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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Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Marketing Sector

A mixture of hands from people of different colours, representing diversity and inclusion.
A variety of hands from multiple people of different skin colours.


Diversity and inclusion. It’s certainly a very important topic at the moment, and I hope it continues to stay so. In this post, I’ll go over some things I’ve learned from looking into this in-depth, over the last year or so.

Before I get into it, I want you to read the below, and before scrolling any further, consider what you think the answer could be:

Two boxers are in a boxing match. The fight is scheduled for 12 rounds, but ends after 6, after one boxer knocks out the other – and yet, no man throws a punch. (This ISN’T kickboxing by the way). How is this possible?

We’ll get back to that shortly. I’m here talking to you about diversity and inclusion – specifically about people of colour. Where gender is involved, as a man I am certainly not qualified to tell you about the experiences of women in this sector. My good friend Areej is though, and she is the founder of Women in Tech SEO. If you haven’t heard of them, I strongly recommend you check the site (once you’ve finished reading this of course!).

It’s important to note the differences between diversity and inclusion. They are not the same. The best way I have seen it described is as below:

The difference between diversity and inclusion is being invited to the party, and having a great time at the party.

Background and Ignorance

(I’ll put you out of your misery if you aren’t willing to scroll further and learn more about diversity and inclusion. The answer to the boxing question is this – they were female boxers – were you thinking of only male boxers?)

I think it’s important to frame what I speak about in relation to the industry specifically, by first talking about the concept of ignorance in a wider context. Here’s an example, a tweet from the University of Oxford in January 2020:

A tweet from the University of Oxford in January 2020, suggesting that more Black British Students than ever are choosing them.

Taking that at face value, and looking at the image of a young Black student, immediately, you’re led to believe that they are leading the charge in terms of diversity and inclusion right? If you disagree, read the first sentence of that tweet again, and if you STILL disagree, read the first four words and look at the image. People online rightly did some digging, and found out that this was misleading, causing the University to respond:

A clarification from the University of Oxford in relation to their earlier tweet.

So why exactly does this happen? There are numerous examples of this, I’ve given you only one here. I believe it’s down to ignorance. For me, although there are varying types of ignorance, I’m going to focus on what I believe the three core types below.

Invincible Ignorance

Invincible ignorance is a form of ignorance where you don’t know something, and you can’t possibly know it, so you absolve yourself of moral responsibility for it. Let me give you an example of this.

If we were having a debate about the shape of the earth, typically there are two main sides, right? Team flat-earth and team round-earth. If I said something like “Earth is flat, that is it – end of. There’s no need to continue the debate because no matter what you say, I’m standing firmly on this side, and I’m not prepared to discuss it.”

Vincible Ignorance

Vincible ignorance is a form of ignorance where you don’t know something, and you could possibly know it. Let me give you an example of this.

We could again be having a conversation and I might ask you what caused World War 1. That’s something that in this example, you don’t know – but it’s simple enough for you to go away and find out, right? Thanks Google.

Affected Ignorance

Affected ignorance is a form of ignorance where you don’t know something, you could know it, but you choose not to know and actively try and remain ignorant. Let me give you an example of this. “All lives matter.”

Now that I’ve shared that with you – think back to your own experiences in relation to diversity and inclusion in the marketing sector regardless of your skin colour, and let me know which ones you’ve experienced.

Industry Survey

Last year, I decided to poll the industry directly, and anonymously review how they felt about diversity and inclusion. Here is the make-up of respondents:

The profile of people who responded to my survey. 57% male, and 43% female.

The survey attracted a lot of responses, from a variety of people in terms of their background, gender, and length of time in the industry. Some of the answers I saw really shocked me as a person of colour. Let’s break down some of these key findings.

43% of people who responded do not believe their organisation has an inclusive culture.

That in itself, is terrible to read in my opinion. Do bear in mind, this survey ended before George Floyd was murdered, and the Black Lives Matter movement continued its rise globally, and helped to highlight the disproportionate treatment of Black people. I was expecting the result of that question to be bad – but not THAT bad.

Next, I asked is there a lack of diversity and inclusion within the industry – and no surprise, 91% felt that there was. As part of the survey, I gave respondents the opportunity to add free text about their feelings. An anonymous Indian male said:

“My organisation tries to demonstrate they have an inclusive culture through programs and initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion but when you look beyond the surface at the actual data, the number of BAME employees in senior positions, the numbers don’t necessarily stack up.”

I also asked if organisations that people worked for tried to address the diversity and inclusion gap between BAME and White staff.

Only 43% said yes.

48% said no.

9% were unsure.

More negatives than positives. We clearly have a long way to go when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

One of the few positives from this part of the survey is that an anonymous White female said:

“In my organisation we are making huge efforts to be inclusive and I am absolutely thrilled that this is well reflected not just only within the Marketing team but across the whole company.”

The next question is the one I was looking forward to seeing the results of most, although part of me didn’t want to. I specifically asked if people felt the colour of their skin played a part in their career progression.

62% believe that their identity/ethnic background has affected their career opportunities.

This was really difficult to read. If I broke this data down further from the results, there were some really startling numbers:

  • 50% of White females feel that their career progress has been better than they expected. Given that there is a lot of attention (and, rightly so) on the gender pay gap and the disparities in pay between men and women – this one definitely surprised me. One of these respondents said “being white in this industry has had a positive impact” – a clear recognition of privilege.
  • White males who’ve been in the industry for over 5 years feel that their career progress has been below their expectations.
  • Every Black person who responded stated that they were unhappy in their current job, and progress was below their expectations. When asked (separately) if they felt their identity had an effect on this, they all said yes.

I ended the survey by leaving an open text box simply asking what we, as an industry, can do to improve the levels of diversity and inclusion. Some of the comments I agreed with, and some I didn’t.

“We should encourage BAME who are interested in marketing when they are choosing what to study.”

That was put forward as a response. I completely disagreed with it when I read it. If you’re wondering why, my answer is simple. If as an industry, we are not addressing the huge diversity and inclusion issues by hiring and promoting the BAME/POC talent we have already – what incentives/aspirations do younger marketers of colour have to want to get into the industry?

“Larger agencies have more diversity – maybe it’s a size thing?”

Again, wholeheartedly disagree. As a person of colour, this is telling me that if I want to work in an agency that I feel addresses the diversity and inclusion issue well, I have to go and work for a big agency? What does this say about smaller agencies?

“More is done regarding the gender gap between white men and white women than any intersections with race. We should call out discrimination so that those who are afraid to speak out feel more comfortable.”

Fully on board with this. I couldn’t agree more. If you are a Black marketer who is female, there is a very high likelihood that you are drastically underpaid in comparison to a White female, and even further than a White male.


The sector clearly has a long way to go in order to improve itself in terms of diversity and inclusion.

In terms of recommendations for what can be done next, I simply cannot put it better than what I have seen from “600andrising”, some of which I have summarised below:

  • Go public, properly. Say you will achieve [x] by [x] date.
  • Measure, and release yearly diversity data, and create accountability.
  • Provide extensive bias training to HR and all senior management levels.
  • All leadership to be involved in diversity and inclusion initiatives, and tie their success to their bonuses.
  • Create a diversity and inclusion committee of Black and NBPOC employees to monitor progress.
  • Introduce wage equity plans, to ensure Black women, Black men, and people of colour are being paid fairly.

I can’t end this blog without mentioning SearchPilot, who’ve recently released a public analysis into this here. A giant step forward.

I truly believe the time for awareness has long gone. It’s now time to act.

This is a write up of part of a webinar I delivered with thanks to the great team over at Noisy Little Monkey. If you want to see the full webinar, check it out here.

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