How the Best Design Studios are Improving Diversity in the Creative Industries


Digital Arts

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Diversity in the creative industries was a major topic when recently we talked to a range of leading designers and creative directors from agencies across the UK and US about what this year's biggest issues are.

Many men and women recognised a need to improve gender, ethnic and socio-economic diversity within the creative industries. But instead of simply writing a how-to guide, which a quick Google search would help you out with, in this feature you’ll find out exactly what creative agencies are doing right now to improve diversity within their own staff, what’s working and what isn’t.

This isn’t to create disparagement or competition, but serves an encouragement and inspiration for the wider creative community. The only way to show improvement is to be honest.

I explore methods in the areas of recruitment, support and work culture that are being used right now by leading creative companies with a strong vision for diversity, and the impacts of these. By speaking to representatives from AKQA, Gentleman Scholar, Framestore, The Mill, ustwo, Special Projects, Adaptive Lab and Blue State Digital, this feature focuses on diversity among creative roles in advertising, UX, VFX and post-production, graphic design, digital service and digital product design - but the core principles can be applied to all creative professionals. It’s worth noting a range in size and years of experience – from Blue State Digital, which began in 2011 to AKQA, which has been around for 22 years – demonstrating that whatever your agency looks like, a difference can still be made. Digital Arts is based in the UK, and our terminology surrounding diversity reflects that. Here’s a glossary for those who may not be familiar with certain terms.

The need for diversity in the workplace is no new discussion, but despite heightened awareness the issue remains at hand. Looking at diversity in related industries, Silicon Valley giants spring to mind as design-led tech companies still struggle to improve less than ideal statistics. Susan J Fowler’s inflammatory blog post towards Uber is a recent public feud involving a tech company and gender equality. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign that began in 2016 is another example. We recognise that creating a completely diverse workplace is a long journey, and want to continue discussions with the onus on our creative community. Eight creative agencies in this feature offer insight and advice for those who may not yet have fostered their own diversity targets. 

Nicki Sprinz / ustwo business director

It may seem obvious, but it’s worth reiterating that a diverse range of perspectives brings a richer and fuller output of creativity. As VFX studio The Mill’s group head of learning and development Simon Devereaux says, we make our best work together – across disciplines, experience, backgrounds and geographies. Creative production company Gentleman Scholar New York’s executive producer Christina Roldan says it’s about constantly questioning the status quo. “Nothing new or good has ever come from thinking in a straight line,” she says.

Talent manager at digital consultant company Adaptive Lab Kayleigh Smart says there’s data proving men and women’s brains work differently, and that’s a good thing. “I think we shy away from speaking about the differences between sexes but it exists, and if you address it, it can bring a lot of value.” Co-founder of design studio Special Projects Clara Gaggero Westaway believes women can help bring simplicity and beauty to technology design where men can’t. Whichever angle you come from, diversity benefits a creative agency beyond moral duty. Nicki Sprinz, business director at digital product studio ustwo, says the very first step is to ensure most people in the company believe it.

“If you go into some other design agencies, they clearly aren’t concerned that their creative directors all look the same,” she says. “They don’t think that’s an issue. I think there has to be an appetite to change, there has to be an appetite to believe that that diversity actually produces better work.” 

The obvious and debatably most powerful way to facilitate change is through recruitment. “What I've really found as the critical factor, is that hiring managers are the ones who can make a difference,” says Blue State Digital’s chief operating officer Kate Swann. As the crux of immediate impact, it’s important for an agency’s recruitment team to fully back the goal of diversity and set clear targets. This can take place in many forms. 

“What we have asked the hiring managers to do is make sure that their final three or four candidates for a position include somebody from an underrepresented category,” says Kate. 

Blue State Digital introduced a standard set of interview questions to be used every time to track the hiring process and candidates so that “when you're interviewing somebody, there's that set of questions, and you put those answers into a database so that we can kind of look at an apples to apples comparison and make sure that unconscious bias is not playing into our hiring practises.” 

Another method is blind hiring – a process that removes identifying details from CVs so jobseekers slip past biases for at least the first stage. GapJumpers, which companies like The Guardian is using, is an online service that offers a form of blind hiring for technology and design talent specifically. Creating a diverse team also takes patience, so the vision must be strongly supported. “I won’t lie, it takes twice as much time to find a senior female creative as it does a senior male creative. What’s important is that we take the time to find those that are hard to find,” says AKQA group creative director Ginny Golden. 

AKQA group creative director Ginny Golden

All agencies we spoke to were proud of the number of women currently on their teams. Gentleman Scholar says women fill its executive producer and head of production roles. When Kate started at Blue State Digital its staff was made up of about 30 percent women, and at this point she says it’s at around 52 percent. Two women lead Framestore’s VR studio, and there are more women than men on the permanent teams at Adaptive Lab and Special Projects. AKQA and ustwo London’s top leadership teams are 50 percent women, with Nicki particularly encouraged over ustwo’s appointment of a female chairperson. Although this is a truly amazing testament to the positive work of these agencies, there’s still a common realisation for the need of more women in technology and creative roles at ground level.

“You still today in some agencies have a bunch of bolshie senior white men who have fantastic creative flair, who’s voices are also the loudest and who’s demands are still met. They win, others lose,” says Kayleigh. 

Framestore also wants to see more women creating work on the ground level, so its global head of recruitment Amy Smith sends her team to Girls in STEM. Girls in STEM encourages girls aged between 11 and 13 in the UK into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sectors. “We talk about careers in our industry. We take out our VR headsets or anything else we can take out that gives them a view of what it is we do, and we try and get them excited and get them to understand that there are all sorts of careers out there that don't involve standing in a lab in a white coat, which I think is what they have in their heads,” she says. 

Clara says women can often end up in furniture or fashion design, but there’s a need for beauty and empathy in digital design now more than ever. “Girls need to see the opportunity of bringing beauty, bringing harmony, bringing empathy into this profession, that probably for many years, has been seen as a very scientific and cold profession.”

Herself and Nicki believe improvement is still needed in areas of equal pay, women returning to work and female role models in the industry. “In my company, I try to give the same opportunities to men and women candidates for a position. I also have to make sure the time requirements could be flexible to accommodate them, not to discriminate,” says Clara.

Clara Gaggero Westaway / Co-founder at Special Pojects

For external support on this head to Ada’s List (co-founded by Nicki) - an e-mail based community for women who work in or around the internet. Project Include is another online resource for tech companies and start-ups aiming for diversity, and Ellen Pao’s She’s Geeky forum (following her discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins). It’s also worth reading Sheryl Sandberg’s novel Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. The Mill has an external partnership with Animated Women UK and similarly NextGen, which look to support women in gaming, VFX and animation.

Where we’re failing

Adaptive Lab’s Kayleigh says we need to continue to think about diversity outside of gender.

A 2015 report by the Creative Industries Federation shows UK creative industries are becoming more diverse each year, but are still failing to reflect the diversity of their locations despite data showing the most racially and ethnically diverse companies are more likely to have better than average financial returns. The federation says Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) workers should hold at least 17.8 percent of UK creative industry jobs, but in 2014 it sat at 11 percent. Although agencies were quick to announce the number of women in their teams, it became evident how much more difficult yet important ethnic diversity is to discuss. 

“I don't know if it's because it's not as widely spoken about, but in reality it just feels a little more uncomfortable to talk about,” says Kayleigh. In the UK, The Mill is working alongside We Are Stripes – an initiative that creates opportunities and support for BAME entry into the industry. As an American-based consulting company that works with a lot of non-profits focused on reproductive rights such as Equality Now and NAACP, Blue State Digital is working with Howard and Spelman universities which “are both geared towards African-American students,” says Kate. But she admits they “definitely have some word to do still in terms of ethnic diversity”. 

Socio-economic background is another huge barrier preventing diversity in the creative industries, but one that encouragingly so, agencies are striving to push past. It’s no secret that university fees and the living costs of cities where creative agencies are based are on the increase. Offering roles to recent graduates or only individuals within the city immediately cuts off creative potential from outlying areas and those who didn’t study. 

“There are whole swathes of people who just can't afford to go to university anymore. That doesn't necessarily mean they're not incredibly talented, incredibly creative and should have a place in our industry,” says Amy.

Amy Smith / Framestore global head of recruitment

Internships often won’t attract people from a low economic background who can’t afford to work unpaid. Methods to tackle this become more geographically specific. London-based Adaptive Lab is looking to hire from schools outside the “London bubble”, looking as far as Scotland, north of England and Ireland. The agency is in discussions over covering a junior’s living costs so people outside of London can intern over the summer. In the US, AKQA offers a 12-week apprenticeship programme that supports “individuals taking an unconventional path into the industry”. The Mill has partnered with external entities Prince’s Trust and Creative Skillset, which specifically help young people get into jobs, education and training. 

This is the first year Framestore rolled out an 18-month apprenticeship scheme aimed at 18-year-olds looking for an alternative to university. In the past Framestore found some university graduates weren’t “job ready”, and began questioning the authority of a university degree over creative talent. As part of the apprenticeship scheme, 80 percent of the apprentice’s time is learning on the job, 20 percent in formal education. It’s completely free, and they’re paid a salary for their work and Framestore pays for the education. The idea is for each person to be industry ready at the end of the scheme, if not a full-time employee for Framestore itself. The application process is open, with an onus on creativity over specific technical skills. 

The scheme is partly funded through the UK government’s Apprenticeship Levy, which rolls out on April 6. Set up to support quality training with employers at the centre, the levy will be charged at a rate of 0.5 percent of any employer who has an annual paybill of more than £3 million. Each employer will receive an allowance of £15,000 to offset against their levy payment. More information on the levy can be found here. But this scheme is only viable for agencies large enough to afford it. “A small employer…who wouldn't have a payroll of more than £3 million, they actually get 90 percent government funding for the training for their apprentice. Because they don't have to pay the levy part, they get it almost completely government funded,” says Amy. 

Although Framestore’s apprenticeship scheme is on the right track, it’s still subject to failure. “Interestingly in this first round of apprenticeship recruitment, of our five apprentices, four of them are white, British and middle class. We've learned that just because you have a programme that's potentially open to diversity doesn't necessarily mean you get a more diverse range of applicants,” says Amy. “We obviously need to think about where we're advertising, who we're talking to, and how we can reach out to colleges that might have a more diverse range of students.” 

Recruitment has the power to bring diversity to an agency, but it’s definitely not where the process ends, or the only department with a responsibility. Once a diverse range of applicants is recruited, workplace culture and environment plays a huge part in maintaining that diversity. “There were situations where we did hire people from a different background, and they struggled. I think that in an agency setting, it's fast-moving, a lot of things aren't written down, the work that we do changes all the time depending on the clients, and people who were not used to working in that environment could really struggle,” says Kate. 

National Inclusion Week 2016 at The Mill

She says extra effort needs to be made to ensure the individual is successful. This could be support in language, writing and grammar and social culture.

“We know now from failures, to be honest, that it's something we have to be more proactive about. So our HR team is working with the hiring managers, doing a more proactive review after 60 days, and sort of saying, ‘Hey, this person, do they need more training in a particular area?’” says Kate. “So, [compared with] somebody who really has worked in this environment who can get up to speed in six weeks, maybe it takes 12 weeks for somebody who's not worked in this kind of environment.” 

Alongside extra support is the effort involved to make sure everyone is included and everyone is on board with a diverse team. It’s not always a top down effect. “If you just bring a more diverse range of people into the business and you haven't talked to the business about what that means, then actually the group of people you've brought in does feel uncomfortable because they're very conscious of the fact that they’re different,” says Kate.

At AKQA Ginny says creating an inclusive environment is just as important as improving diversity. “If employees leave because they feel they don’t fit in, the diversity of your organisation will not improve.” Unconscious bias training - addressing the stereotypes, both negative and positive, that exist in our subconscious and affect our behaviour – is one way to bring awareness and understanding. Ustwo employees participated in the training last year, Blue State Digital has this year, and other agencies said they were open to the idea. Nicki says the training mostly encourages awareness. “Being aware that the way that you respond to someone might actually make them uncomfortable, being aware that diversity is about a whole host of things.” 

Other bottom-up methods include reverse mentoring (giving a senior executive perspective on what it’s like to start out in the company). This was mentioned by the people I spoke to but not launched in any of the agencies yet. Blue State Digital and ustwo have internal diversity panels, committees or individual roles in place, and hosting talks that feature a diverse range of speakers is another method - something Special Projects and Adaptive Lab feel passionate about. “Sharing stories in which women are co-founders or founders or directors is very powerful,” says Clara. On a more practical note, she mentions the physical environment of the workplace. “I think a homey feeling really helps everyone feel very at ease … the working times, having lunch together rather than pub drinks.”

National Inclusion Week 2016 at The Mill 

The Mill and AKQA hosted their own individual in-house events for International Women’s Day. Off the back of The Mill’s highly successful National Inclusion Week in-house supported speakers and workshops, the studio has reached out to other studios to create a wider reaching VFX Industry Week in September. “Using National Inclusion Week as a springboard, we have since re-established the Inclusion Network, built a group wide mentoring programme and changed our recruitment training and practises to include unconscious bias awareness,” says Mill Group head of talent Claire Anderson. 

Claire Anderson / Mill Group head of talent

But achieving diversity within a creative agency is not just about recruitment managers and hosting events. It’s about applicants, hiring managers, role models and all staff working together for the common goal.

“Our diversity strategy is designed to come from the ground up just as much as the top down. We have management working closely with our recruitment team to get a more diverse pool of candidates, but we also encourage our younger minority team members to join the creative and technology communities outside the agency,” says Ginny.

The onus is on supporting the applicants, believing they have a chance and have not been overlooked. An agency cannot bring diversity without the choice of diverse candidates. Amy says it’s also about the role models put forward as speakers, in the press and the external faces of an agency.

Most importantly, it’s about creating a team with a desire to bring diversity into the creative community. It’s about admitting biases and addressing them, and having conversations despite sometimes feeling uncomfortable. 

“Don’t waste your time looking for a sliver bullet. It’s a journey. You must keep track of the breakdown of your workforce and continue to revisit it - making the topic of diversity a measurement in your overall business performance,” says Ginny. And the conversation must be continued publicly. 

It’s about encouraging and learning from each other. As Claire says, “diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be an isolated discussion with those already signed up, it should feed into every conversation and permeate out across our business. Diversity and inclusion should be a consideration that underpins every decision.”

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