Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

How McCann Health is Igniting Diversity and Inclusion

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
The health agency’s Ignite scheme is making progress – four participants who have now joined the agency full time talk to LBB’s Laura Swinton about their experience
Back in February 2020, McCann Health launched Ignite, a creative careers program, underpinned with the premise that ideas can come from anywhere, and so can creative talent. Kicking off with placements in New York and London – and later New Jersey – the scheme created a pathway into the industry. And a year and half later, the initial wave has seen the network hire four participants (Frances Barona, Lizzie Eastwood, Luis Santos, Cat Gollifer) full time.

According to McCann Health’s Global CCO, Matt Eastwood, the scheme was designed as a proactive effort to broaden accessibility and enrich the agency’s talent pool.

“It’s no secret that our industry struggles with diversity widely. And that’s a problem for ensuring the work we create for our clients is as inclusive, representative and creative as possible. The most creative and innovative ideas can come from truly anywhere and so can creative talent,” says Matt. “We wanted to take on an active role and help build a sustainable system of exposing talent to our industry and develop future generation of creatives to come.” 

In order to support the Igniters and ensure the scheme was truly inclusive, the agency collaborated with organisations like the School of Communication Arts 2.0, a UK advertising school with a mission to improve diversity in the ad industry, D&AD’s Shift Program, for aspiring creatives without a college degree or qualification and Creative Access, the first organisation in the UK dedicated to recruiting under-represented and BAME talent in the creative industries, as well as the 4As Foundation/ MAIP (Multicultural Advertising Intern Program). In order to make sure the participants were properly supported, team members from every agency discipline play a role supporting the Igniters, with regular catch ups and checks-ins, not only with creative mentors but with strategy, account management, production, studio and a range of departments across the agency.

For Frances and Cat, it was Creative Access that hooked them into the scheme. “I heard about it through Creative Access - a company dedicated to providing creative job opportunities to ethnic minorities in the UK,” says Frances. “I previously completed my undergraduate degree in medical anthropology and am currently completing a master’s in marketing - I thought the IGNITE programme would be the perfect opportunity to gain some skills from a company that specialises in both healthcare and advertising.”

Of course, the scheme had been conceived with a ‘normal’ agency-based environment in mind… however Covid-19 hit. Guy Swimer, ECD at McCann Health London says they pivoted fast.

“Like so many other aspects of agency life, we weren’t sure what Ignite would look like during lockdown - without the opportunity to be immersed in the day-to-day buzz of a busy agency. But, we got things back up and running before too long, and now the program is pretty much as normal, with the Igniters working on global and local briefs, being involved in pitches and off-scope ‘+One’ ideation. Sure, the experience of agency life is a little different- as it is for all of us! But the feedback we’ve had is that the program continues to be an exciting and fulfilling experience, and obviously in London we’ve just hired a creative team who met - virtually - on the program and have yet to meet the rest of the creative dept or agency in person!”
Oliver Trower, group creative director at McCann Health, continues: “Like for everyone in our industry that hadn’t worked fully remote before, it had its initial challenges but we quickly got to grips with it and found that only minor tweaks were needed to the program that started pre-lockdown. Making sure IGNITERs have easy access to their mentors has been important and we’ve seen real progress in their work from week one to their final week with us. One thing that we continue to work on is how to replicate the energy and excitement of an agency, but I feel we’ve had encouraging feedback from IGNITERs to date and we will keep pushing to improve.”

That virtual experience might have been, but from the Igniters’ point of view they were still able to absorb from the team. Moreover, working remotely meant that more structured meet up sessions were a necessity and the participants found that one on one time invaluable.

Lizzie Eastwood shares her experience. “Everyone at McCann Health has been so welcoming and helpful with getting the most out of the three months on the internship and they definitely don’t make you feel like an intern which is great. We were given four mentors at the beginning of the internship where we could chat about any concerns and pick their brains on their experiences and advice they may have. If you’re in an office setting, you can talk to people across your desk or on lunch, but when working from home you lose a lot of the socialising aspect, so the mentor catchups were a great way to get rid of this barrier.”

Luis says that he has been able to hone his skills. “Although we weren’t able to meet in person, it was great being able to hop on a call whenever we all had the time and work through ideas and presentations in a way that made us all stronger as artists.’

Healthcare and pharma is a growing niche in the advertising industry, and it has never felt more important than during a global pandemic. For the Igniters, that’s made the experience feel more vital.

“It was truly eye opening to be a part of the healthcare space while going through times like this,” says Luis. “I just remember feeling grateful to be able to take a peek into the other side of things that we normally don’t get to experience.”

Lizzie says that the chance to peer ‘behind the curtain’ on healthcare communication has been exciting. “There has certainly been a huge amount of healthcare communications in the past year that have been in the limelight more than they would have been if it wasn’t for the pandemic. It’s been great for getting healthcare advertising out there and expressing how important it is to impact people’s actions and lives, so it really does need to be done right. At McCann Health, it has been great to see and learn how you can get a brief in that doesn’t seem all that exciting and to be able to bring this to life shows how powerful advertising can be.”

Frances, too, shares this sentiment and also appreciates the chance to understand the mechanics of effective healthcare communication. “Throughout the pandemic, I think we can agree we have seen among the best and worst of healthcare communications. This past year has really highlighted the importance of such communications and the value they play in not only improving people lives but saving them. At McCann Health, it has been so interesting and insightful to see how potentially square adverts and briefs can be transformed creatively, to engage and inspire others. I think this really demonstrates the power that advertising can have. I feel so grateful and privileged to be in a position where I am able to make real impact in the lives of others.”

Despite the distance, the scheme also saw strong friendships form. Frances and Lizzie have even forged a creative team together. With Lizzie bringing her degree in advertising and Frances entering the field with a degree in health and human sciences, the pair found that they balance each other out and bring different strengths to the partnership. The two both describe finding their partnership as being a true highlight.

Creatively, the Igniters were able to get their teeth stuck into some juicy projects. For Lizzie, a non-scientist, the intellectual challenge of applying her artistic skills to a highly technical brief has been satisfying.

“We’ve been working on a brief which has been quite scientific, which at first can be difficult to get your head around as a creative person and not a science person. But it’s been interesting to bring science to life in a creative way and it’s been great to collaborate with scientific advisors to make sure it’s scientifically correct. It’s the perfect mix between art and science. To be able to pitch our ideas directly to the client and to have produced work that the client liked was an amazing feeling and I can’t wait to do more of this.”

Meanwhile, Cat has experienced something of a full circle, working on a brand refresh for Creative Access, the social enterprise through which she entered the intern scheme. There’s a special poignancy to that project. “I was lucky enough to be heavily involved in the design on this project because branding has always been a passion of mine and it felt great to be able to give something back to the company that got me to where I am today. They’re an amazing organisation whose mission is to help people from underrepresented backgrounds thrive in the creative industry so that one day, it will truly reflect our society. They’re an organisation that’s constantly growing, so felt they had outgrown their current branding. It was our job to make their visual identity match how vibrant and ground-breaking they truly are. They were really pleased with what we came up with and that was incredibly rewarding for me.”

Having experienced the advertising industry for a good year and a half, the participants have developed their own perspective on what the industry needs to tackle in order to be more accessible and inclusive.

“I think the industry needs to continue to open the gates and allow more Black and Latinx people in, and not only in the junior roles but also in the senior level positions,” says Luis. “I am also a huge fan of programs like Ignite that result in tangible knowledge and experience for Black and Latinx people. Being an Igniter enabled me to get to the role I am in now within McCann and I cannot be more grateful, I’d love to see that happen with more Black and Latinx people.”

Frances says she wants to see more schemes like Ignite – and an end to unpaid internships. “As a queer, working class, woman of colour, I am a minority within the advertising industry. I would love to see more people such as myself in positions of power, making creative decisions and leading teams. Great ideas can come from anywhere and driving efforts for more diversity and inclusion within advertising means that minority voices, ideas and experiences can be brought to the forefront to further empower others,” she says” 

“Well paid internship opportunities are a rarity, not only within advertising but across industries. I think that more needs to be done to make opportunities such as the Ignite programme the industry norm for new starters looking to get their foot in the door. Following Covid especially, more grads have been out of work than ever and are more willing to take on unpaid roles for experience. Not only is this free labour, but it also excludes low income and working-class grads and students that need to make money and cannot afford to take on months of unpaid work.”

The growing focus on positive social change within the industry could be a powerful tool in attracting a broader range of talent, suggests Cat. “I think the industry as a whole could benefit from treating creativity as a tool for creating positive change as opposed to a tool for making a profit. Much like McCann, there are many agencies out there who are in a great position to share their expertise with clients and organisations who need that boost. We have the luxury here to take on jobs that aren’t necessarily going to be the most lucrative but will still be creatively rewarding for us as an agency. On top of that, helping others when you are in a position of power is just the right thing to do – and it’s a mindset that I think will help the creative and advertising industry progress.”

For the organisers at McCann Health, the success of the scheme has been heartening and there are lots of lessons to learn as they move forward with Ignite. “We've learned there’s an amazing range of talent out there,” says Guy. “That ideas, creative relationships and careers can be kickstarted by discovering and integrating people from different backgrounds, and providing them the right support to succeed. That there’s a real hunger and enthusiasm within our agency network to support young, diverse creatives, and no shortage of people wanting to get involved and help. And we’ve learned that ideas really can come from anywhere, which is why our talent should too.”

Moreover, the success in the UK and USA means that the team hopes that Ignite could spread further. “That fantastic talent exists outside of the traditional field we would normally recruit from and the learning and growing throughout each intake has been mutual,” says Oliver. “Lastly, we hope that more of our McCann Health offices around the globe see the success and importance of the IGNITE program and adopt it.”

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