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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Ross

Don't judge a bloke by his cover.

I am a white, male creative director. On the face of it, the antithesis of diversity. I tick no boxes and fill no quotas. But perhaps diversity is deeper than a superficial collective of different people?

I believe true diversity starts within each individual.

There are many people of all ages, sex and ethnicity who are not diverse in their outlook and have no interest in becoming so. They find safety and security in their own little tribes, manors and routines; finding comfort in similarities and searching out ‘people like us’. Advertising’s ‘white guys talking to white guys’ as Cindy Gallop rightly puts it, is just one example. But there are many white men in advertising who aren't like this. Men whose life experiences are diverse. Men who see the benefit of not hiring or promoting in their own image.

My parents, for all the right reasons, sent me to an all-male public school­; another tribal breeding ground. My saving grace was twofold. First, a strong northern mother. She was an ambitious doctor, lifelong Man United and Lancashire cricket fan. The perfect gender stereotype crusher.

The second saving grace was winning the fight not to go to a ‘respected’ university. Pulling myself out of the fast-flowing stream of Sebastians and Henrys, I jumped into the relative pool of diversity that is art college. A multi-coloured melting pot of individuals all with one thing in common - creativity.

Now I’m not kidding myself that art college reflected all cross-sections of society, but it was an improvement. One where women numerically outnumbered men too. Being a Scottish art college, it also favoured breadth of education over specialism, so I graduated a more diverse person. Unemployable, but diverse. More importantly I had spent three years exposed to brilliant female creativity, from painters to designers to sculptors. At college creativity was never defined by gender, age or race.

Every career decision I have since taken was to broaden my perspectives. Taking on assignments and issues that pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone. As a Creative Director I’ve always looked beyond the superficial, to hire people with a diversity of life experiences. Naturally this meant about half of them were women - but that was never the reason to hire them. They were all broad-minded, hard working, creative people. Nobody creative wants to feel they've been hired because they look the part. You're hired because you are the part.

Five of my most successful agency years were teamed with a female copywriter. I remember the pressure she felt under to be ‘one of the boys,’ not realising that this would surrender her creative advantage in a department that was only 10% female. She’s now a critically acclaimed author, which was always her dream. The pressure to conform though can dangerously suppress the desire to express your personal diversity.

When creative director on the British Army account, our team tried to address issues of gender and racial bias by appealing to a more diverse cross section of society. The Army is a more extreme example of 'white men talking to white men' with only 9% female soldiers and 7% from BME backgrounds. But your average career soldier is probably more diverse than your average adlander. Experiencing different cultures, conflicts and humanitarian crises first hand changes you. It broadens your reference points in life. But collectively the Army could never argue it is diverse. Mind you, the Army has never claimed it can hold a mirror up to society like advertising does either.

Working with Stonewall our #Nobystanders campaign tackled bullying by removing the position of neutrality many adopt. In a genuinely diverse society there is no place to turn a blind eye. Silence is affirmation of the status quo, which is why it's important we all speak up for diversity but also realise it's not merely a superficial issue.

There's a strong sense that we should all be ashamed by the lack of diversity in advertising. You can't argue with that. Shame though is a paralysing emotion. Individually the best thing we can all do is live more outside of our ‘comfort tribes’, and broaden our reference points.

Not many of us are in the position to influence hiring decisions or broaden the diversity of prospective candidates. I don’t feel ashamed to be a white, male creative director because that has never defined me as a person. My life experiences have. As an industry we’re in search of a breadth of individual minds, but we can all be more broad-minded too.

So don’t simply judge a white bloke by his cover. Because they’re the two things many advocates of diversity simply can’t change.

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