Losing talent through negligence

Losing talent through negligence

Jan Gooding shares the experiences of diverse hires that didn’t fit into agency culture and a check-list for change

I don’t doubt the good intentions of everyone who has signed up to making their workplace more inclusive. Nor the widespread understanding that actions are more important than words. However, evidence is already emerging that there is a naivety about what it takes to keep people who were recruited precisely because they are different to those who came before them.

They are not going to fit straight in and just get on with it ‘like a duck to water’, because they aren’t like the ducks already in the pond. 

Cultural change will not come from the most junior

Our industry remains extraordinarily competitive to get into. In fact, the historical demand for places is largely what lay behind an entrenched mindset of expecting candidates to fight their way in.

Rather than wondering whether the net had been cast wide enough in the first place. As is typical in any market when demand far exceeds supply, we had a view that we were ‘buying’ rather than ‘selling’.

People who don’t feel as though they belong cannot thrive. Worst case scenario they will simply leave. What a waste of ambition, time, and energy to lose talent through because not enough care and attention has been given to ensuring the existing culture is adjusted to accommodate them.

Junior staff don’t have the power, experience, or inclination to change your culture for you. Diverse hiring is just the start of the journey, and the ground must be prepared in advance of their arrival if you are going to get the benefit after they join.

More attention should be given to retention

There is no doubt that times are changing. Not with respect to how few opportunities there are to get a foot in the door because it remains incredibly hard to land a job as a trainee.

But there is much greater care and attention being given to recruitment of the diversity of any cohort of successful candidates.

However, even more effort needs to be made with retention or the bucket of diverse hires is about to become very leaky. 

An alliance of changemakers

Last year, I was invited to join a group of change-makers who describe themselves as ‘’The Alliance’.  They represent a group of brilliant initiatives dedicated to affecting change in the advertising and digital industries – Brixton Finishing School, WYK Digital, Agent Academy, Create not Hate, Commercial Break and Livity.

This is a group of people who have been working independently for some years, attracting and preparing young talent from a wide range of different backgrounds to work in our industry. 

The Alliance came together because they were picking up that the time, effort, and energy they were putting into finding diverse people to bring into the industry was being squandered.

Realising that the agencies they were passing their talent to weren’t set up to enable them to thrive, they decided to act.

An unfriendly, and sometimes hostile environment

A group of their alumni agreed to provide an insight as to what was going wrong. There is nothing more powerful than quoting some of their thoughtful comments directly.

‘I was the only black guy and the least experienced, so I had real life insecurities.’

‘I had to keep reminding myself to be professional. But my cultural difference was not respected or easy to chat about.’

‘I didn’t want to alienate anyone, but I did want to open the discussion… I didn’t expect to have to be an educator.’

‘It is both a power and a disability when you know you have the opportunity due to diversity.’

‘They said they wanted diversity but there was a backlash. They also want to stay the same and keep their culture. You are fighting against a very dominant culture.’

‘Expectations are so high. They want a dramatic impact of creativity and fitting in.’

‘There are different ways to get people involved that doesn’t involve drinking.’

‘Having a mentor is important. Someone you can express your experiences to and who has your back.’

‘I was grateful to be there… but there were so many awkward statements about the way I speak, the food I bring in…’

It is striking how earnest, articulate and pragmatic these talented young people are, and I can see exactly why they were given an opportunity to join their various agencies.

They know they are expected to be changemakers, but in the unchanging ‘sink or swim’ attitudes of our agencies they are taking on a lot.

It is tough enough learning a new job without also struggling to fit in to workplaces that are showing little cultural intelligence.

Why bring people in before you know it’s safe for them?

You have to wonder at the naivety of people working in an industry which is supposed to specialise in understanding how people tick.

It should not be news to any of us that you must make the effort and do the work to educate yourself about people whose lives are different to your own.

Do we truly understand what systemic racism is? What do we do to embrace diversity in life, outside work? What do we mean by diversity? These are the questions that these talented young people are rightly putting to us.

The Alliance have worked in partnership with their alumni to compile a ‘checklist for change’. We would do well to listen. 

The checklist for change


Before we join, please:

“Do your homework”

Agencies need to work with experts, otherwise, you don’t know what you’re doing. Be committed and work with the experts in field. Look inwards and acknowledge the work to be done. 

“Make sure our work environment is a safe space for all”

There needs to be a clear and safe reporting process for when something goes wrong. Ensure there is a clear route and proper process in place. 

“Don’t assume prior knowledge” 

Consider expanding your induction process, which for many assumes a level of knowledge garnered from networks and connections within adland and a traditional route in via SCA etc

“Represent at all levels, not just at entry”

Ensure diverse talent is present across your business – at all levels including senior leadership positions. We understand this is challenging, but this shows commitment from the top.

“Have your internal processes set up”

Ensure you have already thought about career plans and set up a process around the opportunity.

This requires commitment from people in terms of their time and a professional mentoring programme in place to ensure both parties get the best results from this.

To ensure we thrive:

“I am not your 2021 diversity  hire, to be replaced by your 2022 hire.”

 Don’t shine a spotlight on me as a diverse pick, I am not a token hire.

Please don’t wheel me out for your press highlights on diversity, give me a voice to talk about the work and my role within your agency.

Please remember that I’m diverse AND I’m talent, I’m both those things, so don’t just make me about one of them.

“Listen to us”

Ensure reverse mentoring for senior staff to ensure they fully understand where we’re coming from.

“Don’t show us your data, show us your progress”

What are you doing, not doing etc. show us the data – show us the journey 

“Senior leaders have to be central to it all”

SLT involvement – this is not about one person to buddy me. For this to really work across your organisation, it needs to be a prepared programme, with structure and access and time from the senior leadership team.

A member of your SLT needs to be directly involved, with scheduled catch-ups.  

“Give me time to make my mark”

Give me time to make my mark – we’re coming into a completely new environment.

There is a hidden code in adland, a language known to you and to those that know, give us the time to learn what others have had access to – from inner networks and connections.

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