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4As president Nancy Hill on the challenges of building a 'diverse workforce' and the difficult conversations to be had

Nancy Hill, president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), says there's no root cause of the lack of diversity in the advertising industry, but that agencies need to start having difficult conversations in order to tackle it.

Nancy Hill isn’t afraid to say what nobody else is saying.

The president and chief executive of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) is in a powerful position, and has used it to speak and write about some of the most pressing issues facing the advertising industry during her tenure – namely, its lack of diversity and poor entry-level salaries – along with what agencies can do to alleviate some of these problems.

Hill is no stranger to the ad world herself; she has worked at a number of different agencies all over the US throughout her career. Her first advertising gig began in the early 1980s with a 10-year stint at Doner’s Baltimore office.

She went on to hold roles at agencies including TBWA\Chiat\Day and Goldberg Moser O’Neill (presently Hill Holliday) before heading over to BBDO, where she served as executive vice-president and managing director at its New York headquarters. Before joining the 4As in 2008, she was chief executive of Lowe New York.

At the 4As, she has personally led its work on diversity, including recruitment and talent development. And though the advertising industry still has a long way to go when it comes to taking diversity efforts more seriously, it isn’t a new problem, she says.

“I’ve got speeches on file here at the 4As that go back to the 1950s where people have gotten up in front of audiences calling for more diversity in the industry.

“I have one that was written by Jock Elliott, who I believe was the chairman of the 4As at the time and was head of Ogilvy, and it’s dated 1958. This is something that is not new to this industry. It is incredibly deep-rooted.”

Familiar faces

While there is no single root cause of the industry’s lack of diversity, nepotism has historically prevailed, with hiring practices favouring those already connected to the industry in some way – whether it’s sons and daughters of clients or sons and daughters of neighbours – perpetuating a sort of “white culture”.

“It was always easier to hire someone who looked and felt like you because you were more comfortable. I think that’s part of it.”

Yet other factors play into the problem, too. In an industry that moves so quickly, hiring can often be done expediently. Employers looking to replace ‘Account Guy A’ who worked on ‘Automobile Company B’ with someone who looks just like him on paper because that’s what they think the client expects is a dangerous thought process to fall into, according to Hill. Until that mindset changes, it’s very difficult to organically build a diverse workforce, she says.

And even if agencies are able to attract multicultural employees into entry-level jobs, they’re more likely to leave if they don’t see anyone they identify with in positions of leadership.

“Without a role model to look up to and say, ‘that could be me’, we lose those people very quickly.”

The advertising industry is far from alone in dealing with this issue; Hill points out that the tech industry’s numbers aren’t great either. Many of them are coming up with initiatives of their own to try and get more women and minorities working at their companies. In July, Pinterest outlined a number of ambitious goals it plans to meet by 2016 in or der to become more diverse as a company.

Different paths

Yet talented post-grad job seekers from all backgrounds may be less interested in joining advertising agencies – the original creative career path – since there are many other outlets for creative expression today, from YouTube or Instagram to personal blogs. Because of this, it’s even more crucial for agencies to tackle the issue of diversity head-on if they want to attract top-tier candidates.

“This generation coming into the workforce does not define itself the way we used to define ourselves, which means they’re more likely to have other interests besides just their main job. They run a fashion blog on the side and they’re a photographer on the weekends. So they may find another way to fulfil that destiny.”

She notes that the advertising industry could employ some simple tactics to address this problem. Take for example the Rooney Rule, which the National Football League (NFL) established in 2003. It mandates that when there is a search for a coach or other senior position, at least one minority should be included in the slate of candidates being considered.

Nancy Hill received the Awny (Advertising Women of New York) Changing the Game Award in 2013, has been named a Woman of Distinction by both the Arthritis Foundation and the Girl Scouts, and has served on the board of directors of the Miami Ad School.

She currently serves on the boar ds of organisations including the Ad Council, the National Advertising Review Council, AdColor, the Digital Advertising Alliance and the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council.

Difficult conversations

Hill says that until agencies start to employ similar hiring practices and look beyond the typical résumé, the issue will never be solved. At 4As, she oversees several diversity programmes to help provide solutions.

Its most notable is the Multicultural Advertising Internship Program (MAIP) which turned 42 this year. It has put more than 2,500 people through the program, many of whom have gone on to have very notable careers, according to Hill. This year MAIP has its biggest class yet, with over 150 people.

“The response to it has always been incredible because these kids are very well-screened. They have to go through a pretty rigorous application process, and then they get interviewed by a panel of people to make sure that they qualify for the programme.”

People need to stop being afraid of having difficult conversations if they truly want to see change, she adds.

“Once you get past that fear and are able to have honest dialogue, it makes all of these discussions a lot easier and healthier. Know that you might say the wrong thing but if you have the right intentions, people on the other side of the conversations are going to forgive you.”

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