Recent media reports suggest that 2024 could be a do-or-die year for DE&I with economic pressures having led to fears of a DEI backlash and DEI investments in the front line of corporate cost cutting.

This is despite the strong business case for marketing that better represents its audiences now being widely acknowledged. So, what can agencies and brand owners do to keep their foot pressed down on the DE&I pedal?

To me, as my agency enters the second year of a radical DE&I initiative, the answer lies in a fundamental rethink of DE&I investment seen as a nice-to-have-but-optional business expense.

The reason’s simple. Despite our initiative launching without financial KPIs, we’re definitely seeing benefits business-wide. Diversifying our talent pool is enriching our marketing campaigns with varied perspectives, ensuring they resonate with a broader audience.

So, at a time when pressure is growing on budgets and some organisations are reportedly grappling with a DE&I backlash, here are some insights and strategies to keep the momentum going.

Rethinking existing recruitment initiatives can be effective

Improving DE&I doesn’t have to mean a separate investment.

Like most agencies, we have had an internship programme for new entrants to the industry for some time. But we were struggling to attract the diversity of talent we wanted to apply. So, we decided to approach this in a different way.

We launched a Positive Action pre-internship training initiative involving a mix of tutorials and practical training called Flying Start.

The Positive Action bit – a concept borrowed from the civil service, which has initiatives to level the playing field for potential applicants from non-traditional civil service backgrounds called ‘positive action pathways’ – is its USP.

There is no job at the end of the programme, as this would be prejudiced to other applicants. Instead, the idea is to encourage ethnically diverse young people from a wide range of backgrounds who might not have considered creative industries as a career – graduates and non-graduates alike – to learn about the different roles in advertising that are available.

They learn this over eight weeks while being paid at the London Living Wage. During this time, they learn about roles available across four core disciplines: account management, strategy, production and creative and work on a client brief.

This gives them knowledge, experience and confidence they might not otherwise have had to apply for a job in advertising.

It’s possible to use and improve systems already in place, to make a difference to DE&I recruitment.

Improving diversity makes it easier to identify easy DE&I wins

With people at all levels within the agency working closely with participants, our eyes have been opened to obstacles to greater DE&I we might not otherwise have seen.

One issue in diversifying our workforce was a lack of clarity about the career pathways in our industry, so we’ve worked to define them in a meaningful way, which turns out to be useful for everyone, not just trainees.

UK consumer champion Which? – one of the UK’s most diverse employers – has realised that, along with posting vacancies on inclusive job boards, it could improve wage equality with little changes like advertising transparent salary ranges and removing the previous salary question from job applications.

Not every change has to be big or expensive

Publishing diversity data is becoming more commonplace. This is great, but at the same time it’s important not to be overly focused on numbers and big solutions to improve them.

A great, and inexpensive, initiative I heard about recently is at Heathrow Airport, a company with a hugely diverse workforce (and, to be transparent, our client).

It has adopted the Race Equality Matters #MyNameIs initiative, calling on colleagues to commit to pronouncing and spelling each other’s names correctly. Staff are encouraged to include the phonetic spelling of their names in email signatures, and the question ‘how do I pronounce your name?’ has been normalised by highlighting how it benefits both the name-holder and the name-speaker.

The campaign was promoted in short films of various team members talking about their names and how they feel when they are mispronounced or misspelt.

Heathrow staff report a new level of confidence and pride in their own names, which helped build a wave of support for the campaign and widen adoption of #MyNameIs in email signatures.

Diverse allies are allies for diversity

Having people with lived experience as allies is crucial to ensuring change occurs. One of our ex-interns, Mary Musasa, whom I mentored for many years, has been invaluable in lending her support, introducing us to her wider contacts and hosting a conversation about the importance of mentorship and early career feedback for ethnically diverse candidates.

She runs her own production company, has worked with Disney and Specsavers, and she has been an important role model and inspiration for our trainees.

Sharing best practice can create a win-win for all

Share resources and insights where you can – both within your organisation and working with other organisations, even rivals. We are proud to say that two other indie agencies (that we know of) have now created a model very similar to ours.

Leaning into greater diversity can re-shape your culture for the better

Greater diversity within your workforce will inevitably have a knock-on cultural impact. Embrace this and encourage all within your organisation to be involved.

The only way to effectively drive diversity from entry level up and across every department is to inform people, answer questions openly, champion it, then harness it from within – actively applying insights and contacts made through better representation to drive greater diversity into more senior roles.

The best diversity strategy is one that is both effective and sustainable.

Our approach has helped us commit to diversity and communicate our diversity commitment better.

It has changed our culture more profoundly than I believe appointing a diversity director would have. It has encouraged all of us, not just a few, to go on the diversity journey. And the organic training that resulted has benefited us ten times more and cost less than paying for a few senior bodies to have unconscious bias training.

This is education at every level, which ensures change at every level. True diversity in a business has many benefits. I can honestly say that we see diversity as an investment and not a cost. And because of this, it is one of the last pieces of expenditure I’d want to cut.