Changing Messages: Wavemaker COO Anna Hickey on encouraging diversity and inclusion in the media industry

media app wavemaker anna hickey

As COO of media agency Wavemaker and a champion for diversity, Anna Hickey has been passionate about creating change — both in the office and in the wider messages created by the advertising industry. We talked to her about the work she and her agency are doing to ensure diversity in its workforce and the positive effects it has on creativity, innovation and inclusion at all levels.

Why are you a passionate champion for diversity?

When I was made MD of my previous agency, one of my responsibilities was ‘people and culture’. And although it is a great agency with fantastic cultural initiatives and a happy bunch of people, when I observed our recruitment process, particularly for entry-level, I noticed we weren’t necessarily getting access to a diverse group of individuals.

I had a sense that we were recruiting from the same pool of talent every year, usually people with advertising degrees or from high-level universities. And in an agency focused on driving creative thinking and building creative solutions for clients, I felt that wasn’t a broad enough mix of people to generate enough ‘spark’ from one other.

Research shows that the more diverse a group of individuals in a team, the more likely that team will be to come up with really innovative ideas. If you have groups of people who are similar, they tend to believe that what each other says is probably true, and as such don’t poke at an answer enough to really build it into something interesting.

So I started developing a programme around diversity and inclusion, and the area within that that I was passionate about was social mobility. I hadn’t come from a background where people go to university, for example — and having done my own degree, I found it difficult to get any kind of marketing job because I was the only one interviewed who wasn’t from Oxbridge.

I also found that everyone else seemed to have an access point into the company; they knew somebody, their dad had a friend who worked there or they’d already managed to get work experience. So I felt like an outsider, and not like I had the right to be there or that I fitted in.

Having finally managed to get myself in to the industry and having worked my way up, I felt we ought to be doing more to enable a greater number of people from diverse backgrounds, and less obvious routes of entry, to make it into these organisations.

I do think there’s an issue with social mobility because it is a more invisible aspect of diversity, and yet there are brilliant examples all over the place of people who have come into our industry from different backgrounds and do incredibly well.


What are you doing to encourage diversity at Wavemaker?

We have introduced our own apprentice scheme; the first stage of which involves inviting 50 school leavers to spend a day in the agency with us.

We wanted to enable people who may never have been in an office or who wouldn’t necessarily know what a media agency does to see and feel what it’s like to be working in that environment and spend time with people working in different jobs within the agency.

It was a huge step-changing initiative because it sourced candidates from all walks of life, particularly within our local community. We worked with secondary schools in inner London to find people who just wouldn’t think about this kind of career — or assume it wasn’t the kind of job for them.

On the day, we also run group exercises and observe people — and at the end, we offer five people a 12-month apprenticeship. The first year we ran this programme, we had so many great candidates that we actually ended up offering six apprenticeships and three people permanent roles.


If you don’t have diversity within marketing and advertising, are the messages you put out going to reflect that?

Yes, and we’ve seen that raised particularly in the past 12-18 months, where this issue has become a much bigger talking point within the industry. It has hit a peak of PR and awareness, where suddenly we’re calling it out when we keep seeing campaigns on the TV or in media channels that just represent the same group of people.

If you’re creating campaigns around white, middle-class men then the ability to show genuine insight about people who are nothing to do with the lives of the white middle-class man is impossible.

In the past, if you saw a person of colour in campaigns it often felt tokenistic, whereas now I feel everyday campaigns are beginning to be more truly representative of diversity, which is fantastic. What you see in advertising — and any kind of content — should be representative of the society around you, not artificially skewed to one corner.

We’ve noticed more awareness among clients, too. And in the past couple of years when we’ve pitched for new business, we’ve found diversity and inclusion to be one of the specific questions we are asked to cover. It’s become a measure by which we are assessed and a critical business indicator.


Where would you still like to see change?

We’ve recently started doing a diversity census to give us a basic level of auditing on how we perform. And there are some areas where we are in line with the population and others that need work, such as in the female leadership area.

Like everyone else, we published our gender pay gap — and a bonus gap — and it is entirely down to the fact we have fewer women in leadership roles. The main driver of that is women dropping out of work or pulling back on their careers after having children.

At Wavemaker, we have excellent enhanced shared parental leave, so we’ve eliminated any innate bias, yet because society still expects the mum to be the primary carer there is still a tendency for her to be the one to take the main responsibilities.

We need to make sure we doing everything we can to enable women to stay in their roles and keep progressing as quickly as possible, whatever their circumstances. Because when we publish our gender pay gap next year, I’d like for there to be no gap at all.