Where are all the white people?

(from left) Steve Pamon (Parkwood Entertainment), Danielle Lee (Spotify), Jimmy Smith (Amusement Park) at I.D.E.A. event

This seems to be a recurring movie on a loop for me.

Amazing people of color on stage at an industry event — sharing their experiences and point of view. It’s usually different than the usual narrative in the industry which is pervasively white and male. My heart races, in a good way, because I’m seeing and hearing something that sparks something — and not just the diversity of the people on the stage, but the diversity of thought. I nod. I smile. I sometimes cry, hearing the experiences that people of color face in this industry.

Then, the lights go up — and I see very few white men in the crowd.

This happened at Cannes Lions last week at Saturday morning’s amazing presentation which should have been packed to the gills.

Same thing in Austin at SXSW for Diversity in Tech: Readiness to Recruitment and Coding While Black.

The latter, by the way, was filled with talent from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the leaders on stage made it one of the most inspiring things I’ve been to in a long time. The former opened my eyes even more to where we are (or where we’re not) in terms of equality.

Yet here we are — year after year, stage after stage with inspiring talks — and lower attendance, especially among my cohort: white men of a certain age.

Now, I don’t think it’s very fair to point the finger at an event organizer. The good news is that these talks keep gracing the stages. Sure, we could use more of them but at least there’s more and more of them each year. The bad news is that it’s one of the biggest missed opportunities for white people, especially men.

I suppose it makes sense to share a little but more about why I care so deeply about this and why I think it’s such a big miss for white men. The lens I look through, fortunately, happened early in my career and in a most unexpected place.

I worked at a radio station in Portland, Oregon that changed format from adult contemporary (think Steely Dan and Linda Ronstadt songs) to hip-hop and R&B. I stuck around, not really fully knowing or understanding the format or the culture around it. What I did learn pretty quickly, being 30 at the time, was that this was a really great opportunity to learn.

Our crew, ironically in a white place like Portland, was really diverse. We were black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, gay, straight, male and female. It just sort of happened that way as I don’t think that there was a huge push to hire for diversity but rather to find the right talent. But we were attractive to a lot of different kinds of people which turned out to be fortunate for us.

We all knew the goal — which is the goal of any business: be #1.

We worked hard at it. We all brought our own style and talents to the mix. We knew the desired result and we were trusted to help get us to the promised land. It didn’t happen overnight — but that day we first found out we were #1 in the market in both ratings and revenue was a thing of beauty.

As my boss at the time said: “It’s not necessarily easy to become #1, but it’s hard to stay #1.”

The biggest moment for me was when I got what I can only say is the biggest shot of my career and probably the most important. Ebro Darden, he of Hot 97 in New York and Beats 1, asked me if I wanted to be his morning show producer.

This was a massive thing. What I didn’t really connect until just recently, is that here was a young, African-American man with all kinds of talent, trusting a slightly-older-than-him white dude to help him with the most important part of the day for any radio station.

He saw my hunger to succeed and our talents complemented each other. We did some great things and we flopped plenty of times, too — but Ebro gave me that shot. He doesn’t like to take credit for it, but he is likely the most important person in my career arc. Sure, I’ve had plenty of great leaders help me along from across the race and gender spectrum, but Ebro was the one who built the foundation.

I grew creatively more than I could have imagined, learned the value of what it takes to be #1 and that diverse culture, I am convinced, was why we were successful.

That’s a key thing here — the business.

We’ve been seeing and hearing how diversity is a driver of business success. Conversation around it is more pronounced — especially with the likes of HP and other brands that understand the inherent value of diversity positively impacting business — but we knew that back in 2000. Go figure.

I shared my story about Ebro during an I.D.E.A. Initiative event in Cannes and I also made it a point about how this was about business, just like the amazing talent who shared their stories and points of view: Steve Pamon, chief operating officer of Parkwood Entertainment, Danielle Lee, global head of partner solutions at Spotify and the inimitable Jimmy Smith, chairman and chief creative officer of Amusement Park.

But what keeps coming back is that movie on a loop again. Sure, people were happy to see me — but where were others?

“I mean, we’re glad to keep seeing you, Doug. And please keep coming back, but you’ve got to tell other white guys to get to these things so they can learn, too.”

Fortunately, some very prominent white leaders are. I’m learning, more and more, how vital Michael Roth of IPG is to equality in this industry. Same with Scott Kauffman of MDC and Carter Murray of FCB.

But there needs to be more white men below that level, getting engaged with all of this. I don’t think there is a pithy way to do it — that would dilute the importance of it all. I think that it has to be one-on-one, white guy to white guy and from there, it has to spread to others

As a friend of mine reminded me, it’s important to show up and shut up. Hear the experiences and don’t take them for granted or brush them off as not important.

Or, taking the advice of the absolutely awesome Geoff Edwards, part of the Saturday Morning leadership team, on advice for young people in the biz (and I think it applies here): “Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.”

Interestingly, there has been talk in the past about diversity, in the creative field especially, and how one person of color can bring their friends along to be part of it. I get the spirit of that, but I’m not sure that I fully agree with it in practice. But that’s a conversation for another time that likely requires several columns, articles and videos.

However, I do think that white men, encouraging other white men to come along to these sessions, panels, talks and parties is a good idea. Oh, and by the way, you are welcome. You are allowed to go to these panels and parties and get-togethers. In fact, the more the better.

Representation matters in a big way. I’m not buying the “diversity of thought” thing that’s been bubbling up. I get that it can be a good thing — but trust me, if you have the opportunity to bring people of different genders, colors, sexual orientation and abilities in the door, that's some real diversity and you’re setting yourself up to succeed.

So I challenge you for next time, fellow white men of a certain age. Go to those panels that can open your eyes and heart to talent of which you may not be familiar. Find your way to a party or two. Take it seriously because I’m fairly confident that you’ll discover talent that can help you become a better company or agency that will grow your business, even in the ups and downs.

Don’t worry, those talks on programmatic and real-time-buying will always be there — an opportunity to learn something truly transformative may not.

So where are you, fellow white men?

I’ll save you a seat — or 50.

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