Nearly three years while working at a big ad agency, Ollie Olanipekun, who is black, often found himself being wheeled out as the “cultural guy” for clients.

“I was sick of being that person because of the way I looked,” said Olanipekun. “It felt like a gimmick they rolled out. Every time we had a brief about youth culture, the creative director would ask, ‘Is Ollie free?’ as if I was the only person in an agency of 160 people who had a view.”

Things got worse for Olanipekun when the same creative director would ask him to “say hello” to clients whenever they were in the office so that the agency appeared more diverse than it actually was.

Fed up, Olanipekun left to set up his own agency Superimpose.

For agency professionals like Olanipekun, racial microaggressions have become a staple of their working lives and in many instances have become a source of stress that’s pushed some to the periphery of the industry or out of it entirely. While overt examples may have declined, employees report it’s likelier to be issues like being the defacto “diversity voice” in the room just because they’re minorities.

How racial stereotypes still impact young ad execs
Life as a young minority executive is tough, according to the nine who were interviewed for this article, and in many ways demoralizing and depressing. What their stories show is that in advertising, as in other industries, people from ethnically diverse backgrounds who aspire to carve out a career for themselves face far more racial discrimination, both conscious and unconscious, than they thought would be the case by now.

“I wanted to work at an ad agency since I was at college, and when I finally got a job at one of the biggest ones, I felt blessed,” said a former agency executive on condition of anonymity for fear of harming future career prospects. “No one tells you how easy it is to become the black poster girl in these businesses. I never felt like I could be my best self. My employer wanted to appear diverse but refused to put the hard yards in.”

Like Olanipekun, the executive pushed back against this abuse that was more furtive than blatant discrimination. And yet whenever she raised the issue with management, she felt pressure to fix it herself from HR executives. The executive left the agency after a year and hasn’t worked at another since. “If that’s what it was like at one of the larger, supposedly more forward-thinking creative shops, then it won’t be much better elsewhere,” she said. Looking back, the executive is convinced that being a black woman hurt her career prospects.

“I’ve seen the disappointment in an interviewer’s eye when I walk through the door and they see someone who isn’t what they expected,” said a black junior freelance creative.

That’s a hard pill to swallow when it means conforming to stereotypes to get ahead. As another agency exec revealed on condition of anonymity: “Someone decided I wasn’t confident enough and blamed it on the fact that ‘Indian girls aren’t allowed to be confident.’ One of my managers said I wouldn’t get any further in my career unless I re-educated myself in this area.”

“I’m not going to quit my choice of career because some people haven’t learned how to handle difficult diversity problems yet,” said the executive. She has, however, moved to a larger agency in the hope of teaming up with similar ethnicities to educate and change the system around them. “I’ve only worked in small boutique agencies, so I guess they aren’t held to quotas or anything,” said the executive.

When it comes to diversity, the industry isn’t as far along as it thinks 
While things aren’t quite as bad as they once were, it’s a fact that the progress made has been largely concentrated at entry level. “If you come to the media agency I work at and see all the black and brown execs here, you’d think it was a great reflection of diversity and inclusivity,” said a mid-level executive at one of the network groups who was not authorized to speak to Digiday. “But when you get to a certain level, everyone is white. How is that possible?”

Advertising does not have a heritage of diversity and shifting workplace culture is the hardest thing to do because shortcuts just don’t work.

According to Digiday Research, 39 percent of agency professionals have experienced discrimination, and a fifth of them say it’s been racial.

There is currently a lot of work being done to address imbalance for gender in leadership roles, but not so much to address imbalance for BAME individuals.

The numbers bear this out. People from BAME backgrounds (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) filled less than 2 in 10 (13.8 percent) of all agency jobs in 2018, up from 12.9 percent the previous year, according to trade body Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s study of its members in the U.K. The progress is even slower in the C-suite where just 5.5 percent of roles are filled by people from BAME backgrounds, up from 4.7 percent the previous year.

The problem is agency bosses hire “clones” who are usually Caucasian men and white women, said a senior executive from a BAME background at a network media agency. “Just because a bunch of white women are hired, that is not a positive check for diversity; it’s changing absolutely nothing,” said the executive.

There are, however, initiatives such as BAME2020, Culture Heroes and the Advertising Diversity Taskforce raising awareness of the issue by recruiting role models and mentors for BAME employees, while Creative Equals has data on what people from BAME backgrounds feel about how they are being treated.

“It’s frustrating when organizations place the responsibility on to HR teams — this is a senior leadership issue and needs to be driven top down,” said Leila Siddiqi, head of diversity at the IPA.

It’s equally “annoying” when BAME minorities are all put into the same box even though they are radically different, said Siddiqi. For Siddiqi, the concept of intersectionality is key here. “For example, we can’t talk about the problems of all women as if they are a singular group — black women face different challenges as white women or disabled women,” she said.

A culture of intolerance
Not everyone can afford to turn advertising’s discomfort with diversity into an opportunity for striking out on your own the way Olanipekun did. For agency employees, what ends up being rewarded is conformity, which is reflected in how people behave, dress and their mannerisms.

To some young minority executives conforming to the industry’s expectations is essential for survival. So much so that some of them “act white,” said the BAME exec at the network media agency. “Own the fact your accent might not be from a cut-glass public school environment, own the fact you may have been brought up on a council estate or that you were poor; just own it, don’t act like something you’re not.”

What diverse talent is being found isn’t being nurtured enough to progress through to the mid- to senior-level echelons of the industry. And on rare occasions, they do get there, BAME executives don’t always feel like they can use their position to help others.

“We had some senior execs that were [minorities,] but they did not seem to be bothered by the layers underneath,” said a former senior marketer now working in the fin-tech space. “I actually noticed some BAME employees favoring white staff and ignoring or limiting people of their own color. Diversity groups that were supposed to be a priority, ended up vanishing.”

But whereas previous generations have seen paths beyond agencies blocked, the current crop of talent can take their skills to startups and tech companies. It’s left some marketers concerned for a lost generation of talent they may not get to work with.

“Even if the numbers are improving around diversity in advertising, I don’t think inclusivity is being addressed as part of that,” said Tanya Joseph, a former agency executive who now heads up external communications at building society Nationwide. “If all we’re going to do is make people believe they need to think in the same way and behave in a certain manner because they work in advertising, then the benefits of diversity are completely lost.”

As much as it’s an HR issue, Nationwide’s Joseph believes marketers must drive the agenda as they’re the ones holding the purse strings. Diageo has started to insist that agencies share their strategies for creating more inclusive workplaces, for example. Marketers need to be much more “explicit” in the expectations they have of what a diverse and inclusive business looks like, said Joseph, who suggested devoting extra time during the pitch process to visit agencies to see their work culture up close. She is also working with advertiser trade body ISBA on a series of initiatives designed to help marketers tackle the same problems in their own teams.

“There aren’t many agencies where I feel you walk in and you think everyone gets to be their best self today,” said Joseph. “I get why some people get fed up and leave to set up their own startups, but I want us to help to create businesses where they don’t have to make that choice.”

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