As the industry wakes up to the challenges and opportunities of making content accessible, experts from Google, WPP, Cyber-Duck, ReMake and Wunderman Thompson consider the changes that need to be made, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves
If you want your advertising to be inclusive, it has to be accessible to everyone. And a crucial facet of DE&I is disability. “There has been a fundamental cultural shift in terms of disability representation in recent years. Intersectionality – recognising people have multiple axes of (dis)ability and privilege – is now far more widely understood,” says Yahye Siyad, diversity and accessibility lead at Cyber-Duck. “ As a result, disability is now increasingly recognised as an integral strand of diversity and inclusion, and not just something that sits outside business as usual.”
As someone with a visual disability himself, working for the UK-based digital transformation agency specialising in UX and web accessibility, Yahye recognises the audience complexities advertisers need to understand. “A disabled person might be old, young, Black, cis, straight or any combination of other things. And with that greater understanding, comes an increased awareness of the ‘Purple Pound’ – the spending power of disabled households. Disabled people – and their wider network of family, carers and friends – spend. A lot. They work, consume media and use technology. And businesses are increasingly realising they are losing out on a lot of money by ignoring what is almost one in five of the population.”
Appreciating this scale of the opportunity for making experiences accessible is why Cyber-Duck now employs over 90 people across Europe. It’s also something that giants of the internet are taking seriously now. “Accessibility and inclusion are core to Google's mission to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful in a range of different ways,” says Eileen Mannion, VP, UKI marketing and EMEA events and experiences at Google. And it follows that everything the tech brand does in its marketing is following this agenda.
“On the creative side, we’re focused on building authentic, inclusive and representative advertising,” she says. “Accessible marketing allows all users, regardless of ability, to fully access and engage with our content, products, and experiences.” To this end, Google conducts an annual audit of its consumer marketing creative, and has partnered with brands and industry leaders like Disability:IN and LaVant Consulting to produce ‘All In’, its inclusive marketing best practices toolkit, launched at Cannes Lions last year after becoming the first official accessibility partner in 2021.
As Google’s introduction to its All In guidelines puts it:
“Nearly 15% of the world’s population experiences some form of disability – yet historically, the portrayal of people with disabilities in marketing has rendered them all but invisible. ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ expresses the conviction that people with disabilities must always be included from the beginning of any planning process, and should never simply be an after-thought[...] Every disabled person has a right to experience the creative put out in the world.”
Largely, however, the advertising industry hasn’t taken much action when it comes to accessibility. I reached out to several associations and major agency groups for this piece, who admitted that they needed to make much more progress before entering this conversation. Yahye’s experience confirms this. “From a bystander’s perspective and as someone with a visual disability using a screen reader, it seems that production departments at ad agencies currently give little, if any, thought to accessibility,” he says. “The majority of ads now are heavy with music soundtracks and image oriented, rather than narrative. Pictures simply do not speak louder than words for me! There’s no audio description. And if there is someone speaking in ads, they’re often drowned out by the soundtrack. I just don’t know what’s being advertised, and I’m not even considering how rapid, multiple images potentially overwhelm neurodiverse people - those with epilepsy, for example.”
Josh Loebner recognises the dearth of progress so far within advertising. As global head of inclusive design at Wunderman Thompson, he’s seen how other areas of business are, like Google, setting the standard for advertising to live up to. “From a policy perspective, organisations, such as the Internet Advertising Bureau,broadcast television channels and associated governing bodies, should advocate for greater accessibility across advertising,” he says. “As an example, there are highly structured and agreed-upon parameters for all digital advertising, but accessibility is minimally, if at all, a part of those guidelines. TV networks structure longform programming, including news, sports and entertainment to include accessible formats, such as closed-captions or subtitles, but there is minimal governance for the adverts to maintain accessibility standards between programming.”
Accessibility of content is starting to work its way into the priorities of the largest advertising companies in the world though. “Our industry needs to consider accessibility in an inherent, holistic way – being empathetic to a human need, in the moment of need, making products, services, content and experiences as sensible, usable, meaningful and effective as possible,” says Michele Silvestri, global president at Makerhouse and global chief production officer at WPP for Ford. “That means being simultaneously empathetic to our clients’ shrinking budgets, and scaled content demands, and empathetic to the demands of our audiences’ time and attention. We also need to be empathetic to their individuality - ensuring they feel seen and heard - because representation matters, and we must be empathetic to our makers, who need to make more; better, faster, cheaper. We can’t keep making things the way we always have.”
While global holding company leadership considers the values it needs to apply to its practices, there are certain specialist areas of the ad industry that are leading the way towards best practice. Mike Cowler, who is chief technology officer at ReMake – a versioning platform that allows advertisers to make content changes with simplicity, speed and scale – sees accessibility as a central part of its offering. “Our approach is all about a clear and intuitive user interface and process that can be used by anyone who can use a computer,” he says. “We regularly measure it against WCAG [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines]. The whole ethos of ReMake is making complex video production tasks simple but effective, and web accessibility guidelines are a good alignment to our principles.”
Above: Guided Frame, the newest accessibility feature helping blind and low-vision users take better selfies on Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro.
But this isn’t a niche issue for companies with a particular specialism. The 15% figure bears repeating, and it’s clear that making advertising more accessible to those people is a prize worth chasing for marketers. Yahye isn’t convinced that’s enough to win the argument, however. “While the promise of the Purple Pound is a juicy carrot, realistically, without some sort of stick, there will never be true compliance across the board,” he says. “And when we consider that we’re not starting with a blank slate, it makes the challenge even bigger. Think of the London tube. Retrofitting 150-year-old stations for lifts and step-free access is difficult and expensive, compared to building new Elizabeth Line stations. The same is true for content, whether advertising platforms or websites. Most businesses simply won’t go back and redesign everything from scratch with accessibility in mind.
“We have to add in a stick. It might come from governments, like the EU European Accessibility Act that makes key goods and services accessible, including telecommunications, and which could feasibly extend to advertising content itself.”
Meera Rao, Cyber-Duck lead UX designer, notes changes in legislation that are having an impact on how serious accessibility is being taken, such as making accessibility and WCAG compliance mandatory in the UK public sector digital content offer. That’s “had a significant ripple effect,” she says. “Whether it’s dark mode, large text,captions, or a sign language translation, or just clarity of message and design, this has set a standard that users are increasingly coming to expect in all types of content and platforms they consume and use. Accessibility is now a must-do operational basic for large scale services, both public and private, via both a cultural and best practice effect.”
Motivation for change will likely also come from the big advertising platforms like Meta, Apple, TikTok and YouTube, says Yahye. See also how central Apple is making accessibility in its marketing, with its campaign for digital inclusion late in 2022. He notes the interest that Google has shown in content being more accessible. “It’s only a hop, skip and jump to think it might factor into YouTube and ad quality, for example. But either way, to see meaningful change, it has to be at that systemic level.”
For Josh at Wunderman Thompson, he has seen pressure to change coming from certain clients such as Microsoft in the form of accessibility requirements, and others requiring levels of accessibility depending on where they are on their accessibility journey. “Either way, we know that accessibility isn’t an extra step, but it must be baked throughout the process in order to have the necessary impact,” he adds.
If your company hasn’t taken steps towards considering the accessibility of its content, that’s not unusual. But there are already resources to set you off on that journey. Google’s ‘All In’ guidelines are part of the company’s belief in, as “the power of sharing what we know, so that our tools and resources can help tackle our biggest societal challenges,” says Eileen. “That’s why we continue to develop and share resources like All In, which features the insights and processes of what we’ve learned so far on our inclusive marketing journey, Web.dev, a resource to build accessible, fast, and secure websites that work cross-browser, and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.”
At Wunderman Thompson, Josh says the agency has an online learning platform which allows individuals and teams across production to have a variety of accessibility-related courses. These range from entry-level accessibility 101, to deeper information and insights geared toward specific aspects of accessibility, he says.
But if almost one in five people experience a disability, listening to these people is an obvious place to start. “It’s circular, to be able to create more content with greater accessibility you need the people who need better accessibility to be part of the process,” says Mike.
Elieen believes we’ll see meaningful changes when the policy and practices of the industry are guided by research and collaboration. Google is focusing on research and collaboration with the broader community, including expert organisations like the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK, cultivating relationships with users and advocacy groups to solicit feedback and putting funding into understanding communities.
Just last month, Google opened the doors to a dedicated accessibility R&D centre in its King’s Cross office in the UK, the first of its kind outside of the US, built in consultation with the Royal National Institute for Blind People, Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Everyone Can, and Google’s own Disability Alliance resource group. “The centre aims to bring to life the ways people with disabilities interact with technology, promoting greater empathy and understanding within the community and beyond,” says Eileen. “This, together with a commitment of £1 million to support people with disabilities across the UK and Europe with three philanthropic grants, are all steps we are taking with the aim of creating more understanding and inclusive environments at work, in the media and online for people with disabilities.”
The most organic way to fix advertising’s lack of accessibility is to make the workforce representative of people who its content is aimed at. “We have to ensure inclusion and diversity in our talent, both on screen, and behind the screen, to ensure we’re being real, and not performative, in the stories we tell, and how we tell them,” says Michele. And as Josh puts it, “accessibility also goes beyond the confines of a project mandate to also include accessibility for the people working on the project and that our teams that may be disabled can equitably have accommodations.”
While subtitles and audio description can be added and tools for various kinds of interaction can be retrofitted onto digital experiences, accessibility works best when it’s not an afterthought. Mike at ReMake stresses the importance of considering accessibility during the early stage of design. “Thereafter it gets easier rather than retrospectively redesigning your web app,” he says.
For Cyber-Duck, accessibility is factored in right from the beginning of any project. “Because trying to add on accessibility as an afterthought is both expensive and often ineffective,” says Meera. Her team talks about accessibility at pitch stage, even if the client hasn’t asked for it. “We work to understand where key stakeholders’ minds are on accessibility at kick-off workshops, where we can build in KPIs from WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) compliance and other country-specific guidelines to an organisation’s own accessibility and inclusion goals, whether that’s on content accessibility or design accessibility.”
Then you have to test your work to see if people really can access it. In the discovery phase, Cyber-Duck’s user research is inclusive of diverse user groups whether in terms of disability, age, literacy or more besides. They are constantly testing ideas, both with automated checks and with user groups. “As we go through the design and development process, the same applies, even down to whether the code itself is in plain English and accessible for others to read,” says Meera. “By doing this, we can deliver on technical compliance and ensure that whatever we design delights actual human beings. We do have practical checklists detailed for every single production stage, but they reflect our commitment to inclusive design, rather than driving it. Our checklists are the minimum we will do, we will always try to do more.”
At Wunderman Thompson, there’s been a recent focus on accessibility beyond just a project, building across touchpoints to ensure the consumer journey is entirely accessible. As an example, Josh mentions some work the agency’s been doing to build an accessibility roadmap so that the client’s website, digital presence in social media and digital ads, and any offline or retail experiences all convey and connect inclusive, equitable and accessible communications. “This necessitates production teams to consider both their role and output and how it builds accessibility to connect with other campaign elements,” Josh adds.
Greater accessibility isn’t just in line with the industry’s increased focus on DE&I best practice. It also goes hand in hand with the growth of personalisation and audience-first creation processes that companies like WPP are proponents of a shift from a focus on episodic, campaign-based production, to an always-on mindset. The company is considering how it’s maximising the moment of content capture or creation to stretch content use and reuse, across clients’ business units and markets, explains Michele. “We have to ensure a modular approach to foundational asset creation that provides quality building blocks for nimble, mass personalisation, audience-first creation and in-flight optimisation.
“In an era where addressable media is a digital gateway to greater audience connectivity, personalisation and accessibility are inextricably linked – allowing for more inclusive media functionality with relevant, moment-based content.”
ReMake is all about scaling content production too, but Mike notes that the often-forgotten versioning for accessibility is unfortunately still “low on the budget list”. ReMake helps make it affordable to be more inclusive and add extra versioning capacity for audio description, subtitling, and picture in picture signing simply and quickly. “The tools we develop in the platform are there to bring as much value to the customer as possible and the demand is growing for more content to reach as many people as possible and versioning briefs include more subtitling and audio description than ever. Also, with growing legislation around the world adding to the need.”
While the majority of the progress has yet to be made, for brands and the companies that create their advertising, accessibility is a great opportunity. Relevant content increases effectiveness and that’s why for tech giants like Google and advertising heavyweights like WPP, these issues are crucial. Michele sums up her perspective on it: “Thinking and behaving accessibly, will allow our industry to become the mechanism that delivers meaningful work with relevance and performance, adding enduring value to our audiences’ lives, and our clients’ bottom lines.”
But it won’t be fast and it won’t be easy. “Accessibility in itself is not an accessible thing,” says Meera. “In web design, for example, the WCAG guidelines themselves are almost legalese, and highly abstract - typically used by technical specialists. There’s also no sense of priority in terms of accessibility and all factors are effectively on the same level, when in practice, certain design factors have greater impact. For meaningful change to how all content is produced, accessibility needs to be embedded at grassroots level, put into every designer, every coder, every sound and light engineer, and creative director toolkit. It needs to be part of every relevant academic and vocational course syllabus, because we are really talking about inclusive design and making design inclusive. The more people that understand, the more people there are to question business as usual, to ask – would a deaf person be able to understand this film? Without the need for checklists and specialists.”
As someone with visual impairment himself, Yahye understands the opportunity that accessibility means for advertisers. “Adverts aren’t a necessity; I can find out anything I need on Google,” he says. “Ads create desires. So they’ve got to grab my attention, be immediately persuasive and engaging. Accessibility is wrongly perceived as hindering creativity, when in fact it can spur it on. What an amazing creative challenge to ask a production team - how can you capture the attention of a deaf person without using sound? Or capture that of a Blind person without using images? So, the change is found by having that inclusive mindset, but critically backed up by an inclusive culture.”