“The amount of nepotism in the advertising industry is insane… The CEO’s son, daughter, nephew, niece – almost every agency in Pakistan is headed by them; it is almost like a monarchy. Otherwise, it is extremely difficult to make it in this profession at a higher level”.
Those are the words of Yawar Iqbal, a former executive creative director for JWT Pakistan, in an interview he gave with Aurora Magazine in 2015.
Fast forward eight years, and we live in times where numerous DEI initiatives and a concerted effort to prioritise ‘equality of opportunity’ are seemingly everywhere. But sadly nepotism, cronyism, using connections to get jobs... whatever you call it, still appear to be as pervasive as ever.
“Nepo babies” make a mockery of meritocracy
Nepotism even became a viral trend recently when Gen Z took to social media last December to start outing what they termed “nepo babies” – ‘nepo’ short for nepotism, refers to the children of celebrities or the well-connected who get jobs or a ‘foot in the door’ thanks to mum and dad, friends, relatives or other connections, and in turn make a complete mockery of meritocracy.
It turns out there were so many “nepo babies” that the trend went viral and netizens had a hard time keeping up. TikTokers produced multipart series about nepo babies who had got a leg up in their careers thanks to little more than winning the birth lottery or coming from well-connected families. And New York Magazine even declared 2022 "the year of the nepo baby" and did a deep dive into the taxonomy of famous offspring.
this is the closest thing (and by closest i mean "one solitary scratch of the surface w/ the daintiest fingernail possible") https://t.co/rpWpn55jlN— Greg Otto (@gregotto) December 19, 2022
Gen Z were discovering for the first time that nepo babies were all over their screens, airwaves, glossy magazine pages, and other areas of their lives much before anybody else in their age group would get anywhere near such opportunities. Of course, every generation learns that meritocracy is a lie at some point, and show business is far from the only culprit, every industry is entrenched with nepotism, including advertising.
The nepo babies y’all should be worrying about are the ones working for legal firms,the ones working for banks,and the ones working in politics, If we’re talking about real world consequences and robbing people of opportunity. BUT that’s none of my business.— Lily A (@lilyallen) December 19, 2022
"Unfortunately, I think nepotism is still very common – getting a work placement via a friend or acquaintance has long been a way to get a foot in the door in this industry," says Jim Coleman, UK CEO & regional lead UK and North America, We Are Social.
To their credit, We Are Social is still one of the only agencies in the industry who has publicly committed to a stance on nepotism.
"Five years ago at We Are Social's UK office, we took the decision to stop offering work placements to our clients' children, as well as our friends and family," says Coleman. "But this systemic problem in our industry that leads to workplaces looking the same for generations isn't going to go away without a collective effort."
Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not
In a blog penned for Campaign India, veteran advertising executive Dr Sandeep Goyal, who has worked in leadership roles at Dentsu, Ogilvy, Lowe and Bates, spoke powerfully of his battle with nepotism in the early days of his career.
Writing about the way in which "a chosen few are favoured for all of the wrong reasons, to the exclusion of most others, and sometimes leading to the demise of an extra sensitive one," Goyal recalled in detail the time he worked for an elitist boss in his first agency job, where despite being a gold-medallist in English Literature and having an MBA from one of India’s best business schools, he was deemed too ‘vernacular’ to be assigned a multinational client.
Instead, Goyal had to observe "much lesser qualified ordinary graduates, or even lesser educated ones, who played bridge with the boss every evening in office, and fawned over him and laughed at his corny jokes, who got to service and flaunt clients with marquee brand names that looked great on any CV."
If you've encountered nepotism in the industry, or had a positive experience where it was addressed, send us your stories. We can attribute them to you or anonymise them in an upcoming industry Sounding Board where we tackle the issue.
Despite the initial setback, Goyal was good at his work and his talent proved itself over time as he went onto become the founder-chairman and former JV partner of Dentsu in India and Middle East, and today is the founder and current chairman of the Mogae Group. Yet, Goyal says in his blog that the scars of those early days in advertising, of being treated like a leper despite his talent and qualifications, have never really healed despite the passage of so many years.
"It was not just the discrimination, or the disdain, but the overwhelming feeling of being defeated by those much less worthy that would make me want to cry almost every other day," writes Goyal.
"Why did the elitist boss not like me? He was everything I was not. Big badge family name. Alumni of some famous school. An accent that would leave a Londoner gasping for breath. Friends (and cousins) in high places. He had no value for my education or my cerebral abilities. I just didn’t have the spit-and-polish he put a premium on. I was an outsider. And outside I would remain. Advertising, in those days, was the playground of those with lineage. And money. And class. And pedigree. And connections."
Is a recruitment system that enables nepotism a broken one?
Ritchie Mehta is CEO at the School of Marketing and works with everyone from up and coming marketers to industry leaders from around the world. He says that nepotism puts the brakes on a fair recruitment process and actually deprives an opportunity to someone who doesn’t have the same level of access.
"You’re going to the root of the recruitment system, which in many ways is broken," says Mehta. "We choose from narrow pools, we recruit in our own shadows, we seek safety in certificates from recognised institutions, and we even have recruitment processes that create an advantage for some over others. Nepotism is, of course a contributor to this broken system. So we need a wider system re-haul and look at each element."
Mehta believes we need to look more closely at the role of equity and equality within the system.
"Too often, we put people through a ‘one best way’ recruitment process, which itself creates bias based on previous experience, backgrounds and neurotypical thinking," says Mehta. "We should not be terribly surprised by what comes out the other side. We need to, therefore, fundamentally change the way we approach recruitment in this regard."
Nepotism not only legitimises incompetency, but celebrates it
Satish Pai is a research scholar at IIM Kozhikode, who previously worked at both WPP and IPG. Pai says that nepotism is simply the cost of doing business in India.
"It has become a norm that it's almost become accepted," says Pai. "Very few leading ad agencies are very strict about nepotism."
Pai adds that a terrible side-effect of nepotism is that we not only legitimise incompetency but actually celebrate it.
"Some heads/seniors at ad agencies use nepotism to build personal favour banks to help their community and contacts," says Pai. "Also, if it’s part of an agency’s culture then even someone who is 'known' to the agency – say the sibling of an employee who worked only for a year and quit, has a higher probability of being hired. And, more dangerously, a lot of terrible talent slip through the cracks and thus incompetency is thus legitimised."
Is the industry doing enough to tackle nepotism?
"Nepo babies" might have been a new trend on social media, but of course they are nothing new. Nepotism is endemic across all industries and there will no doubt be countless "nepo babies" for generations to come.
While wishing for the day we live in an actual meritocracy might be a little too ambitious, can anything be done to curtail the negative impacts of nepotism? And is there even enough collective will in industries like advertising to want to change the status quo?
Sraman Majumdar, senior vice president and executive creative director at Brave New World, believes that the industry already regulates nepotism and that you can only survive based on merit in the long run.
"I believe nepotism is largely regulated by the nature of our industry," says Majumdar. "Once a person is in the system, it's an immediate trial by fire. People who don’t live up to the standard are quickly spotted and no competitive business can justify a non-performer. If an organisation’s leadership chooses to do so anyway, it’s a self-destructive move."
Mehta at the School of Marketing says that while a lot of work has been done across the industry to improve things. He thinks we need to re-think the end-to-end process if we are going to really see radical change.
"Firstly, limit recruitment from the typical ‘milk-round’ places and spaces. Try to help re-distribute the opportunity more broadly.
Secondly, recognise that in doing so people may not either look, think or act in a way that you have seen in the past. It’s not for them to change, it’s for you to evolve your thinking.
Thirdly, do not put them through a rigid process in which they will be inherently disadvantaged; that would make no sense. So redefine how you would like them to demonstrate their aptitude, attitude and aspirations.
Fourthly, nurture them and make them feel like they can be themselves and achieve great things in the organisation. Learn from their experience and together create an even more fair and transparent system for others to follow."