Lack of diversity in advertising is not only about hiring

Lack of diversity in advertising is not only about hiring.

In the rush to be seen taking affirmative action, marketers are starting to demand their agencies introduce diversity quotas. But in doing so those brands should be mindful that aspiring to improve the numbers won’t transform the culture of their businesses.

Just weeks after controversial comments from Kevin Roberts dug up ad land’s outdated attitudes toward diversity in the workplace, General Mills and HP have decided now is the time to insist their agencies hire more women and people of colour. Observers point to this being an opportunity for brands and agencies to more closely collaborate. And yet too few have narrowed on whether agencies need to think about whether they want to be leading their clients and viewed as the innovators, or seen as the followers. If the answer is to be the leaders, the window of opportunity is closing fast.

Marketers know what they want when it comes to diversity and more importantly think they know how to get it.

General Mills chief marketing officer Ann Simonds says the move to find an ad agency with a creative department staffed with at least 50 per cent women and 20 per cent people of colour was “important,” while the food company’s chief creative officer Michael Fanuele adds it “feels like a first in the industry”.

Keen to exert his own influence in the debate, HP’s chief marketer Anotonio Lucio published the letter he sent to his five agencies demanding they “radically improve the percentage of women and people of colour in leadership roles”.

Advertisers have an absolute right to choose agency partners based on their equality policies if they wish and many do. However, the balance of power could over-creep when the client imposes themselves so deeply within the agency's operations it can "enforce" anything, including diversity quotas. Both General Mills and HP believe the time is right to force their diversity agendas but that enthusiasm has to go hand-in-hand with frank and honest discussions about race with people who know what it is like to have skin colour different from their own. That can only come from the top and at the moment there are too few examples of chief executives that understand workplace equality is a continuous goal.

JWT’s chief executive Tamara Ingram and her counterpart at Dentsu Aegis Network UK and Ireland Tracy De Groose are among the few that get it. They accept that targets provide focus and clear indicators of progress, but remain unconvinced quotas are the optimal measure. “Diversity is counting your people; Inclusion is making your people count,” opines De Groose. “We need to aspire to improve the numbers, but unless we transform the culture, we will be treading water.”

Before rushing to launch the next snazzy, newsworthy diversity initiative, advertising executives would be wise to ensure they are getting the very basics of equality and an inclusive culture right. “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,” explains Michelle Morgan, chief executive of Livity and co-chair of equality and diversity for the Marketing Agencies Association

“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.”

If marketers are going to set agencies the challenge, then they should be prepared to challenge themselves too. It’s how David Wheldon, chief marketing officer at RBS and the president of the World Federation of Advertisers, sees the “upside of affirmative action”. Having lived in America, he can attest to its success, though he “isn’t sure that clients telling they’re agencies what to do solves it [the lack of diversity in advertising]”.

“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,” he continues. “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.”

In fairness, both HP and General Mills have made strides to resolve the unconscious biases that stunt their own businesses. Of the 1,000 marketers HP employs worldwide, 55 per cent of those are women, and at manager level the female contingent stands at 43 per cent, which Lucio says is more than most companies. For General Mills, its agencies don’t need to be at that level today, but they do need to share that level of commitment.

“We've asked our creative agencies who will be partners in the U.S. to share in our commitment to diversity and embrace diversity benchmarks we ourselves strive to meet in our U.S. marketing organization,” says a General Mills spokesman.

But what happens if a business can’t find enough “diverse” talent at a certain level? Marketers like PepsiCo’s president of its global beverage group Brad Jakeman don’t think it’s an excuse and yet there’s an argument to say being that single-minded could be damaging in the long-run.

“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,” says Kathleen Saxton, founder and chief executive of The Lighthouse Company.

The industry generally has a healthy gender balance at entry level but that’s not the same for senior roles. Both Ingram and De Groose have spoken about the need to understand why more talented women do not make it into the top jobs, particularly the tendency for bosses to hire in their own image. This not, as is commonly asserted, only about childcare and maternity, explains De Groose. Other factors, like unconscious bias play a big part, or when women look up in organisations and struggle to find a leadership style they can identify with.

It’s a thought not lost on Saxton, who sees “incremental progress” being made. “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,” she continues.

“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.”

The advertising 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, there’s more focus on retaining and developing diverse talent as seen by the launch of fortysix, Dentsu’s digital agency that is entirely staffed by young people from diverse backgrounds, earlier this year.

“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,” muses Nancy Hill, chief executive of trade organisation the 4As. “We’ve continued to have this [diversity] 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.”

If diversity hires are to rise above anti-meritocracy, then marketers and their agencies need to recondition the way they think to act differently to foster more inclusivity. General Mills and HP won’t be the last brands to insist on quotas and as more do both marketer and agency will need to ensure those plans aren’t just geared to introduce a diverse spread of cultures but also having a business culture that appreciates all those different personalities.

Additional reporting by Rebecca Stewart.

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