'If you support a culture of sameness, how can you expect to innovate?' – Diversity officers, inclusivity and overcoming cultural barriers

The relatively new role of chief diversity officer has become increasingly key in establishing inclusiveness as a tangible asset in the workplace, finds Gillian West.

Just 10 years ago less than a fifth of Fortune 500 companies employed a chief diversity officer. By 2012 that number was up to 60 per cent and has been rising ever since. But what exactly is a chief diversity officer? What does their day-to-day schedule look like? And why, in people-led service industries such as advertising and marketing, is the role so important?

Billy Dexter, managing partner of executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles, is a leader in talent acquisition and diversity related efforts for more than 20 years. In the report ‘The Chief Diversity Officer Today: Inclusion Gets Down to Business’, he points to the success in global markets pushing the growing need for diversity and diverse ways of thinking to prominence.

Meanwhile, self-proclaimed “champion of diversity” Tiffany R Warren, vice-president and chief diversity officer at Omnicom Group, explains: “The role of chief diversity officer is a unique hybrid between HR, talent management, supplier diversity, crisis management, creative review, mentoring and corporate and social responsibility.”

Justifying the role is a constant challenge for diversity officers, she adds.

“The biggest challenge a chief diversity officer or diversity champions face is the daily question of ‘why?’ In my role I do not produce a tangible product, but what I do can lead to creating a new one. I don’t build companies, but I can help a diverse supplier establish themselves and secure new partners. I may not create an ad, but my contribution will help to fashion a story told from a diverse point of view.”

Appointed chief diversity officer of TBWA in 2012, Doug Melville tells The Drum the first thing the agency did following his appointment was to look at diversity as if it were a client, coming up with a game plan for success.

“We got a team of planners, strategists and creatives together and they came back with three elements – representation, supplier diversity and culture – that need to be satisfied to be successful, and these elements dictate what I do day to day,” he says.

He believes no two chief diversity officers are the same as the role varies depending on who they report to, their style of management and, most importantly, their vision of diversity. “When I walk into a room everyone has a different definition of what I do because they’re all defining the word differently,” he explains. “Understanding where everyone is coming from, based on the lens they see the world with, is one of the biggest challenges of a role like this.”

Coming from an entrepreneurial background, Melville believes his varied career path – from driving the Oscar Myer Wienermobile to leading the business development team and marketing efforts of Magic Johnson Enterprises – have paid dividends in this role as relating to people is step one.

“I’ve been to each state [in the US] three times and that really helps when it comes to breaking the ice. Whether internal or external, you have to be able to understand people’s point of view and then encourage them to open up their minds so we can have more creativity.”

A common misconception of the chief diversity role, according to Melville, is the idea it is solely based “within agency walls”.

“In the last three years, TBWA has spent over $100m with businesses led by diverse entrepreneurs. More people than ever before are choosing to start their own businesses.

“They would rather find niche opportunities and work on those than be in an advertising agency, and we need to tap into that in addition to what we do internally,” he says.

When it comes to looking for talent “the competition is the entrepreneurs”, he adds.

Lida managing director, Jonathan Goodman, makes a similar observation, claiming it’s not a lack of diversity that’s stopping diverse talent pursuing marketing and communications, it’s just “not the cool kid in town” thanks to social media giants and the lure of striking out on your own.

“Historically advertising and marketing agencies aren’t great when it comes to diversity, it’s been a white, male, upper middle-class reserve where if you’re graduating from Oxford or Cambridge and not sure what to do next you’re welcomed with open arms,” he says.

“[But] when it comes to clients they are starting to worry about whether you really understand their business. Do you have the cultural expertise as well as the business acumen?”

When assembling the Ikea account team at Lida, they added Swedish people because they understand the culture and the nuances better, explains Goodman.

Diversity can also be a brand identity issue, with companies seeking assurances that diverse teams will be employed to carry out their services. TBWA’s Melville says: “Some of our largest clients – PepsiCo, Nissan, MillerCoors – want to know which businesses we’re working with when we create content for them, and what percentage of those businesses are owned by women or diverse leaders.

“It’s something that’s growing more, and more brands want to know that what we do goes along with their principles. A lot of clients are hiring, or already have, chief diversity officers and that helps when it comes to collaborating on projects.”

One such brand is Dell, whose vice-president of global talent and chief diversity officer, Marie Moynihan, finds her day ruled by the same three elements as Melville. “My role is about creating awareness of the value of diversity and inclusion.

“The good news is, in Dell, it’s now less about convincing people of the value of diversity and more about reflecting stories to raise awareness and championing programmes that will continue to make us more inclusive.”

Despite Dell being one of DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity for the past five years running, Moynihan admits to feeling frustrated that the problem hasn’t been solved yet. “Everyone would like it to be more straightforward – set a target and go after it. But it’s more complex than that – you need to have a deeper understanding of the issue and a comprehensive approach,” she explains.

Roxanne Hobbs, founder of The Hobbs Consultancy, which aims to transform businesses via inclusivity, welcomes the advent of the role of chief diversity officer role but warns “the challenge is being taken seriously” and hints at a few potential pitfalls.

“The inclusion role should be fully routed in the business,” she says. “It will only work when the commercial advantages of being more diverse and inclusive are understood by everyone in the business. You need to be careful that businesses don’t think ‘we’ve got someone looking after this now, job done’.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility, not just the responsibility of that person with it in their title.”

After promoting diversity for more than 15 years, Omnicom’s Warren adds: “Why does it make business sense to have a diverse workforce was a question often asked in the 80s, it doesn’t make sense now if you don’t have a diverse workforce.

“If you support a culture of sameness, how can you expect to innovate or disrupt?”

This feature was first published in The Drum's Diversity Census. A copy of the Census supplement can be purchased here.

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Gillian West

Gillian West is The Drum’s social media manager and works to ensure The Drum’s content reaches followers across platforms including Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram in an engaging, relevant and timely manner. Based in Glasgow, she has been actively involved in building The Drum’s Creative Works brand for over three years now and has interviewed major creative figures including Rankin, Peter Souter, Rosie Arnold, Bob Greenberg and Vicki Maguire. During her time at The Drum she has attended events such as Cannes Lions, the Edinburgh International TV Festival, Art Director’s Club Europe, D&AD and more.

All by Gillian