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What do you mean when you say diversity?

I am writing this as a man. I am writing this as a white man. I am writing this as a white man from an industrialised society. I am writing this as a white man from an industrialised society who was fortunate enough to go to university. I am writing this as a white man from an industrialised society who was fortunate enough to go to university and now works for a global corporation.

Save for one genetic quirk which leaves me inclined to date men over women, I have essentially been given the lowest difficulty setting on life. You don’t necessarily have to listen to anything I have to say about diversity. But, being a white guy, I find it hard to shut up, so here’s my hot take anyway.

At the 61st annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, every single day featured a panel, seminar or forum on the topic of diversity in the advertising industry. By the end of the week, my eyes ached from rolling so much. Not because I don’t think this is a conversation that needs to be had, but because I can’t help but feel we’re still stuck on page one of War & Peace.


The question I have been dying to ask these panellists is: when you think of diversity, what exactly comes to mind? Within advertising, ‘diversity’ appears remarkably similar to ‘more of the same, please, but with a couple of extra wombs’. I have actually lost count of the number of times these panels of white, wealthy, well-spoken and well-educated women discussed feminism and sexism without acknowledging their highly specific personal lens. And we shouldn’t be surprised; white privilege isn’t an exclusively male trait.

Gender bias remains a big, ugly problem in this industry. But it isn’t the only one. There is a deep-seated snobbery in advertising, another unconscious bias which keeps non-university-educated candidates out of sight and out of mind. What about the kids with brilliantly creative minds who would never get through the door for an interview because their circumstances have deprived them of the tools (and accent) they need to enter the advertising industry?

What I found most perplexing about Cannes specifically was the presence of so many other sessions celebrating the dynamic creativity of countries all over the world, from Colombia to Lebanon. We are capable of recognising talent from diverse backgrounds, it seems, so why the absence of Latin American or Middle Eastern voices when it comes to diversity? It strikes me as a heartbeat away from “some of my best friends are black” condescension; worthily acknowledging the existence of bright, creative people from different countries and classes, while at the same time doing nothing to change the status quo.

I’m not saying that one conversation takes priority over another. Yes, women have undoubtedly faced more prejudice and obstacles than their male peers, and a lot of work remains to be done in that area — but all too often, these voices, these lived experiences, dominate the entire diversity conversation. We need a more level playing field for discussions surrounding other forms of prejudice and bias in the industry, be they classist, racist, ableist or homophobic. It’s been said time and time again; inclusivity is just good business. It’s about time we stop saying it, and actually do something.

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