‘Australian agencies are reinforcing an Anglo-Celtic image’: Jen Sharpe

The founder of comms agency Think HQ speaks on the dangers of having one dominant group in agencies, and the importance of weighing socio-economic backgrounds and language in hiring practices.

Jen Sharpe
Jen Sharpe

Last week, we published findings from a report from Australian comms agency Think HQ and Framework for Agency Inclusion and Representation (FAIR) that depicted poor practices of diversity among Australian agencies. The survey, which used 131 responses from the country’s comms industry, found that most respondents are aware of the cultural diversity of the Australian population, but do not see the urgency or importance of integrating it in their business operations enough to equate it with business success.

Jen Sharpe, founder and managing director of Think HQ, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that one of the things that surprised her about the findings was that some 97 per cent of respondents said that more needs to happen, yet fewer than half of the agencies actually had a diversity and inclusion policy. On top of that, only 26 per cent of respondents recommend targeting CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) audiences despite it being widely known information to anyone in media that 30 per cent of Australians are born overseas.

“I don't think it's something that the mainstream popular culture recognises or acknowledges anywhere near as much as it as it should,” said Sharpe, who was also one of Campaign’s Women to Watch this year. “It permeates down to every part of the advertising and communications sector. It's reinforcing a very Anglo-Celtic Australia, while statistically, the reality is moving further and further away from that.”

A 2020 report by not-for-profit group Media Diversity Australia found that 75% of on-air talent on news and current affairs television are Anglo-Celtic, while only 6% are either Indigenous or from a non-European background. Seven News, which only recorded 4.8% of news talent in its network who weren’t Anglo-Celtic or of a European background, recently wrongly identified an Aboriginal man as a suspect over the abduction of missing 4-year-old Cleo Smith.

But the situation is gradually improving as agencies and media networks realise that strong and genuine diversity can reap commercial benefits. However, it’s important to note that the study found that many second- and third-generation respondents do not necessarily want to be identified based on their ethnicity or ancestry. So while diversity and the business one gets from it is certainly good, tokenising particular individuals or groups of communities is also a worry.

“The way to avoid tokenism is ultimately to change your agency culture to create a safe environment so that everybody feels safe to bring their whole selves to work,” said Sharpe. “And that is reflected in retention rates and how people from all backgrounds can move through the organisation and into senior roles.”

For context, the study found that agency hires from other countries—outside of Europe—are still low. And agencies also struggle to address intersections in hiring practices too, thus creating communications bubbles and perhaps even limiting access and reach to a wider group of Australians. For instance, one respondent said: “If I think about my career today, it’s predominantly been in agencies with privileged white people, private school-educated, tertiary education."

Sharpe said that socio-economic diversity probably doesn't get spoken about enough when it comes to recruitment and inclusive practices.

“It is quite a significant divider, because you do tend to have more higher-educated, city-based professionals sitting within agencies than you do people from country areas or lower socio-economic backgrounds,” she said. The danger, of course, in having one ethnicity or one socio-economic background dominate an agency, is groupthink.

One reason why this issue permeated the industry was the normalisation of free internships at agencies many years ago. This meant that those who could afford to apply for free internships were also those who could afford to pay rent and carry their own expenses. However, Sharpe added that this practice is gradually being stamped out of the industry.

One intersection that is also often disregarded in Australia is language. Despite English being widely spoken in the country, 21 per cent of people in Australia speak a language other than English at home.

At Think HQ, it occurred to Sharpe that the agency didn't have the ability to actually speak to newly arrived Australians and First Nation Australians. So Sharpe made the decision in 2019 to acquire community engagement consultancy CultureVerse, which is now built into Think’s diversity arm. Part of its language offering is an in-house translations team. The agency also recruited a First Nations head of communications and engagement.

“The reason why we wanted to do that is to create beautiful in-language creative assets,” said Sharpe. “And you can only really do that if you work collaboratively between the translations team and our creative team. And working with a third-party translations agency was really tricky.”

To paint a picture of what diverse hiring and creative representation can bring, Sharpe’s said the reception from clients has been “massive” and her business doubled in the last financial year, by 107 per cent to be exact between June 2020 to June 2021.

Moving forward, Sharpe hopes that more agencies adopt a shift in mindset especially within senior management. While some leaders might hesitate to financially invest in the cause, Sharpe added that there are steps they can take without having to spend a cent.

For example, case-study selection among PR agencies is a great way to include better representation of a modern Australia because these selections end up getting profiled in mainstream media.

“What tends to happen is that the lack of diversity in agency case studies is perpetuated by the lack of diversity in agencies, because case studies are sourced from friends and family within agencies,” said Sharpe. “So if we're just pitching traditional Anglo-Celtic white families or individuals for case studies, that's who gets profiled in the media. And that's what people see when they read the media. There's no breaking the cycle.”

Sharpe added that a solution also lies in simply hiring outside of one’s ‘bubble’. Intentionally recruiting diverse candidates might require more fieldwork especially during this period of skills shortage (aka The Great Resignation) where diverse talent might be easier found outside of Australia.

She said: “Now is the time for agencies to think a bit more laterally about who they can bring into their team.”

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