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UN and WFA urge brands to ‘confront racial intolerance’ and measure diversity efforts

Many corporates have expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd's death

Following the death of George Floyd in police custody in the US, the United Nations (UN) has joined forces with global advertising trade body the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) to issue a statement imploring global brands not to waste their “privileged position in society”.

The UN and the WFA have committed to establishing a series of measures that will hold brands to account when it comes to both the diversity of their workforces and how they’re tackling inequality via their advertising.

The two global organisations already work closely together on the Unstereotype Alliance initiative, which unites marketers in a mission to banish harmful stereotypes from their communications. Now, they have pledged to work with the industry to develop “tangible accountability mechanisms” that support the structural drivers of equality and inclusion in advertising.

In an open letter, the UN’s under-secretary-general and executive of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said she welcomed an initiative from UK-based diversity collective Creative Equals last week which saw over 200 advertising bosses pledge to support black talent and take action on inequality in the industry.

However, she went on to urge brand leaders to make public the information on how well they act to achieve and sustain diversity within their workforce and leadership. She also asked brands to measure and speak about the success of promoting shared values via their creative work, including content intended to break down stereotypes.

“It is only through holding ourselves accountable that we will see sustainable change. I believe we could be doing more to project the commitment of the marketing and advertising industry to a world that is inclusive,” she wrote.

“We must see our aspirations embodied in a new wave of advertisements that use your market power to highlight the situation, and that are true to our hopes, individually and collectively.”

A ‘watershed’ moment

In a separate letter, the WFA’s chief executive, Stefan Loerke, said advertisers had a huge role in to play in what was a “once in a generation moment to confront racial intolerance”.

“We know that brands can be a force for good and that consumers expect them to help create a better world. Many brands have shown their solidarity and have matched their words with action," he added.

“And as marketers, we can make a real difference. Prioritising diverse and inclusive teams, we can ensure that we help normalise the diverse portrayals of people through our communications.

Loerke said the protests in the US had given the work of the WFA’s recently established diversity and inclusion taskforce – which is being led by former EA marketing lead Belinda Smith, and GSK’s senior media director for EMEA, Jerry Daykin, as diversity ambassadors – “a new urgency”.

Brand activism

Floyd’s death after almost nine minutes under the knee of a policeman in May has prompted widespread protests over systemic racism and police brutality towards black people across the US and Europe.

Many corporates have expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks, including Ben & Jerry’s, Nike and L’Oréal. The latter faced a backlash for its “tone deaf” activism, which came three years after it dropped black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf as an ambassador after she spoke on the issue of racism.

Members of the black advertising and media community have expressed concerns that some advertisers' support could be perceived as being tokenistic, with Smith telling The Drum last week that advertisers’ words need to translate into action to have a meaningful impact.

“That is what is important and appropriate right now,” she said. ”Even if the answer is: ’We don’t know what to do, but we’re working on it and will come back with a firm commitment.’ Saying something is the first step. Now do something.”

Sabrina Clarke-Okwubanego, co-founder of Niche On Demand, argued some brands’ words carried more weight than others, based on their past deeds.

“Brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Netflix and American Express’s messages to the black community are deeply appreciated because, outside of crisis, they demonstrate consistency and acknowledgment, which makes their words now authentic and empathetic," she said.

The WFA and UN’s commitment to building systems that help measure diversity within brands’ leadership teams and workforces follows on from advertisers’ agencies having missed diversity targets set by the IPA in the UK.

Just last month, fresh data from the IPA revealed that the number of employees from an ethnic minority background at UK ad agencies dropped over the past 12 months.

The trade body’s annual Agency Census found that – as well as making up a smaller proportion of the UK agency workforce – staff from black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) backgrounds had seen C-suite representation drop too.

Of the 24,866 employees recorded as working in agencies in 2019, the number of employees from a BAME background was found to have dropped from 13.8% to 13.7% year-on-year.

Though diversity at junior levels was up slightly at 17.7% (up from 16.9% in 2018), just 4.7% of C-suite roles were held by employees from an ethnic minority background – marking a drop of 0.8% since 2018.

You can read Mlambo-Ngcuka and Loerke’s letters in full here.

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