Too many businesses think factors such as employee engagement and diversity will rise once they are successful – and that they must be a certain size to justify employing someone with diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) responsibility. But in this article Will Brookes, CEO of Raconteur, will argue that the reverse is true using examples from his own experiences.

Scale-up brands

This article is part of a series of articles from the WARC Guide to scale-up brands.

I’m a heterosexual white man, educated to degree level, who has been promoted to CEO level by the age of 36. I don’t apologise for any of this, but I am acutely aware of it. It is not lost on me that someone from my demographic, in my privileged position, advising others about diversity, equity and inclusion is likely to make a few eyes roll – but please stick with me.

Three years ago, I blogged about my experiences with DE&I since becoming Managing Director of Raconteur in 2017. I wanted to openly document my previous blind spots and subsequent learnings in the hope it would create interest among other leaders stuck thinking how I used to. I can’t claim it went viral, but nearly 2,000 likes and comments is about 1,990 more likes and comments than most of my Linkedin posts get, so it certainly resonated.

Since then, I’ve discussed DE&I in various forums – publicly via event panels and podcasts, and more privately with colleagues, clients, suppliers and industry peers. I’ve heard all the arguments that are rolled out to block or avoid discussions around DE&I. Some come from a genuine lack of experience with the topic, while others are sadly based on more archaic beliefs.

However, there’s one that I hear time and time again that has no substance behind it and is a clear example of the systemic problems holding back progress in this area.

It’s the argument that “we’re too small to focus on DE&I” and I’m here to challenge it.

This view is a significant problem because it stops progress before it can even begin. It means DE&I gets ignored until businesses are bigger, by which point – surprise, surprise – they have often developed much bigger DE&I problems that take longer and cost more to fix. Yet the irony of this is often lost on SME leaders, who convince themselves that companies need huge resources to start making improvements.

Raconteur is, admittedly, a bigger company now than it was in 2019. But, having initiated the process of change when we were smaller and seen the huge benefits since, I want to share some ideas about how small businesses can overcome that first hurdle and get going.

So, let's look at what getting started could involve and what it might cost.

No cost: Start measuring. This is an important starting point that will only cost a little time. Introduce an annual staff diversity survey anonymously via Google forms, for example. It will show the true makeup of your workforce including, crucially, the things you can’t see. You’ll then have a benchmark from which to assess where things are getting better or worse – and where the priorities lie.

Publishing your results publicly, however bad things are initially, is a great statement of intent. You should also calculate your gender and ethnicity pay gaps as these will immediately highlight if you have an equity problem (spoiler alert: you probably do) and how bad it is. I’ll admit that our initial results were eye-opening, but once I understood the facts, I felt even more compelled to change things.

Low cost: Create a calendar of internal DE&I events. There is a myriad of insightful speakers who can come and educate your workforce about different DE&I topics. All you need to do is pay them (and you absolutely must pay them), listen and ask questions. We’ve had speakers come and talk to us about disability, gender, social mobility, mental health, sexuality and more.

The talks help staff see things from perspectives different from their own and can help people feel more comfortable opening up about their own unique experiences. Over time, you’ll become a more welcoming and inclusive workplace, where anyone can thrive. Six speakers a year will probably cost you between £3,000 and £7,000, and six hours of time – a small price to pay to help you retain diverse talent down the line.

Medium cost: Hire someone to help you drive change around DE&I. Obvious, but often overlooked in smaller businesses, even though salaries in this area certainly won’t break the budget. I should be clear, hiring them does not make this a ‘job done'; they will need your time and crucially your support in order to succeed. They will also need a budget - they’re not miracle workers! Doing this will mean progress doesn’t stall when your focus is required on other parts of the business.

I recognise that the above is not enough for a business with significant DE&I challenges. And there are certainly plenty of other ideas businesses could run with. But I want to encourage businesses that are still doing nothing to get going. These are just some of the things we did at the start, before ramping up, and I’m confident any SME business could find the resources required to start with these.

If you’re still not convinced, it is probably because you don’t believe that improved diversity and inclusion and business results are linked. But a range of studies have found a correlation between DE&I and business performance (e.g. McKinsey, Gartner), while literature that explores the links between cognitive diversity and performance is becoming more plentiful (e.g. Rebel Ideas, by Matthew Syed). Admittedly though, these often focus on larger organisations in unrelatable sectors or geographies. There is a lack of case studies of smaller companies documenting their journeys in the media industry, so let’s start fixing that.

But first, has Raconteur actually become more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive? Well, over the past two years the proportion of managers from BAME backgrounds has increased from 13% to 26%. Managers identifying as female has risen from 20% to 37%. Employees and managers identifying as LGTBQI+ is now significantly above the national average. Education to degree-level companywide is down 13% and our average age has increased markedly. 

On pay, our gender pay gap has fallen to less than half the advertising industry average, having been alarmingly above it two years ago. Our ethnicity pay gap is gone. And not one of our 60+ staff members answered our latest anonymous employee survey to say they don’t feel included at Raconteur. We still have a long way to go – some of our representation is not good enough – but we’re on the right path and committed to doing more.

And what about the impact on our business results? In the same two-year timeframe used above, Raconteur has nearly doubled revenue and more than tripled profit. Headcount has also more than doubled and our employee engagement score has risen above 90%. While these results aren’t solely down to our D&I efforts, I believe unequivocally that they’re contributing factors to them. Our thinking has been diversified, so we make better decisions. Employees can now focus on our growth because they’re not always fighting for fairness. It’s a more harmonious and interesting place to work. I could go on here but I’m already over the word limit for this piece.

Put simply, focusing on DE&I is the right thing to do. That should really be enough to get started. But for anyone thinking that it’s something for bigger companies to worry about, I hope our story helps you see things differently.

DE&I has nothing to do with company size. It’s simply a question of priorities. So, what are yours?