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Top ad exec Karen Blackett: Diversity and inclusion is a 'business imperative'

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

As a young girl growing up in the English city of Reading in the 1970s, Karen Blackett OBE often found herself drawn to the television in the corner of the living room.

The young Blackett enjoyed scrutinising the ad breaks as much as she loved watching the programmes themselves.

“[I tried] to come up with what I thought were better ideas for the advertising, thinking about the casting, thinking about what they were trying to say about the products, but...I didn’t know that was a career,” Blackett told Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show.

Now Blackett is one of the most prominent advertising executives in the world — and has been recognised as one of the most powerful black people in Britain. She serves as manager for WPP, the world’s largest advertising group, and UK chairwoman of MediaCom, the UK’s biggest media agency. In 2014, Blackett received an OBE in the Queen's birthday honours for services to media and communications.

WPP UK country manager Karen Blackett OBE. Photo: MediaCom

When Blackett first embarked on agency life in the early ‘90s, the industry was largely dominated by white, middle-class men and nepotism was rife. On one occasion early into her career, Blackett discovered her agency had even lost a pitch because the client didn’t want to work with a business director who was black and female.

Blackett’s parents had told her to “get comfortable being memorable” because she was going to stand out. As she ascended to the top rungs of the industry, Blackett has sought to make the ad industry a more diverse and inclusive place for people to work in.

“I was told [by my parents] to celebrate my difference because that allows you to have a unique viewpoint and I think that helps with creativity,” Blackett said. “I think that is a business imperative — it’s not just about just a nice thing to do, an altruistic thing to do — it’s actually about future-proofing your business.”

Watch the full Karen Blackett Global Change Agents interview for:

  • Why Blackett abandoned an idea to remove job titles at MediaCom

  • Blackett’s favourite ever pitch

  • Why a “work-life blend” is a better goal than work-life balance

  • Blackett on recent shifts at WPP

  • Why Blackett thinks about roles in “three to five year” plans

  • Blackett on the importance of “recognising your own privilege”

  • Blackett on how agencies can overcome short-termism from clients

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the stories of some of the most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.