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Building the Foundations for Better Ads: Insights from “Beyond the Tick Box”

April 2024

The advertising industry took a meaningful step towards gender equality in ads at the recent panel discussion “Beyond the Tick Box”. Bringing together voices from across the industry, the event explored key ideas and offered insights into creating more inclusive and authentic portrayals in advertisements.

Here are key takeaways from the discussion: 


Fostering diverse leadership and safe spaces 

Nomfundo highlighted the significant barriers hindering gender-equal portrayals in ads. One issue was the lack of diversity in the industry, but especially in creative leadership positions. She emphasised “you can’t be what you can’t see” but more importantly for adland, “you can’t make what you can’t see”. So how do you make adland more diverse? Linh delved into the importance of creating environments where individuals feel safe to offer diverse perspectives, particularly from younger or more junior team members.  

Key strategies included leaders actively supporting gender equality initiatives, implementing mentoring programs, and demonstrating your values by championing a culture where mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth. Ant emphasised that mistakes are nothing to be afraid of. He encourages a re-evaluation of the ‘traditional’ model of building workplace culture, instead focusing on building the culture from the outset, at the hiring process. Ultimately, employers won’t always get things right. “It’s ok to make mistakes but learn from them… have a culture where people can speak up,” Ant said. 


Telling diverse stories, authentically 

Diverse teams are essential to creating diverse stories. What happens when you tell a story about a group of people, but they’re not represented in your team or involved in the creative process? For Jess, it’s essential that diverse groups have their stories told authentically. She spoke about a project for a trans brand where she identified the need for lived experience on the team, rather than making assumptions about the trans community. The Open Arms reached out to a trans production team to bring the project to life, which not only created a safe environment for the cast and client, but the end result was truly authentic. 


Staying open and speaking up 

The panel discussed the relationship with clients and the necessity of staying open and continually advocating for diverse perspectives in advertising. “Clients don’t want to be seen as ticking the box,” Linh said, but often fall back on stereotypes as the ‘safe’ option. The panel spoke about how agencies that truly commit to creating gender equal, diverse work should curate its client list. Engaging with clients who are open and curious about challenging stereotypes and recognising those who aren’t open or willing to change. In the gender equality sector, this is called the ‘moveable middle’. 

The panel emphasised the importance of taking the ‘moveable middle’ on a journey towards gender equality. One suggestion was showing clients examples of gender equal and progressive ads so they can the impact of challenging stereotypes and slowly shift their idea of ‘safe’. If you’re interested in a database of progressive ads (and ads that could do better), shEqual compiles a Round Up of ads every month applying a gender lens to ads that could help you shift client views.  


Strategising for diversity 

Nomfundo spoke about the issues with the shift from brand-based to performance-based advertising. This has meant less emphasis on research into audiences and a less nuanced understanding of diverse groups, leading to short-cuts, assumptions, and stereotyping. 

By recognising individuals beyond mere demographics and advocating for inclusivity, strategists play a pivotal role in shaping the end product and breaking away from traditional norms. “We need to stop for a second, they’re [people] not just numbers on a spreadsheet,” Nomfundo stressed. Her advice for strategists and anyone trying to look behind the numbers is: don’t assume. Lean on your colleagues with lived experience or seek out professionals outside of your agency to get a better picture of what life is like beyond the stats. 


“Beyond the Tick Box” served as a poignant reminder of the ongoing work needed to achieve gender equality in advertising. By fostering diverse leadership, creating inclusive environments, and prioritising authentic storytelling, the industry can move beyond superficial representations and truly resonate with audiences. As Ant aptly put it, “It doesn’t have to happen the first time, maybe on the fourth time, you will speak up – every step counts”. It’s through collective efforts and continuous learning that meaningful change can be realised. 


You can view all the event photos here.