Lisa Thompson's article

Why a focus on social mobility is crucial for innovation and creativity


by Lisa Thompson


Before I start this piece, I probably should admit that I don’t work in the nuclear industry, I work in advertising.  I’ll also be honest: my knowledge of all things nuclear isn’t that strong. However, I was asked to write this in response to some work I have been doing in social mobility within the advertising industry. And the more I learn, the more I realise it is relevant for all industries. For context, In April I completed the IPA Excellence Diploma. The final assignment was to express what we believed the future of brands was. My essay – which won the John Bartle award for the best I Believe – outlined my belief that the advertising industry has a problem – it’s elite, and it’s stopping us from doing the best work.  Whilst I can’t claim to know the in-depth dynamics of your industry, hopefully the below will make you ask yourself whether your industry suffers the same problem, and if so, why you should change it.

 

I was inspired by a brilliant book called Collective Genius, which analysed companies constantly delivering innovation, including Pixar, eBay and Volkswagen. In the book they found that a culture of ‘creative abrasion’, defined as the ability to generate ideas through discourse and debate, was essential for innovation.  However, in order to practice this properly you need a key component – diversity of thought. I argued advertising doesn’t have this, because the advertising industry is elite – data found it was the 7th most elite industry. This elitism results in the fact we in advertising all think the same and don’t have diversity of thought.  Research by Andrew Tenzer and Ian Murray demonstrated that advertising professionals think differently from the rest of the UK. Our thinking style is driven by the industry’s make up of people from privileged backgrounds. As I have asserted before, I don’t know the detail of nuclear industry, but I did some topline research on YouGov profile, which suggests there could be an issue.  University and attending private school are all linked intrinsically with privilege.


  • 48% of those who work in engineering have a degree, 32% more likely than the average UK adult
  • 12% of those with an interest in nuclear went to private school (versus only 7% of the UK population)


Whilst you may argue that in your industry you need a degree, it is vital to consider that those from a less privileged background are less likely to go to university.  In addition, a degree doesn’t mean you won’t face bias when getting a job post University if you are from a less privileged background. In the BBC3 documentary Breaking into the Elite you will see compelling incidents showing those from less privileged backgrounds with excellent degrees struggling to get their foot in the door.

Now, class is a complex issue for all.  During the 80’s and 90’s class was deemed difficult. Politicians and Academics "proclaimed the end of class" creating a misconception that Britain is socially open4.  It is not. Far from it. In May the LSE announced that the Co-Vid generation could go into a dark age of social mobility5. The topic gained some conversation recently, but often social mobility can feel like a footnote. It’s seen as an addition to race and gender, which dominate, but we must remember diversity is highly complex, with elements that are intrinsically linked. In fact, if you care about diversity, social mobility is a vital lens, because Social Class is an intersectional issue. A study of census data proves that BAME communities experienced considerably far less social mobility than white people born in Britains7.  Facing-up to class and social mobility will allow us to really understand the root of the problem but also the solution.

 

So how do we face up to the problem? Below are three steps I developed for the ad industry. As Collective Genius proves diversity of thought is important, I thought you’d enjoy some thought from an advertising professional as a different opinion. Each of these are vast in scope but aim to offer a starting point.

 

  1. Measure – we must fully understand the problem, and this requires a more sophisticated approach to diversity reporting. All industries should understand the make-up of their industry. The Social Mobility Foundation recommends a layered approach, which asks about private education, free school meals, parents’ occupation. But we must also ask people if they want to answer these questions. We need to find a way to set targets and make ourselves accountable.
  2. Pathways –You can make your industry more accessible by promoting it to all walks of life… not just those browsing the university careers board. We must actively challenge our recruitment processes. You must look at the values we place on strong recruits and face up to the biases our pathways currently promote. Such as those who have work experience because they can afford to work for free or those who are deemed well-travelled so have ‘life experience’ because they can afford a gap year. Also ask yourself do people from a less privileged background even know about your industry. If not start sooner, get to them in school and encourage them to start in a path to your industry.
  3. Culture – You must look at your industry to ensure it is one where all backgrounds feel safe. A culture designed to bring out the best versions of everyone so creative abrasion can be achieved. You can’t recruit people and mould them to be like you. You must motivate people to bring all of themselves to work. This will bring diversity of thought and more innovative solutions.

 

A lot can be done but it requires us to take a long, hard look at ourselves. It will feel uncomfortable, but the best work comes from creative abrasion. I’d challenge you to shake the make-up of your industry, which will result in stronger work. Also, as someone working in advertising, I would love to learn more about nuclear and your diversity initiatives. Maybe we can gain inspiration from each other. 

Lisa Thompson is a Planning Director at Wavemaker North, a media planning and buying agency in Manchester. She found a passion for  social mobility whilst undertaking her  IPA Excellence Diploma of which social mobility was the topic of her final assessment and won the John Bartle Award.

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