Levelling up the race in the marketing industry

There are lessons from track and field on how to attract and retain diverse talent, argues the CEO of School of Marketing

By Ritchie Mehta

When I was young lad I had a passion for the 100 metre sprint. Track and field was just so exhilarating, and I always looked forward to each sports day with a sense of anticipation and excitement. It was the one annual opportunity to run neck-in-neck with my fellow athletes in the hope of being crowned the winner.

On reflection, what made it so special was that all the participants knew the rules of the game; cross the line first and may the fastest person win. Everyone lined up at the same place, everyone heard the referee call “on your marks, set…go!” and with every ounce of adrenaline we all bolted within a millisecond of each other. And as the crowds cheered, we could see our opponents in the periphery as we took stride after stride to outpace one another till the very end.

Ah, just thinking about it takes me back to the sounds, the smells, the feeling. The sense of sheer pride and camaraderie on those days is really nothing like I have experienced since.

I’ve left the track a long time ago, and now am committed to running a different type of race, which is to champion the marketing industry to the next generation. However, unlike on the field where the rules were plain to see and raw talent the key determinant, I find the race I am running today far more complex.

You see truth be told, across the industry today many of our next generation “athletes” compete from a position of advantage or disadvantage that is, I’m afraid to say, not of their own making. Some will be ushered to the starting line 20 metres ahead of the rest, while others may even be held back well after the starting siren has blared.

It’s “real life” and I get the hard realities of it. I also get that this happens and that most of us will simply choose to console ourselves with proverbs that give us some philosophical consolation.

But not me. And I would urge, not you either.

Today, in the marketing industry, I see how different start points impact the end of the race. The statistics speak for themselves, where we see pay discrepancies and glass ceilings for some groups over others. For example, Marketing Week’s Career and Salary survey 2022, reveals that people from ethnic minorities earn less than their white peers at every level of seniority. Most startling is the fact that there is a 43 per cent pay gap between these groups at the beginning of their career, shining a dim light on the saying, ‘start as you mean to go on’.

Reports from other industry bodies are similar. According to the Advertising Association’s All In report, the odds are in your favour of reaching the C-suite if you come from a private school over a state one. The list and discrepancies go on.

It begs the question; how exactly are we supposed to attract and retain the best diverse athletes to want to compete in our industry? The simple answer, is we do not have a leg to stand on.

Yet the stakes couldn’t be higher. If we don’t attract these individuals how can we, as an industry, say we are running our best race? To generate the creativity, innovation and empathy we need to continue to thrive, let alone the moral imperative to just be better. It’s therefore our collective responsibility and in our own best interest to ‘be the change we want to see’.

But I do appreciate this can be daunting and often it’s challenging to know where to begin. So here is a starter for ten to get us all off the blocks.

Taking inspiration from my running days, the best place to change is well, at the beginning. Interestingly, in the 100 metre dash, the first 20 metres is the most crucial to the outcome of any race. It is also the most technically challenging part. Pushing out of the blocks, staying low and achieving maximum velocity before the 30 metre mark, is where most athletes spend the majority of their time mastering their craft. And we should too.

The first thing we need to do is make our industry more open, attractive and discoverable. We need to spark an intrigue so young people from all backgrounds feel inspired enough to want to learn more. Marketing Week’s survey reported the Southern nature and epicentre of our industry, however, let’s not let this restrict us from going far and wide to reach the next generation. In fact, research from the School of Marketing shows that young people struggle to even understand what our industry does.

So we each can play a part in this, to help educate and inspire more young people to want to join our vibrant community. A key way to achieve this is to demonstrate how their skills and passions are a good fit here.

Secondly, we do need to look beyond the traditional ways to finding new talent. In the same way, early stage national athletic scouts are not looking for runners with the most polished technique, rather a raw talent combined with a persistent and resistant mindset.

All too often, our industry opts to seek individuals with a narrowly defined set of skills and accolades. Whilst, we fail to look beyond and consider an individual’s context and background before making a swipe left or right style judgement. We need to move beyond this, and seek out talent from a wider pool and then be more open minded about the criteria and way we assess the right fit.

Not everyone will have the right names, addresses or qualifications on their CV, but if they can demonstrate why they are before you in other ways, I say it's worth considering them.

Thirdly, athletic coaches go beyond simply training an individual. They actually ‘sponsor’ and ‘invest’ in them. They stick their neck out and risk their own personal reputation in the pursuit of giving someone else a chance. It takes bravery with little or no guarantees. They are willing to take the 1 in 500,000 chance of their ‘bet’ paying off (that’s the chances of an athlete making it to an Olympic team). It’s a mentality that I would argue, we need to adopt more broadly.

Importantly, it goes beyond mentoring and into a place where we become more personally invested in their journey. So take that coffee, open that door, offer that placement, be the advocate they need and place your bets – it’s just not good enough to be a spectator.

Finally, to make it to the highest levels of sport, an athlete must be nurtured with the right tools, environment and knowledge. It’s not an overnight journey and takes years of dedication to achieve. In fact, this is where we as an industry often fall down. We fail to retain diverse talent so they can go the distance and this is an area we need to do much better at. When was the last time you say down with your teams about asked how you can make the work environment more suited to their needs?

We must create the right environment and give them the right opportunities to succeed. My belief is that, we as a marketing industry have an opportunity to do this through the Apprenticeship Levy, where any business (big or small) can take advantage of this funding pot to give young people a chance to earn with you, learn leading skills and be debt free. Here is a guide to help you. However, presently Marketing Week reported that over 58 per cent of marketing departments do not have an apprentice, a shockingly poor statistic by any count.

We need to do better, we must do better and I believe by taking responsibility coupled with the right actions, we can do better to change the beginning of young peoples' careers. Get this right and the rest will look after itself.

Ritchie Mehta is the CEO of School of Marketing, published author of The New Marketing Playbook and podcaster of The Places We’ll Go Show


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