Creativity is the cornerstone of advertising, so why does the industry stay neatly within the lines when hiring, asks the IAA UK’s Fredrik Borestrom?

While we might assume esteem for out-of-the-box thinking makes adland a neurodiversity haven, this isn’t necessarily the case. Neurodivergents in the industry still feel unable to openly share their differences due to fear of judgment — and that’s if they find an entry point in the first place. According to the Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD), 72% of multi-sector HR professionals say neurodiversity isn’t included in their people management practices.

Advertising is therefore at risk of missing out on an untapped pool of bright, creative minds and valuable talent because certain ‘disabilities’ are misunderstood. It’s time to flip the world on its head, heed our own advice, and look at things from another perspective.

Neurodiversity: the basics

Let’s start with a vital definition. The term refers to individuals with learning and behavioural difficulties or disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s, Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia. This group of people can view the world differently and ­– as a result – they have historically faced obstacles in the workplace such as lack of accommodation and exclusion. But recognition of the value neurodiversity offers is growing. As Mark Evans, marketing director at Direct Line noted: 90% of bees do the same thing each day while 10% freestyle, finding new food sources and hive sites. This 10% are “revered by other bees” and suggest neurodiversity is “the next thing in the talent conversation.”

What do neurodiverse workers bring to the table?

Although the abilities and strengths neurodiverse people bring to the workplace aren’t widely acknowledged at present — just 16% of adults on the autism spectrum, for instance, have full-time jobs — they are considerable.

Firstly, thinking in a different way means neurodiverse individuals can help companies avoid creating an echo chamber where overly likeminded teams are at risk of producing repetitive work. By building a varied team with multiple perspectives, brands can keep advertising concepts fresh and find new ways of delivering engaging, creative messaging.

Secondly, there are specific skills associated with particular aspects of neurodiversity. For example, studies indicate individuals with autism are especially well suited to processing large quantities of data and related detail-orientated tasks such as analysis; both distinct advantages in today’s insight-driven ad landscape. Plus, the same research also suggests divergents with Dyslexia are not only adept at rapid data assessment, but also visualising processes and applying lateral thinking to solve complex problems. It almost goes without saying how desirable such assets are in the age of smart technology and programmatic.

Of course, these are just a taster of the skills neurodiversity brings. As shown by the achievements of celebrated neurodivergents — Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs to name a few — unique thinking can fuel success in many sectors. There is no limit to what talented individuals can achieve, when given the chance. 

How the industry can better accommodate diverse talent?

What the industry can do to provide that chance is a tale of two halves. One part of the solution is making workplaces neurodiverse friendly — ensuring varying learning needs are understood and accommodated so that individuals can thrive. For example, these could be easily manageable measures such as providing quiet spaces to prevent overstimulation or flexible working schedules for those with ADHD. The other, arguably more pressing aspect, is adapting the hiring process to help neurodiverse individuals access roles in the first place.

Aside from obvious measures such as setting aside preconceptions and welcoming neurodiverse applicants, there is the significant issue of interviews. Usually, candidates visit an office for a face-to-face discussion with one or several people and asked many open-ended questions. This format is not only highly social; it’s also high-pressure: candidates are placed in unusual surroundings with unknown people and expected to explain their skills. Such a scenario can make it extremely hard for neurodivergents to demonstrate their full potential, especially those on the autism spectrum who may find the social contact and lack of structure difficult.

Consequently, it is critical for interview procedures to be tailored depending on candidate requirements. For instance, allowing individuals with Asperger’s to bring an attendee to interviews might reduce anxiety and increase their ability to highlight key capabilities. Or media companies may change their questioning style: switching open for direct competency-based questions that also work for lateral thinkers. 

Indeed, there is no reason why interviews have to follow the standard discussion template. Agencies, brands, and publishers could follow the example of Microsoft and run multi-assessment programmes where candidates complete tasks that illustrate their skills objectively alongside interviews.

There are countless adjustments companies can make to pave the way for greater numbers of extraordinary people to enrich the industry. But the most crucial first step is recognising the need for bright, diverse minds to power industry creativity. Just as a football team would be ineffective if composed entirely of goalies, it takes a well-balanced cocktail of skillsets to build compelling ads that capture consumer attention. This means it is essential for the industry to champion neurodiversity and make the inclusive changes needed to reap its rewards.

In the words of Neil Milliken, Head of Accessibility, Atos, “we should celebrate neurodiversity – the world would be poorer and duller if we were all the same.”