Kate Smith on why unconscious bias is bigger than one book

I have a lot of time for James Hurman.  He’s smart and well-intentioned, his new “Boy and the Lemon’ Kickstarter project is fantastic, he is no-one’s idea of a sexist.  And I think it’s great that a Kiwi is footing it on the world stage.

But, it is precisely for these reasons that his recent update of ‘The case for creativity’ that included not a single female perspective, is so troubling to me. 

If someone like James ‘never thought about it’, and none of the people involved with the Cannes Festival thought about it either, then the problem of unconscious bias runs deep indeed. The publication of the book is one thing, but the fact that it was given out to every delegate to the largest and most prestigious advertising festival in the world, sends a powerful message that women’s voices are still not being heard or valued in our industry. James positions himself as a global expert on creativity and innovation and yet this oversight shows a failure to understand or acknowledge the critical role that diversity of views, opinions and experiences plays in stimulating creativity.  

As a 30-year advertising veteran, who has held national and global roles, I felt that I had not only a right, but a duty to speak out, because if no-one speaks out, nothing changes. To his credit, James himself immediately acknowledged the issue, which is a big step on from the complacency that seems to be the default for so many in the New Zealand industry. 

To anyone who believes unconscious bias isn’t an issue here, I say, ‘open your eyes’. Start by looking at who runs our agencies, who leads our creative departments, who run the networks, who is at Cannes, who sits on industry panels, who is touted as ‘the future of the industry’ on magazine covers.  

Listen to what global marketing leaders like Jim Stengel (former GMO of P&G), Jonathan Mildenhall (Airbnb CMO) and Brad Jakeman (president of Pepsico’s Global Beverage Group) have to say on the subject. Here is Brad Jakeman talking to the ANA in 2015: “I am sick and tired as a client of sitting in agency meetings with a whole bunch of white straight males talking to me about how we are going to sell our brands that are bought 85 percent by women”.

Watch Shelley Cornell, Professor of Sociology at Stanford, talk about how gender stereotypes continue to effect women in the workplace and how to mitigate the effects of bias. She makes the point that bias is not the same as sexism, and that all of us, men and women, are prone to gender bias that affects how we view people’s performance and capabilities.

Read about the evidence from decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers about the impact of diversity on creativity and the bottom line.

Think not just about gender imbalance, but about the lack of ethnic diversity, the bias against older people in adland. Think about how well adland reflects the people we are supposed to be communicating with.  For the reality is, this is not just a matter of fairness, or political correctness, it’s about good business.  For all the talk of ‘creativity’ in our industry we appear to have little interest in creating the diversity that fosters it.  

We need to think about it.  And if pointing that out makes me a ‘whingeing old bag’, so be it. I am old, ugly and thick skinned enough to take it.  

  • Kate Smith started her career in London in the mid 80s working for agencies like Gold Greenlees Trott. For 10 years from 1995 was national planning director for Saatchi & Saatchi, based in Wellington and also sat on the Saatchi Global Planning Board. After this, she was planning partner at Shine for 8 years until 2014, and now runs her own brand consultancy.   

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