Brands and broadcasters must seize the time to improve diversity

Brands and broadcasters must seize the time to improve diversity

Wednesday, 2nd September 2020
(credit: Channel 4)
(credit: Channel 4)
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

Maria St Louis puts forward a three-point plan to build genuinely diverse teams in the media sector

Covid-19 has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people in the UK to date, and almost shut down the TV airtime advertising industry. Across April and May revenues dropped by more than 50%.

Most citizens were locked down in their homes with their children homeschooled – or not – for close to four months. The world seemed to have gone mad. Worldwide, the message was to wash your hands, wear a face mask, socially distance and pretty much hope for the best.

At the peak of the pandemic, on 25 May, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, who subjected him to unnecessary neck compression. Just like that, another black man had died as a result of police brutality.

This was something that we had seen happen many times before, but it had never happened during a pandemic, when the world was undistracted by the fast-paced material world we have grown accustomed to. That made a big difference to the consciousness of the global community.

Almost overnight, a second, much older pandemic took centre stage. Around the world, billions responded to it by agreeing that Black Lives Matter. People took to the streets to shout it out loud for all to hear. It seemed like it was impossible to disagree. This show of solidarity across the globe for black lives was something that I had never seen in my lifetime.

It was a great moment but, for me, it also highlighted the idea that black lives didn’t matter before and, quite possibly, might not matter again in the future, when things returned to “normal”. This is something that simply cannot be allowed to happen, so it will need bold commitment from broadcasters and brands alike, as they have a huge part to play in shaping the post-pandemic world that we are slowly and cautiously emerging into.

Maria St Louis

The pre-pandemic world was bustling to the brim and not for the faint of heart. Keeping up with the pace could often feel like running on a never-­ending treadmill, while sinking in a swamp, clutching a very tasty, yet overpriced, flat white.

Then, suddenly, the world had been turned on its head, but the economy was pretty much freefalling towards the floor and nobody could stop it – and racism was still rife.

Now, as more of the economy opens up, it is still a scary time: job security is fragile and a recession is looming. However, out of tragedy can come great triumph. These changed circumstances may drive much-needed change in broadcasting and advertising output. As a black woman who has worked in the broadcast advertising industry for 17 years I, for one, am ready for the change that has been spoken of for quite some time and which now needs to happen.

That said, we have seen lots of ­positive developments during these unprecedented times. Creativity has had to work to a new set of guidelines and some of the results have been engaging and inspiring.

Channel 4 took the great initiative of Clap For Our Carers at the end of an extended version of Channel 4 News. We worked with 39 advertisers to create a three-minute, 30-second commercial, all of it filmed on mobile phones. It featured key employees of various advertisers who were essential to keeping the country running and families fed during the pandemic.

With almost everyone at home in lockdown, this was a perfect example of how brands could create meaningful content and build on their values.

In our ever-changing world, the ­values of the brands that we consume are increasingly valuable, particularly for the younger generation who are the future.

In order to make this period in history a movement of change, rather than just a moment in time, there will have to be some clear commitments from broadcasters and brands alike. While there are a great many things that could be put in place almost immediately, I want to outline three bold, yet simple, steps that I believe could make all the difference.


1 - Practise inclusive leadership

Exclusion is a disease: it is a feeling that lets us know that we don’t belong. Therefore, inclusion is the remedy for many, if not all, corporate ills. Great leaders can change the status quo, inspire and empower all groups of people. It is their responsibility to act on this. It is not OK for people to be excluded based on their race.

If there is an ethnic pay gap in your organisation, or black and other ethnic minorities are under-represented throughout your organisation, it is up to you to change it.

Identify the top ethnic talent within your organisation, invest in them, empower them by creating career plans, provide upskilling and create opportunities.

2 - Make the shift from ‘them’ to ‘us’

Over the years, there has been a lot of talk about “unconscious bias” as a way of understanding what blocks progression for the black British workforce. Within the corporate world it has been widely accepted as the reason for so much injustice.

Five years ago, this may have been semi-acceptable, but it is high time that this came to an end and a shift made towards “conscious inclusion”. This mindset accepts accountability and invites the individual or organisation to look hard at themselves, asking questions and consciously challenging themselves to do better.

It is time we acknowledged that all human beings are one and accepted that there is no “them”, just “us”. We must actively strive for a fair and just future in which everyone can thrive and bring their best self to work.

3 - Update your supply chain

It is important that nepotism is challenged and not accepted as the norm; meritocracy should be embraced as right and just. There are several black-owned businesses that are doing great work, creating content and concepts, but they still struggle to get consistent work at a decent rate because gatekeepers block their path and stunt their growth.

The time has come for some space to be made for black-owned businesses to thrive like all others. Don’t be a gatekeeper – someone who holds power and consistently declines to work with new people, instead of choosing to give work opportunities to friends without competition. This type of behaviour is deliberate, conscious and biased.

Nobody saw 2020 coming, yet everyone has been impacted by it, for good or bad. I think it is fair to say that it’s a wake-up call. Broadcasters and advertisers alike have a part to play in shaping the post-pandemic world. They must decide what they want to stand for as we emerge from these crises.

Maria St Louis is agency sales manager at Channel 4 and Chair of the C4 Collective.

Channel 4 has launched the 2020 iteration of the Diversity in Advertising Award, focused on the representation of UK BAME culture in mainstream advertising, with the top brand winning a £1m airtime pot. Full criteria and entry process at