked in retail, ran club nights, put on gigs and private parties for leading bands and celebs, organised VIP areas at festivals, customised jeans and even had my own company. Though I’ve ended up in PR, it would be fair to say, it was never my intention. A mate introduced me to the industry, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But the funny thing about history is there’s a lot more to it than a nice story… Even with all that life experience and a healthy black book of contacts, finding a job was near impossible. In the early days, I got rejected from every role I applied for. Even work experience ones. Having a degree was the pre-requisite and no matter what else I brought to the table, I just got overlooked in favour of someone with a 2:1. After yet another rejection, I remember thinking “<insert expletive here> maybe I should have stuck at uni”. I knew I’d be good in this industry, but I just didn’t tick the right box on the application form – damn the algorithm.
Now, eight years later, with a rich background in comms, I can’t for the life of me figure out why that bloody piece of paper was so important to all of them. When I look back, I realise that the experience of walking those many trodden paths and meeting all those people along the way, helped me carve this unique career path. We need to move on from this old, dated format of degree-educated kids. The media landscape has drastically changed in the eight years I have been in this industry, yet we are still exclusive and not diverse enough, our workforces are predominantly white middle-class people from London and its nearby counties.
Brands are realising that they can’t simply target the millennials or Gen Z and expect to be relevant in their campaigns. They’ve started to focus their attention to specific sub-groups, moving away from traditional concepts of gender, race and demographics. The campaigns that are actually resonating with the right audiences, are the ones that connect on an emotional level and truly understand the people they’re targeting. These are the growing opportunities for PR to truly stand out in the marketing mix but, if we do not have a mix reflective of our target market in our industry, how can we truly connect?
All agencies need a mix of the whole gamut of diverse minds, cultures and experiences to effectively connect with different audiences. I strongly believe that this variety of opinion and perspectives provide the vital ingredients for a lively, balanced and enriched debate and, the ideas that will arise as a result.
So, let’s throw away the rulebook and start again. Forget a 2:1 only mentality and let’s look for the real ingredients of what makes a good PR professional – a high degree of determination and passion, know-how, self-assurance, a will to succeed and grow, opinion and, a fresh perspective. Most of this doesn’t come from a BA or BSc.
This is a job that can be pretty amazing when you think of it. In eight years, I’ve put on a gig at the Roundhouse to raise £200,000 for charity, edited a website, started a sustainable clothes revolution, opened a restaurant, inspired people to use fewer sunbeds, beat Simon Cowell and inadvertently made ‘Little Mix’, produced immersive theatre, launched a farm out the back of a car and have pulled together countless events, photos and video content.
This is a multifarious, yet rewarding career that should attract more people in. After all it’s a cool job! There are so many things that we need to do, but, we should start with scrapping degree-only roles and examine what can be done with entry level pay industry-wide. Industry wages often pay less than TFL, McDonald’s and even Foot Locker for a 40-hour week, so there is little incentive for those from other walks of life to come in.
You could view that as being a little depressing, but I believe there is a glimmer of hope, because I think that there does seem to be a real appetite for change. Let’s start by fostering pluralism through diversity, stop playing lip-service and just start doing (after all that’s what we tell our teams… right?)
It’s time to truly think outside the box. Hire those that scare you, those that aren’t in your own image, but who you see tenacity and opportunity with. I was that person that got ‘no’ after ‘no’, but now campaigns I have been involved in have resulted in over 95 award nominations and 39 campaign awards, including a Silver and Bronze at the 2017 Cannes Lions.
I no longer think “I should have gone to uni”.
Andrew Soar is creative comms director at Manifest.