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Close to one quarter of people in the advertising industry have been privately educated, more than three-times the national average, according to a new report from Grey London and MediaCom.

The study purports to be the biggest ever self-completion census of the advertising sector, with over 2,500 staff from 15 companies participating.

It found that “social mobility is a serious problem for the industry” with 22% of participants saying they were privately educated, a figure which rose significantly among senior leaders, where 31% went to a private school.

Despite the industry’s many initiatives to tackle the issue, the survey highlighted that social inclusion strategies simply “aren’t working” with employees under-24 also over-indexing on the national average.

Social mobility was just one of the problems that the report delved into. On ethnicity, it found signs that diversity initiatives were starting to cut through According to the results, 16% of employees at UK agencies were from black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, slightly higher than the national average of 13%.

Encouragingly, there are now more BAME employees aged under-24 but only 8% of industry leaders said they were BAME, suggesting action is needed to ensure future progression from entry level positions to the boardroom. 

It was also found that the industry is struggling to retain talent over the age of 45. Just 10% of the sample was over 45 and only a third of this group were women. Only 2% were over 55, by comparison 29% of the UK workforce is over the age of 50.

Diversity in relation to disability was highlighted as another area where the industry must improve. Only 8% of respondents believed the industry to be diverse in relation to disability. The survey found that 1% of the advertising workforce were registered as disabled, against a UK average of 7%. But, more than a third (38%) of employees who were registered disabled hadn't declared it to their employer.

Grey London chief marketing officer Sarah Jenkins the industry has a reputational problem that risks alienating existing staff and stopping new talent from coming to work for us.  “It’s our responsibility to look at what’s going on and force change,” she said.

WPP UK country manager Karren Blackett, a member of the Advertising Diversity Taskforce, which commissioned the report, added: “Our industry needs to evolve if we want to survive - and to play our fullest role in society. This report shows we have some way to go but I believe strongly in the power of advertising, and in our industry. Our future is in our own hands.” 

Based on the findings, the cross-industry body is calling for simple steps to be taken to help drive change. These recommendations for individuals and organisations include: 

  • Taking personal responsibility for nurturing and developing diverse talent 
  •  Signing-up for an annual diversity audit to understand your agency better 
  • Creating an office space that is as open and inclusive as possible   
  • Setting policies that drive change and joining the Advertising Diversity Taskforce 
  • Making public commitments to change