Are HP and General Mills' diversity quotas a step forward, or is 'diversity by numbers' the wrong approach? Marketers discuss

Senior marketers have responded to the diversity quotas

Both General Mills and HP have insisted their agencies do more to hire more women and people of colour but are they failing to address other pervasive issues like unconscious bias and lack of diverse talent?

The Drum caught up with a number of senior marketers from RBS, the 4As, Dentsu Aegis Network and more to gauge the industry's view on the subject.

Selma Ahmed, creative, Crispin Porter + Bogusky

"It’s an impressive force of action and I hope it means that more people in positions of power start realising the change they can make.

"That said, the quotas also remind us of the harsh truth of the industry – money rules everything. Yes, there will be more diversity but it will have come as a result of agencies acting out of fear that they might lose business – not because they’ve realised they’re stuck in the 60s.

"When agencies are searching for people of colour and women to fill these quotas, it shouldn’t be a random hiring frenzy of anyone with melanin or a vagina. Talent needs to be valued otherwise what’s the point?

"The real change will come when agencies realise that brown skin is not for show, diversity is not about making the agency look ‘cool’ when a client walks in and women and POC are not just there to even out the numbers. It’s about opening the industry up to different and equally valuable perspectives and ways of thinking, that are not only reflective of the society we live in but that will undoubtedly result in better and more inclusive creative work.

David Wheldon, chief marketing officer, RBS

"At RBS we are very committed to our diversity agenda. We set ourselves targets and measure our progress against them. That’s because we serve the public and so need to reflect them in what we do.

"Having lived in America I have seen the upside of affirmative action. I think this a very tricky area to solve and I’m not sure that clients telling they’re agencies what to do solves it.

"Clients should look at how they’re structured and whether it’s the right way and if they have the right diverse mix of people. When you’ve done that then maybe you can ask the same of your agencies but actually just telling your agencies to do it if you’re not doing yourself is not constructive."

Michelle Morgan, chief executive Livity and co-chair of equality and diversity for the Marketing Agencies Association (MAA)

"Quotas alone won't solve the diversity crisis agency land faces, but we all know that setting a target, objective or ambition is how agency people best respond to solving problems or addressing needs, so we should embrace the numbers.

“However, alongside quotas and inside and outside our agencies, we need to talk about Kevin [Roberts] and we need to talk about Gustavo [Martinez] and we need to keep talking about all the others 'leaders' who are seemingly stuck in the Mad Men era. We have to take action at a leadership level to create the best conditions and culture in our agencies for accepting and celebrating difference, for enabling our people to confidently be their best, authentic selves.

"Talking about it, calling it, challenging it and admitting that it is uncomfortable to talk about, should be the starting point for a response to diversity quotas. Agency people, by the very nature of our service, should be some of the most open-minded, flexible people around, let's remind ourselves of that. I totally welcome business and marketing leaders setting the challenge, pushing the diversity point and looking to really affect change, it's brave and it's business critical."

Tracy De Groose, chief executive, Dentsu Aegis Network UK and Ireland

"There is no 'one size fits all' approach to diversity and no single strategy will fix the challenge. The industry generally has a healthy gender balance at entry level but we don't see the same for senior level roles. Businesses need to invest in understanding why talented women do not make it into the top jobs, and removing the barriers to their success/progression. This is not, as is commonly asserted, only about childcare and maternity.

"Other factors, like unconscious bias play a big part, or when women look up in organizations and struggle to find a leadership style they can identify with. The sector is less representative of people of colour at all levels and this therefore does need to be addressed.

"With a largely millennial workforce who have a changing attitude to employment, we need to invest in retaining and developing diverse talent, or the leadership diversity issue will not be addressed. This is where inclusion comes in - Diversity is the numbers, Inclusion is the culture. Diversity is counting your people, Inclusion is making your people count. We need to aspire to improve the numbers, but unless we transform the culture, we will be treading water."

Nancy hill, president and chief executive, 4As

"It’s very good to have the clients putting pressure on the agencies to make sure that they’re delivering a workforce that reflects society, and I applaud both General Mills and HP for tackling this head on.

"I do think that the approaches are very different, I think when you look at what General Mills is doing with imposing a quota, or you know a percentage – that is one approach that could definitely work.

"But then, when you look at HP they’re saying more along the lines of – 'I want to see plans', 'I want to see movement', 'I want to see measurement' and 'I want to see some key metrics along the way'. I don’t know which approach is going to work better, but I think it’s laudatory that both of these companies have decided to tackle this issue head on.

"Let’s take the word quotas out of the conversation for a second. I think that clients saying to agencies: ‘You need to better reflect what society looks like’ is a good thing and I do think that, obviously, we’ve continued to have this problem for decades and nothing seems to have worked so let’s try something else, and clients certainly have the power to put pressure on their agencies."

Kathleen Saxton, founder and chief executive of the Lighthouse Company

"Workplace equality is a continuous goal, whether relating to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other factors like Autism Spectrum Disorders. Targets work - they provide focus and offer clear indicators of progress, but I remain unconvinced quotas are the optimal measure. When the Lighthouse headhunts we are acutely minded to seek equality balance as we construct our long-lists, yet fundamentally we are consulted to find best-in-class leadership so we believe that must be the primary ambition for our clients.

"Advertisers have an absolute right to choose agency partners based on their equality policies if they wish and many do. However, it feels the balance of power starts to over-creep when the client muscle flexes so deeply within the agency's operations it can "enforce" anything, including diversity quotas. The client-agency relationship can at times become painfully subservient, the balance agenda should be felt and believed within agencies, not left to be enforced by clients.

"While diversity challenges remain, we are finally seeing incremental progress. The now equal spread of female minds leading media agencies is a strong example of that and I hope the creative counterpart continues to catch up. It's how we tackle such inequalities from within that is now key. Maxus, Dentsu, Spotify and Facebook are headed in the right direction with equal parenting policies, egg freezing and transgender surgery support for example. One of the greatest challenges is often centred on any parent returning to the workplace after childbirth... that still has further development required."

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