The real lack of diversity that’s killing advertising

29 Apr

[by Todd] Time for some exercise. Pick a client’s issue you’re trying to crack. Got it? Now, stand up, walk around whatever passes for an office where you work and talk to four people about it. Come on back when you’re done, I’ll wait.

ReinventBack already? Of the four people you talked to how many have professional experience outside the advertising or marketing industry? If your answer is two or more then I’ll bet you work for an interactive agency.

Less than that, my money says you work for a brand agency. And further more, I’ll hazard a guess your company is scared witless about the future.

Advertising has become an incestuous industry that crafts young talent in the image of old hands and mines for talent in the competitor’s break room. The result is that agencies lack the diversity of experiences to tackle the challenges they face today.

Yet clients keep throwing challenges on the table and ask advertising agencies to think differently about the solutions. Of course they come back with subtle variations of the tried and true, that’s what the collective braintrust knows. Over at Forrester, Mary Beth Kemp (my new favorite source of thought starters) calls it The Conflict of Interest of Change.

Hence the conflict of interest. The challenge to agencies is assuring current operations while building the future. Or, perhaps in some cases, just getting the most out of current operations.

This isn’t a conflict of interest, it’s a systematic inbred lack of situational awareness. The people who need to lead the change have no point of reference, no varied experiences, no diversity of background.

Just over a decade ago I was cranking out stories about cops, crime and national disasters to hit three deadlines daily for The Dallas Morning News. The guy sitting next to me wore a flight suit in the Marine Corps before considering the exciting world of account service. Our ECD used to work in television production. And the rest of the team is just as random. (The eastern european heavy metal singer probably sets the grading curve.)

So what? When we sit down to ponder a business challenge there is a massive range of experiences at the table. Each of us comes at problem from not just a different approach, but an entirely different direction. And the resulting discussion isn’t just splitting hairs.

To be fair, interactive agencies have an unfair advantage. We’re new.

All of us came from some other industry, even those who jumped over from advertising agencies. We came here by reinventing ourselves. There was no defined career path that said your next step is to leave behind what you know and jump into a new industry.

But I worry our industry is working hard to give up that huge advantage. Think about the slots you have open today. If someone applied for a mid- or senior-level position and didn’t have any interactive experience would you even give them an interview? If not you’re killing us.

The interactive business has grown explosively because we made it up as we went, trying stuff because no one knew better. What we DID know was that there HAD to be a better way to do business. If we don’t fight like hell to keep that edge then a few decades from now an upstart industry will bemoan our inability to recognize the need for change.

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