‘You can’t sprinkle diversity onto companies’: How both brands and agencies can better respond to issues of race and culture

Advertising Week New York

“Diversity” has been one of the industry's buzziest words over the past year, and for good reason: research like the 3% Conference’s ‘Elephant on Madison Avenue’ survey shows that women are often subject to harassment and bias within the industry, with former Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts’ recent comments about gender being among the most highly-publicized examples of how women are treated unfairly in the ad world.

The volume of the diversity conversation within the industry, especially over the past year, seems to be the loudest from a gender perspective. But the fact of the matter is that people of color have been subjected to unfair treatment over the years as well. A recent survey conducted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A's) found that 20 percent of respondents think that the industry is "terrible" at giving ethnically diverse professionals the same opportunities as their white male colleagues, with another 28 percent stating that it is "not great" and 25 percent more stating that is it "mediocre."

To shine a spotlight on the race aspect of the diversity conversation, an Advertising Week New York panel moderated by Monique Nelson, chair of multicultural agency UniWorld Group, brought together a number of panelists from all corners of the industry to discuss the future of multicultural agencies, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and how both brands and agencies can better respond to issues of race, culture and social responsibility.

The agency approach

As the US population continues to become more and more diverse, marketers have tried to keep up in recent years by employing a "total market" approach to their businesses — a practice that essentially sees brands cut ties with their multicultural agencies in an effort to make diversity everyone’s priority instead of pigeonholing it into one agency.

While some think this is a step in the right direction, others believe that the expertise that multicultural agencies can provide is still valued and needed. During the panel discussion, writer and activist Michaela Angela Davis said that she thinks “total market” is really just a code for “whiteness,” arguing that the approach doesn’t move the needle enough.

Ken Wheaton, editor at Advertising Age, said that he believes “total market” is just code for “cheap,” explaining that this approach allows brands to cut ties with their multicultural agency partners and instead consolidate all of their efforts within one shop. He said this can be problematic since the approach tends to slide into a general market one, particularly at big agencies that have “had their own problems with hiring diverse talents.”

Yet Remezcla’s SVP Javier Farfan, who previously served as head of music, entertainment and culture marketing at PepsiCo, said that the total market approach can sometimes be a boon for marketers who are championing diversity within big organizations – at least operationally - since it allows them to have “real conversations about inclusion.”

“When you’re in a brand and have the opportunity to talk about total market, it actually puts you in an even playing field when you’re talking about resources to go after a more diverse community” he said, noting that corporations are less likely to only dedicate “a tenth of the budget” to a multicultural effort under a total market approach since diversity is supposed to be a part of their overall strategy.

Brands and #BlackLivesMatter

Brands have been quick to jump on the feminist, LGBT and transgender movements that have happened in recent years. When gay marriage was legalized in the US last year, dozens of brands were quick to celebrate on social media — and over the past few months, big brands including Nike, Bud Light and Clairol have all featured transgender activists, models and athletes in their advertising. Yet the #BlackLivesMatter movement is one that brands have overwhelmingly stayed away from.

“It boggles me when brands that rely on the black dollar and black influencers cannot take a stand on police violence,” said Rashad Drakeford, head of content at Revolt. He noted Colin Kaepernick’s sponsors have largely stayed quiet even though his jersey became the NFL’s best-selling jersey after he controversially refused to stand during the national anthem at a preseason game this year.

“Clearly your consumer is saying something,” said Drakeford.

Davis pointed out that brands can still support the movement without taking an official stance or making a statement on the matter.

“During Hurricane Katrina, Tide was there cleaning people’s clothes. That made a big difference,” she said. “Just show up and help. You don’t have to make a political statement. Just help people.”

The next 50 years

In the last month, both General Mills and HP have demanded that their agency partners diversify their staffs by hiring more women and people of color. While both developments point to the fact that brands are starting to take diversity more seriously and make it a top priority, the panelists agreed that there’s still a lot more work to do.

Jenn Duong, director of virtual reality at 1215 Creative, said that it’s not enough for companies to simply hire more diverse employees – they also need to make sure they are fostering a culture of inclusion where women and people of color can grow.

“Diversity and inclusion are not the same things and we need to stop talking about them in conversations like they are. I go to into so many conversations where people are like, ‘oh yeah, we have so many diverse employees,’ but I’m like, ‘is your culture inclusive?’ Cause if it’s not, it doesn’t matter. You can’t sprinkle diversity onto companies. It needs to be rooted in the core culture of your company.”

Commenting on General Mill’s recent request that its agencies’ creative departments be staffed with at least 50 percent women and at least 20 percent people of color, Farfan said that more people with leadership positions within brands need to follow suit and hold themselves accountable when it comes to prioritizing diversity within the industry. He encouraged marketers and advertisers to keep pushing for diversity within their organizations, even when the going gets tough.

“You’re going to fight for it,” he said. “It’s never going to be easy. But even to get that big, multimillion Super Bowl ad, there’s a fight for that too. So don’t see it as, ‘oh, they don’t want to hear me out.’ You’re fighting for what you believe.”

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