Proactive allyship: 3 things agencies can do today

conference room


I hesitate to start this piece claiming that it’s ‘never been more important to be an ally’, because standing up against injustice, platforming oppressed voices and dedicating time to understanding the lived experiences of others have always been—let’s be honest—the fundamental tenets of being a good human. However, in recent years, the notion of living by those actions—of allyship—has taken on a new and urgent weight. As the world wakes up to the deep-rooted systems of oppression that control our society, many businesses and many more individuals have made a commitment to drive change.

But committing is one thing, acting is another. That’s why, at tms (formerly The Marketing Store) we’re striving to focus our efforts on actions, not words. The indomitable Fearless Futures have been working across our agency to help us shift our perspective on equality, while our recent ‘Everyday Pride’ virtual panel saw a diverse cross section of talented, creative people explore the changes needed to ensure that all identities are able to thrive in (and outside) the workplace.

Here are three things I’ve learned on this journey:

1. Don’t solve for change in silos.

Systems of oppression don’t affect us in isolation. I may still be oppressed as a result of my gender, but I’ve benefitted massively from white and heterosexual privilege, as well as a university education and an able body. So while, in the workplace, my gender puts me at a me a disadvantage against many of my peers, my race, sexual orientation, education and lack of disability mean I am at an advantage over many others.

As our ‘Everyday Pride’ panellist, activist and social enterprise director, Chuchu Nwagu put it ‘fighting any oppression is hard, let alone having to fight multiple oppressions. If you are a woman who happens to be black, who also happens to be LGBT, you’re fighting three oppressions simultaneously and that’s difficult.’

When agency leaders attempt to solve in silos they not only increase the risk of solving for stereotypes, but they miss the crucial nuance of human identity—that it is multifaceted. Saying let’s do X to close our gender pay gap, or let’s do Y to get more racially diverse talent onto our graduate schemes, while both honourable pursuits, are likely to benefit the most privileged within those groups first, potentially leaving others even further behind.

It is through this lens of intersectionality—of multiple systems of oppression overlapping to cause nuanced injustices, distinct to each individual—that we must approach our work as allies. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be promoting women to positions of leadership full stop, or that having a more racially diverse business isn’t vital for our growth. The absolute worst thing a business could do would be to use this as an excuse to perpetuate pale, male and stale leadership. Indeed, it’s vital that businesses act on both of these counts. But, when they do so, they need to ask themselves, who is less likely to benefit from these actions? If your future female leaders are predominantly white, while they should still be on an accelerated path to promotion, you need to ask yourself why women of colour aren’t being hired or coached into these roles and put in place proactive measures to help them get there. Or, if your graduate intake are racially diverse but all still Russell Group educated, you need to challenge the idea that a top university education is the only valid indicator of talent. Reach out to schools in underprivileged areas. Offer paid internships. Find ways to measure value outside of grades or league tables.

It isn’t easy to think like this and it can cause many—and I include my former self in this number—to initially become defensive. But unless we want to perpetuate systemic oppression, it’s vital that those of us who have fought against inequality in one sphere, recognise our privilege in another.

2. Create visible champions.

A wise female CEO once said to me ‘you can’t be it if you can’t see it.’ She was a white woman. I saw her, admired her and I (still) want to be her. But if I was black, or in a wheelchair, or trans, I wonder if those feelings—that recognition—would be as potent. Would I feel like I could follow her path if the odds were further stacked against me?

Seeing people like us in positions of leadership has a direct impact on our perceived ability to attain those positions. So it’s vital that we platform diverse voices and up and coming talent in our agencies whenever and wherever there’s the opportunity—put them on panels, enter their work into awards, cast them in pitch teams, offer them your agency blog as a platform. A black square on your Instagram is all very well and good, but if every single spokesperson your business champions is white, are you truly practising what you preach? Can you really expect non-white people to want to build a career there?

At our ‘Everyday Pride’ panel we talked a lot about the concept of belonging, something that many of us (again, myself included) take for granted. We walk into our agencies and we see people like us, who reflect our world view. We form bonds more easily thanks to our shared experience. We conform to the cultural dialogue, subconsciously pick up on the societal cues. We ‘fit in.’

It’s hard to imagine what starting a new role would be like for someone who didn’t see themselves reflected in the majority of their peers—especially someone just starting out in the industry. That’s why having visible champions for minority groups—BAME, LGBT+, disability, mental health—and clearly signposting them to new joiners is so vital. They may not want or ever need to reach out. But it’s important to know that they understand—that they’re there—and that they can support them through difficult disputes or challenging situations should the need arise.

3. Rethink the notion of agency culture.

We also need to challenge the notion of a ‘cultural fit’ in our hiring practices. Call it unconscious bias or call it narcissism, but human beings tend to hire other human beings who remind them of themselves. Seeing our own experiences, hobbies or personality types reflected back to us makes us feel safe. But does it breed a diverse business? Does it push the boundaries of great, culture-shaping creativity? Probably not.

An ex-boss once told me I couldn’t hire an incredibly driven and highly skilled grad because she seemed a bit of a ‘nerd’ and therefore wouldn’t ‘gel’ well with the rest of our team. Instead the role went to the daughter of a friend of someone on the leadership team, who had interned at our agency the previous summer and already proved herself to be a ‘better fit.’ Admittedly, both women were white and the one we did hire was of course a brilliant candidate in her own right, but the nepotism never sat easy with me. It happened all the time in that agency and our culture (and entirely white male leadership team) were proof of that fact.

When hiring managers or recruiters question the ‘cultural fit’ of a candidate, it’s vital that agency leaders push back. Hiring against the grain of our agency culture should be a good thing as that culture, for a long time, has been counter-intuitive to diversity. Yes, the office beanbags, beer fridges, louche lunches, Friday afternoons in the pub and glitzy awards dos help to offset the long hours and weekend working for many, but who are they really benefitting? Certainly not those with children or caregiving responsibilities, or those from low income backgrounds. Nor can they truly compensate for the higher salaries and better benefits of the tech sector. Call me crazy, but I’d take a 20% pay rise over a free chicken supreme dinner and half bottle of wine at an awards show presented by an aging male comedian any day.

The concept of culture is by it’s very definition exclusive and that makes it a problematic thing to safeguard within any business. Instead, leaders should focus on cultivating agency values. Empathy, ingenuity, resilience—these don’t just come from Falmouth-taught creatives or Oxbridge-trained account handlers, they come from anywhere and anyone. They’re rooted in the fundamental concepts of what it is to be human.

This article originally appeared on BITE by Creative Brief.