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The ‘Covid moment’ offers transformation on a plate to the advertising industry

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Jarred Cinman is CEO of marketing agency VMLY&R South Africa.

The ad industry – and the marketing industry as a whole – has a less than stellar track record on the transformation front. A lot of focus has been on shareholding and ‘optics’. Shareholding is important but invariably enriches a handful of individuals and optics are entirely the wrong motivation. Looking like you care about having a diverse company is very far away from actually having one.

In some ways, the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated impact on the economy has placed issues of transformation on the backburner for many organisations. As usual, the people who end up carrying the greatest burden of this setback are the very people transformation programmes and laws are meant to help.

Women’s careers have been more severely impacted, and many of the worst impacted industries have more female workers. People of colour, who remain poorer within developed countries and fill many of the poorer countries in the world, are more vulnerable to job losses and have less access to medical care. The ability of rich countries to stockpile the Covid vaccine is as vivid an example of inequality as you could hope to find.

But perhaps the most pernicious impact of this pandemic on issues of diversity and transformation is that it is far easier to paint these matters as being of less importance. As with a world war or a huge natural disaster, when people and businesses are fighting for survival, who has time to think about complex, long-term and systemic issues? Equal pay: be glad you’re getting any pay! Unfair power distribution: we just need to get things done around here, snowflake.

The ad industry – and to a lesser extent the marketing industry as a whole – has a less than stellar track record on the transformation front. A lot of focus has been on shareholding and “optics”. Shareholding is important but invariably enriches a tiny handful of individuals and optics are entirely the wrong motivation. Looking like you care about having a diverse company is very far away from actually having one. Time and again when I speak to people of colour in the industry I hear stories about a veneer of change papering over the same iniquity.

And so this “Covid moment” is an important one. It can either take us years back in our efforts to change or it can be the opportunity for change many have been waiting for.

Fluid job market

This is a nice way of saying “a lot of people lost their jobs” last year. In some recent hiring we’ve done we have been amazed at how many superb candidates there are out there at the moment. For the first time in a very long while it feels like there is some real competition to find work and stay put – at least until the storm clouds pass. This is not only a boon for employers – which it is – but it is also a chance to reshape our staff complements without having to jump through impossible financial hoops or choose from a thimbleful of options.

It’s no secret that the pressure to change has created a windfall for certain senior individuals of colour in the industry. The legacy of apartheid combined with a lack of regard for this industry among many black parents has meant older, more experienced black talent has been fairly rare. This has allowed those people of colour who stuck it out in an industry that did everything to break them down to capitalise on that scarcity. There are some fantastically talented and expert leaders out there, make no mistake, but there are also a lot of people trading on the demographic dividend. That is an obvious consequence of making an arbitrary physical trait – like skin colour – a key part of your hiring criteria.

But things have shifted. As agencies have downscaled, so have many slightly younger people had to search for new roles. These are the next generation of black talent, comparatively plentiful, which means a more normal meritocratic dynamic has kicked in. Thanks to Covid this means the talent pipeline looks a lot closer to the make-up of the South African population. And that is a chance for companies to make meaningful change and for excellent people of colour to snatch up roles as things rebuild.

The new geography

While it’s true that quality of internet and computer equipment varies widely, and is linked to affordability, another major change that Covid has brought is to remove the daily commute from many employees’ lives. For the people cleaning and making coffee in agencies, this isn’t a win. But for anyone who lives far out of Sandton or Woodstock or De Waterkant, the ability to work from afar has been a dramatic game-changer.

It was not uncommon 12 months ago for employees from less fortunate backgrounds (often people of colour) to commute hours into and out of work. This also came with spiralling transport costs, an impact on family life and on psychological wellbeing.

It has proven to many managers and businesses that a talented copywriter or strategist or designer or coder can work from anywhere with an internet line. It has also enabled single mothers and women more generally to balance their parenting commitments and work in a whole new way.

Our industry has a chance to lock this in – and in doing so to become an attractive employer of a whole class of fabulous people not having to make insane compromises to work in it.

The remote working reboot

Following on from what I said above, remote working demands a different model of management, work and accountability. For some, the lack of oversight and communal workplaces isn’t working. But for many, this is the flexible, outputs-based, anti-office-politics world they may never have even dreamed possible. It feels like a fairer social contract – no one knows what car you drive, your clothes and appearance matter less, your ability to work the room limited. If the research is to be believed this working model is closer to what many young people want – freedom and a chance to prove themselves on their own terms.

Diversity, ultimately, goes beyond gender and race – although those two domains have needed the most urgent attention. But a workplace, in particular an office, is a petri dish in which discrimination flourishes. Whether it’s sexual orientation or introversion or physical appearance or disablement or age, we humans are gifted at othering. In theory, a less physical environment means that’s just harder to do.

A much more pronounced version of this is already in play in online gaming where avatars stand in for people of all ages and description and what matters is how you play, not who you are. Work can never be quite so egalitarian but this new style is an improvement.

There are two huge caveats to what I’m saying. First, none of this is to deny the facts I began with. Women, people of colour and poorer people have been hit hardest in this pandemic and for many their lives are not blossoming with opportunity. At best I am pointing to some ways in which we could leave this trauma with long-term improvements. Whether we will or not is uncertain.

And, indeed, the workplace may rebound into something much closer to pre-Covid than is popularly believed. Google, one of the first major employers to send people offsite, has reversed course recently and limited remote work to 14 days a year in the US. Hard as it is to believe, a year from now we may all be compelled for one reason or the other to be office-bound again.

I for one certainly hope not. We have a chance to hang on to some profound transformations if we want them; to look back on this as a moment of evolution rather than just loss. DM

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email letters@dailymaverick.co.za
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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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