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Arif Miah of mud orange: can we, for a moment, stop talking about diversity numbers?

The latest IPA report finds that BAME staff in agencies have dropped to 13.7%. This low proportion doesn’t surprise me at all because you can blatantly see it.

You can see it in the poorly written work that spells out diversity letter by letter. And you can see it in the lack of work, we’re in Ramadan which is arguably the biggest occasion after Christmas and Easter in the UK, and there’s little brand activity this year because their creative agency friends just don’t know how to manoeuvre it.

But concentrating on these numbers is like putting out smoke instead of fire. The figure could be 20% or 30%, but it’s just a cosmetic job that doesn’t address the real diversity issue.

And what’s the issue? Education and awareness of WHY we need to be more diverse.

Senior management, gatekeepers and opinion makers in our industry give diversity a big mention when called upon, but in reality, it’s treated as their ‘do-good thing.’ They don’t actually see it as something they need to do for their business. This means that when they’ve done their good deed, and gracefully employ more diverse staff, the cultural pressure, undertones, and expectations at agencies force BAME staff to assimilate and dilute. So, no matter how high the proportion of BAME staff grows, it doesn’t solve the issue of valuing diversity, and this will sustain the recruitment issue.

So we’re playing the wrong game here because a percentage focused goal does not actually aid progress. After all, each new hire in light of these targets is just a statistic, which is basically just lipstick on a stiff lip.

So..without these numbers how do we make a change?

We need to work backwards

Rather than focusing on what agencies need to do, we need to focus on why they need to do it.

Let’s focus on building data about the growing spending power we rapidly see YoY from BAME audiences that brands can no longer afford to ignore.

Let’s develop research that shows the growth of brands that actively or specifically cater to diverse audiences that will inevitably make up the next generation of new business briefs landing on agency desks.

Let’s dig deep on the impact a diverse workforce can have on quality, creativity and productivity.

So let’s work backwards. Yes, we should have targets, but the targets should not be the end destination. To make our industry genuinely diverse, in its operation, culture and practice, let’s stop forcing through the numbers and start talking about the impact. The quicker we can accurately and confidently show that diversity is a talent and business need, as a consequence the number of BAME staff at agencies will naturally rise.

And not only will this impact the agency culture for diverse staff, but it will also empower them. Imagine seeing all these stats, goals and quotas – it’s not very inspiring. By working backwards, it will not only empower people from diverse backgrounds but will also help combat issues we see around pay inequality and career development – which is a whole different topic which I can write for days about (and personal experiences!).

The lack of openness and awareness in ad agencies is partly why I left and co-founded my own, mud orange. As a small agency, we’re continuously working with researchers looking at the lifestyle trends of different and diverse audiences, which is having a massive impact on our new business development.

Our industry needs to catch up and appreciate that these numbers are not the reasons for hiring or promotions for diverse staff. The reason is a business one. To future-proof your agency with talent that prepares you for the modern world.

Arif Miah is the co-founder of mud orange (right with co-founder Ala Uddin.)

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