‘We Are Avengers Assemble’ : Karen Blackett on bringing Diversity and Inclusion to life at WPP
Karen speaks with INvolve about being this year’s #1 EMpower Ethnic Minority Executive and how she’s bringing D&I to the fore at WPP.

This year’s #1 EMpower Ethnic Minority Executive, Karen Blackett, is one of the biggest change makers in the advertising industry, championing diversity in a sector where less than 5% of leaders are from BAME backgrounds. Now UK Country Manager, WPP, and Chairwoman, MediaCom, Karen speaks with Ryan Vincent at INvolve about being this year’s #1 EMpower Ethnic Minority Executive and how she’s bringing D&I to the fore at WPP.

Ryan Vincent: You’ve been on our EMpower role model lists since their inception, but when was it that you first recognised the importance of role models?

Karen Blackett: Really early on. I grew up in Reading which is sort of a mini Barbados as there are so many people from Barbados who ended up there when they left to find work and to build a life and a family. I saw my parents and their friends, and their work ethic was unbelievable because they realised the opportunity that they had been given. They worked incredibly hard and were incredibly resilient.

When I looked outside that immediate circle of family and friends, if I looked at TV or teachers at school, there was nobody that looked like them or that represented that culture in the wider world. So, from a really early age I recognised the need to have people around you that can walk the path before you and help you navigate your own path. We were living in a world we were a minority in and which was very different to us, so having people who could help me on that path was really important.

RV: This is a question I ask all of our role models, but would you say that being a role model is a responsibility or a choice?

KB: Sorry to be a cop out but I would say both. I think it’s a responsibility because when you get into a position of influence or seniority, how you perform and how you deliver will either widen the door or close the door for others. I think it’s also a choice you make to try and make it easier for other people, to have real conversations about what it’s like to be one of the few minorities in a senior role and how you make sure that you are always judged on what you do and not what you look like or where you’re from. I choose to change the picture for other people coming through.

RV: When you made that choice to be an active role model, would you say that you made any changes in your behaviour or the way that you communicated?

KB: My communication style is part of my personal brand. One thing I talk about a lot and I think makes me who I am is being able to be flexible with my natural communication style. I have a natural way of communicating and at MediaCom, where I used to be CEO and still Chair, we run something called ‘communications dynamics’ in which we recognise how important it is that people understand their own communication style, and recognise those which are different to their own. You then learn how to flex your own style so that you can land your point, land your idea, and that you can be heard and not just seen. Being able to recognise and adapt to the communications style of someone different to you is a core thing for me and something I’ve tried to distil in others.

RV: I’m just going to hone in on the ad world for a bit now – advertising is generally recognised as having a severe lack of diversity, both behind the scenes and in the output. What kind of impact do you think this has on culture more broadly?

KB: When it comes to advertising, I think what we do in our world and in our industry is connect consumers to brands and when you can reflect a consumer story in a brand story, that’s when you can truly help a client’s business grow. It becomes relevant and it resonates. If you are creating stories which don’t include your audience, they won’t listen. It’s integral that you have diversity of thought and to make sure that fields creativity, but it’s also important that this diversity is then reflected in the output. It has to be authentic and it has to be real based on genuine people insights from having diversity within your own organisation.

I think when you don’t have diversity, you have businesses that tend to be one dimensional, that will tell a story that doesn’t land. I think we have an enormous responsibility in the advertising industry because we essentially set the cultural norms. In whatever we create, what you see and hear and read, we reflect the cultural norm, and if you are creating content that doesn’t reflect the audience then you are not helping people feel like they belong.

RV: How are you ensuring that responsibility is respected at WPP?

KB: What I want is to make sure that we have the best talent working at our WPP operating companies, and that best talent means diverse talent. That means making sure we reflect the client’s consumers in the team that creates the ideas and in the output that we deliver.

Making sure that we don’t fish in the same pond in terms of where we get talent from is essential. Unfortunately, until very recently the advertising industry tended to really only recruit graduates, and only recruit graduates from a small number of universities – that really has to change based on how the world is changing. We have to be much more flexible in terms of where we get talent from.

RV: What kind of structural changes are you introducing to embody this flexibility?

KB: I think there’s a job to done about advertising ‘advertising‘ as a career and describing the range of different job opportunities and careers in the industry. We’re definitely going about doing that at WPP. A piece of this is about giving people an opportunity to get into the industry by making sure that we actually have apprenticeships and internships working to recruit from more diverse pools of talent and different cultural backgrounds.

A number of our operating companies run their own D&I programmes as well, and we are looking to take the very best from across all of them – picking them up and running them such that anybody at WPP can take part.

We have also signed up with EMpower and OUTstanding to give our senior management and our people teams support. I firmly believe that D&I is a full time job, it’s not just something you take care of once you’ve addressed all of your other business priorities. I’m all about borrowing expertise where we can to help us along this journey.

RV: You’ve mentioned previously that one of your strategic priorities as the UK country manager for WPP is to ensure all of your agencies are ‘joined up in a collaborative way.’ I’d like to know what role D&I will play in making sure that this integration really happens.

KB: When you have 124 operating brands, making sure that everybody understands the superhero skills of the other brands is really important. I’ve been talking to our UK CEO a lot about being an Avengers Assemble – probably because I’ve got an 8 year old boy who’s obsessed with Marvel. It’s a brilliant depiction of diversity because each of those Avengers has a unique superhero skill and they come together to work as one frictionless team.

They don’t always get on, Thor doesn’t always get on with Iron Man, but what they have is mutual respect. They absolutely celebrate difference and they absolutely know when to pass the relay baton because they know what the core skills and strengths are for each member of the team. That’s the analogy for working as an integrated team across WPP: we are Avengers Assemble.

We each have to run our own operating P&L, which means you have to excel and be brilliant independently, but then when you come together as one collective team, there is mutual respect, there is a clear distinction in terms of the role that everybody plays in that team and you celebrate differences rather than be frightened of them. You are stronger together than you are separately.

RV: You say you want to celebrate difference across the various agencies under WPP, but are there any common cultural threads that you would like to embed throughout WPP as a whole?

KB: Mutual respect absolutely has to be there. I think a focus on performance and accountability is really important as well. You’ve got to have people that are accountable and who take responsibility.

We also want to weave in an understanding about what creativity is. Creativity isn’t just about pitches and content, it’s creativity in everything; creativity in how we do data analytics and performance marketing as well as creativity in our output.

The final thread is that all of our people absolutely have to authentically champion diversity. If there are people who think it’s a tick box exercise, or it’s something that we have to do rather than something which is good to do, I think they’re working at the wrong place.

RV: When we talk about making genuine structural changes to advance diversity, we often point to a piece of research done by EMpower and the BBBA which found that attracting diverse talent isn’t always the issue, but rather retention and making sure diverse talent rises up the ranks as equally as other groups, not getting stuck in ‘the middle’. How are you addressing this?

KB: There’s a huge piece there about putting programmes in place, not just to attract people but to make sure that you keep them. Establishing internal mentoring and reverse mentoring is really important.

If you are in that middle, you can be mentored by someone that will invest in your career and invest in keeping you at WPP. For our senior management, it helps us ensure that they can walk in the shoes of someone from a minority background.

We are also looking to do a future leadership programme whereby we rotate future leaders across our different operating companies to make them aware of potential career opportunities within WPP.  Helping our people understand the breadth of opportunity and that a career at WPP doesn’t mean being stuck in one place is really important.

Another priority is making sure that we have more visible role models. The EMpower role model lists which you do, I want our WPP people all over it. I want them to inspire those people who, as you say, are squeezed in the middle to say; ‘actually, I can do it.’ The role models on these lists are so important – they not only personify hard work and creativity, but also diversity. I know the difference it made when I became the CEO of MediaCom in terms of the representation of ethnic minorities at the company: it went from 11 percent to 20 percent in five years. I think that’s in no small part because there was somebody at the top of the organisation who comes from a minority background. Being in my position with the intersectionality of my ethnicity, being a woman, and being a single mum, it allows people to think it’s possible, that they won’t be discriminated against.

RV: It’s incredible that you were able to track that kind of tangible change over time.

KB: That’s so critical – look at the data, really know your data. At MediaCom we are very good at tracking data concerning who the agency is and the make-up of the agency. We need to make that uniform across [WPP] to really get to know who our people are, everything from gender and ethnicity through to social mobility and disability. The more you know the numbers, the more you know your people and the more you’ll be able to have different levers to change where you need to change most.

RV: There’s no doubt that you’ve enacted some incredible change throughout your career but if you could go back 10 years, what one piece of advice would you give yourself?

KB: One thing? There’s a few actually! I would say find your cheerleaders and find your sponsors because no career path is clear sailing. There are always moments in your career that test you and that’s when you need those cheerleaders to pick you up and to propel you forward and sponsors to advocate on your behalf.

I would also stress the power and importance of networking. I think men tend to do this better than women, and I tend to think that when you’re from an ethnic background, we don’t do it enough either. Networking allows you to meet new people and to find out about opportunities. When your network is wide and varied, magic happens.

Finally, for me personally, I would say work abroad. Work outside the UK as soon as you can to really understand your craft and how different cultures and countries do it.

RV: Tying it all together, I’d like to end with another question I ask all of our role models: What have been the best ways for you to unlock your own authenticity, and what would you say to help others do so?

KB:  I am fortunate that I had parents who instilled a lot of self-belief and confidence in me. I’ve also had a life-coach for 15 years who helps me when I have a crisis of confidence and who really helps me to do things my way, on my own terms rather than forfeit to someone else. You also need to have cheerleaders as well as those more formal relationships who help you do that because they know the real you.

Having a sponsor in most of the senior roles I’ve had has been very helpful. This was always somebody that knew what I am capable of and was able to be my advocate in the rooms or networks I wasn’t able to penetrate yet. They knew my work, they knew what I could do and they knew me. Because of that, there was never any fear of needing to change or morph into something else to get into those networks and get into those rooms. However, in order for that to happen, you have to be really, really clear on what your own personal brand is to make sure you are truly being authentic. A brilliant management thinker, Peter Drucker, talked about everybody needing a personal statement. If you have a defined personal statement and brand you won’t need to wait for your HR team or people team to tell you what your next role should be. You’ll get to tell them what it should be. Once you’ve figured out your personal brand, you talk about it. You talk about what you’re capable of.

The EMpower Ethnic Minority Role Model Lists are published annually in partnership with the Financial Times, showcasing ethic minority talent and champions of diversity and inclusion in business. You can find this year’s lists here.

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