Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Marketing Sector – Marketing Conferences

Azeem Digital Speaking at a Conference
Azeem speaking at MeasureFest, 2019.

I wasn’t quite finished in the last post. In this post, which is the final part of my look into cultural diversity into the sector – I’ll be tackling marketing conferences (pre pandemic). If you’ve arrived here and haven’t yet read part one, where I talk about the results of my anonymous survey into the marketing industry – you can catch up here, don’t forget to come back though!

One of the things I didn’t share (deliberately, of course) in my last post was that in the free text aspect of my survey I received some racial abuse. Now I won’t share what exactly was said, but it was upon reading that, that I knew I was on the right track with what I was doing. I knew I had to upset the apple cart slightly, way before the world once again had its eyes on diversity and inclusion as an issue again. I didn’t want that fact to take away from the meaning of the post, so I left it for this one.

The Burn That Started It All

I got into this part of my research by absolutely being absolutely James St. Patrick’ed by a small award event organiser. For those that don’t know, James St. Patrick is a fictional TV character also known as ‘Ghost’ in the hit TV show ‘Power‘. (Ghosted – get it?)

Here’s what happened. I was approached completely out of the blue by this person, who will remain nameless but it was their job to organise the event, as there wasn’t a pitching process. I was asked to join their judging panel for a small marketing awards event as they had “noticed my work” and were keen to have me on board. Of course I jumped at the chance, on the condition the date was suitable.

The message was read, and I heard nothing back. Fast forward a few weeks, and they then announce their lineup publicly, with said person very actively liking and sharing posts – and it was ENTIRELY WHITE. My overwhelming feeling that I had was “why isn’t there any colour in this lineup?”

I did two things. Firstly, I sent them a message and explained that having an entirely white lineup is not a clear representation of our industry, and it also sends a message to people of colour about their representation at events like this. Secondly, I shared a link to a report that was recently released (ahead of their announcement) highlighting the disparities between white and POC/BAME leadership at senior levels in UK businesses. I also recommended they sign up to the DICE charter – the message was again read but not acknowledged, but I did note that after that, the company had publicly committed to doing so.

Also, given the way they structured their URLs, I did some digging and saw that this had been going on for five years.

Anyway, back to the reason why you’re here.

Marketing Conferences

Now – marketing conferences – I spent a huge amount of time looking into them too. It used to really get me down seeing marketing conferences come up and having a completely white line-up, year after year. I don’t have any agenda against any conference either, I want to be clear about that. I’m just of the belief that this type of situation should be addressed, and marketers who are BAME / POC should really see themselves represented on stage more. I’ll also add that since lockdown, there has been some improvement, which you can read about later.

Speaking of clarity, before I go any further I just wanted to clarify some other things:

  • All of these marketing conferences that I will talk about in this post will remain anonymous.
  • I have not shared the names of these marketing conferences with anyone, and unless you have *a lot* of time on your hands, it will be difficult to work out.
  • All of these marketing conferences were researched in late 2019 and early 2020, before COVID-19 ruined everything and forced events to pivot online.
  • Most marketing conferences now have taken huge steps to address some of the issues I will outline below, but there are a few that haven’t – I hope this post reaches those organisers and they get the chance to make the right decision.

Let’s get into it. I wanted to look at conferences and their lineups to see how much they’d grown in terms of representation over the years. My observation is that the time has long gone to simply have one Black, or one POC speaker on your line-up. For reference, on every chart below where I have referenced “BAME” – it solely refers to a Black speaker – not one is Asian, or minority ethnic.

Conference 1 – Worldwide

This particular marketing conference had pitched itself as a worldwide conference. You can see from the image below, 21% representation (from Black people) globally. Great.

Marketing Conference 1 - Worldwide

Here’s the kicker. If I looked at purely those who were from the UK (12 speakers) – only 1 of them was BAME. I look at that and draw the conclusion that this particular event only felt that one Black male was qualified enough to share his thoughts on marketing in the entire UK. This is poor, and sends the wrong message out – globally.

I thought this might be isolated to one conference, so I started some digging, at both wider marketing conference level, and sector specific marketing conference level. Take a look at what I found.

Conference 2

Here’s what this lineup looked like over the last few years:

Marketing Conference 2

This one was infuriating for me to dig up. Let me explain why. You can see that between 2017-2019 (I’ll get to this year in a minute) the number of speakers has almost doubled – a great sign this marketing conference is growing. There is a but coming (there’s always a but), see below.

In 3 years, they only person of colour they had in their lineup was the same Black speaker from 2018 and 2019.

Before COVID came along, this conference had announced its lineup, and it was entirely white. I guess the only Black male they had before must have been busy this year. Hopefully, lockdown has changed a few things with this marketing conference.

Conference 3

Marketing Conference 3

The last one I’ll share. One (male) Black speaker in four years. If you are a female and identify as either BAME/POC and looking at these line-ups, I can only imagine how disheartening this must feel.

Let’s get into how I think the industry can start to address this issue.


The best resolution I can think of this issue was created by the team who set up the DICE Charter, linked above. They aren’t forcing anyone to comply, but in doing so, you’ll be recognising both the 2010 UK Equality Act and 9 Protected Characteristics. I’d strongly recommend you check them out.

Equally, it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t add the fact that since lockdown, and marketing conferences have gone virtual – huge strides have been made to give women, first time speakers, and underrepresented groups a chance to speak. I hope that if (when) we get in person events back that this continues.

I’ll add that recently, there has been a lot of debate about well-known marketing conferences having the same speakers back year after year because “they need to sell tickets, and first-timers need to do the smaller events first” – which is fair, but I wonder if it was possible to set up a separate track? I mention first-timers because they are often from underrepresented groups. Hear me out.

Set up a separate track at the same event, for first time and underrepresented speakers who aren’t household names, and charge slightly less for a ticket. That ticket would only grant you access to that track, and to hear the more household names, you pay the full ticket price. That way, you still get attendees to the event, and first time / underrepresented speakers get their exposure? Just a thought – again, I don’t know how possible that is with virtual events right now.

I’ll end with this – if you’ve been in the position where you’ve had a chance to make a change with these events, either by allowing more BAME/POC speakers on your list, or speaking to organisers to ask what the policy is, or any other way – what have you done?

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