Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. The meteoric rise of social media and our own unconscious biases have created an echo-chamber effect that intensifies, rather than discourages, cultural and personal divisions.
The bubble narrative has grown increasingly popular after last year’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. But a new survey examining the phenomenon doesn’t touch on partisan politics—it’s about the creative work performed by industries like media, communications and advertising.
A majority of creative professionals (54 percent) participating in a study conducted by global PR firm Ketchum and media brand Fast Company agreed that such an echo-chamber effect exists in their fields and that it can greatly impede creativity.
The most significant finding in the survey, which involved 500 members of the Fast Company community and precedes a June 21 Cannes Lions panel moderated by editor Robert Safian, may be that diversity of experience is seen as more influential than ethnic or gender diversity when building an effective creative team.
Experience is the key factor
“The biggest wake-up call that sets this study apart from lots of diversity conversations is that so many participants say diverse life experience makes the difference: how you grew up, your socioeconomic background, whether you traveled, etc.,” said Ketchum partner, chief strategy and creativity officer Karen Strauss.
A whopping 87 percent of participants said “personal experience” is a formative factor in their ability to develop creative ideas. Work experience (70 percent) and personal experience (61 percent) were deemed to have the greatest effect on the judgment and selection of those ideas.
Despite the ad industry’s well-publicized efforts to achieve greater ethnic and gender diversity, respondents ranked those variables last when it comes to shaping creative product (25 percent for race and 26 percent for gender) and evaluating that work (11 percent and 15 percent, respectively).
This isn’t to say that gender and ethnic diversity are not important, that the ad industry has lived up to its own promises on those fronts, or that demographics don’t play a large role in shaping each individual’s personal experience. Simply that those who work in creative fields think hiring those with diverse backgrounds should be emphasized.
And gender blinders do exist. When asked which groups provide “braver” ideas, a majority of both men (61 percent) and women (65 percent) chose their own genders.
The echo chamber
Strauss said the echo-chamber effect stems from “deriving, testing and suggesting ideas only with like-minded thinkers.”
“We think we are bringing in a range of views,” she added, “but we tend to hire people with particular types of experience who are hired through networking and referral, instead of those who have virtually no experience in the [particular] field or come from a very different background.”
A majority of respondents across age groups, disciplines and backgrounds agreed that this sort of approach is common and that it is detrimental to creative work.
Nearly everyone involved in this study (95 percent) said interacting with others who challenge their beliefs and assumptions is a crucial part of any creative endeavor. And while 71 percent of respondents believe their organizations respect such diversity of thought, an overwhelming 85 percent said more needs to be done.
The message is clear: Agencies, media companies and marketing organizations draw too heavily from the same talent pools. But at least they’re aware of the problem.
“The survey respondents see that working alongside people just like themselves limits creative potential, and to get outside our bubbles, we have to build teams from varying socioeconomic, educational and geographic backgrounds,” Safian said.
Marketers failing to work with target audiences
The tendency to work only with those who think like we do also applies to market research.
According to the survey, only 9 percent of creative professionals always work directly with members of their target audiences when developing campaigns or related projects. A near majority of respondents (48 percent) said they never do so, relying instead on third-party research for the ideas that eventually shape their creative work.
“We were shocked that only 9 percent tap the target audience when they test an idea,” Strauss said, adding, “If you bring them into the process, then eureka—you’ve already diversified it.”
The overwhelming influence of seniority in agencies and related organizations also diminishes creative work, according to the survey. While 73 percent of those who participated said younger employees tend to submit “braver” ideas, nearly as many said the responsibility for choosing which ideas will prevail overwhelmingly goes to those with 10 or more years of experience.
‘Less cronyism; less hiring of sameness’
Given the near consensus that creative businesses need to encourage a greater diversity of thinking, one big question follows: What’s the best way to do so?
“One of the biggest answers involves hiring from outside your network and outside your industry—not the usual writers and designers,” said Strauss. “Another is prioritizing people with diverse socioeconomic, family, religious, ethnic and gender backgrounds.”
As one survey participant put it, “Don’t hire for portfolio; hire for curiosity.” But it’s one thing to talk about diversity of experience and another thing entirely to hire a junior art director who has no training in the advertising field.
“You can’t hire only green talent,” Strauss acknowledged, adding that many of those polled suggested a move toward more blind hiring to facilitate “less cronyism [and] less hiring of sameness.”
“It’s a very quick fix,” Strauss said.
At the same time, multiple executives speaking on background have told Adweek that blind hiring can shrink an organization’s diversity totals by focusing more on the very factors the study downplays—where you went to school, where you interned, who mentored you, etc.
Ketchum itself addressed this challenge last year by creating a “gamified” internship opportunity called Launch Pad, a program that seeks to counteract unconscious bias by anonymizing submissions and allowing recruiters to pick candidates based on their “ability to solve fictional client challenges.”
Strauss said Launch Pad increased the ethnic diversity of Ketchum’s internship class by 17 percent over the previous year and that 25 percent of all successful applicants had no prior experience in communications or marketing.
Yet, Ketchum and companies like it still rely on standard executive searches to hire C-level talent. And diversity gaps related to race, gender, education and experience persist across creative industries despite the overwhelming call for change on all fronts.
On that point, Strauss believes the conversation should move away from the word “diversity,” which she said is too closely tied to demographics.
“Most organizations are visually striving to increase gender and ethnic diversity,” she said, “but that alone doesn’t eliminate the self-segregation that happens—or the groupthink.”
She called the entire process “a work in progress” and noted that while Ketchum does not have a specific blueprint, its research has identified some clear steps that need to be taken.
The most important idea to keep in mind?
“Seek out people who challenge your views,” Strauss said. Of course, as the study revealed, this is far more easily said than done.