Advertising Diversity & Inclusion

A case against well-intentioned diversity efforts

By Donovan Triplett, McGarrah Jessee

September 17, 2018 | 7 min read

Working in advertising is a constant reminder that change is inevitable. You come up with a brilliant tactic for a social platform and a year later, the whole platform is forgotten about. Even the things that aren’t so fleeting, like agency models that have been around for decades, are becoming outdated before our very eyes. This industry conditions you to expect the change to come and our job’s been to respond. But what happens when we put too much faith in the inevitability of change?


/ Rawpixel via Unsplash

When it comes to diversity, responses have come more rampantly than change inside agencies – on the integration front and in the ads we create. Responses can be powerful – statement campaigns, participation in diversity programs, etc. – but change is systemic and both more difficult to execute and backtrack on. Ads, with the constant churn of short-term positions to fill, would seem to be the area where change was more accessible; but as recently as 2016, only 19% of ads featured people of color – many of which with depictions certain groups can’t afford.

So what’s in the way? It’s simple to say agencies are undervaluing diversity, but I don’t think that’s the biggest issue. Too often, we look at diversity as a moral dilemma (how can we get people to see the problems and change their perspective?). It is of course, but better intentions often fail to turn into change. Processes on the other hand guide our behavior more consistently than our feelings and that’s where I think the real opportunity is. For example, if you’re restructuring an agency around a new philosophy, you wouldn’t just get employees to buy into the philosophy; you’d enact new systems and guardrails to make sure the agency is practicing what you believe in. The same has to be done for diversity. Because the truth is, good-intentioned people are still going to churn out only marginally diverse work if the system – the context in which agency employees operate – doesn’t get changed.

Are we aiming at the right target?

Agencies are waking up and know that producing more diverse work is the right thing to do, but in practice, it’s been a slow change. What if we shifted the impetus to be about making work more interesting? For years, creative shops have pushed for ideas that break away from cliché, but for the most part, have brought those ideas to life through the same old perspectives and voices. In this society, diversity is, in its own right, a form of unorthodoxy. (And what creative agency doesn’t like unorthodoxy?)

While yes, ads aren’t as white and male as they used to be, diversity has quietly fallen into its own conventions. There’s the statement ad with every race and orientation (e.g. Gap’s “Bridging the Gap”), the purposeful ad that taps into an audience or a cultural tension (e.g. 84 Lumber’s “The Entire Journey”), the ad with the Black best friend for balance (too many to name), and others we’re familiar with.

Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing many of these and the good ones can be powerful, but in many ways, they’ve contained diversity to roles that need a purpose.

For instance, how often do you see a general market ad with three Black people who aren’t related or celebrities/athletes? How often do you see a disabled person when it isn’t about his or her disability? How often do you see a person wearing a hijab when the ad isn’t making some kind of point? In the agency world, none of these things would happen coincidentally, but pushing towards that gets us farther. Of course, every ad doesn’t need diversity squeezed in, but the more we deviate from the lanes diversity has been relegated to, the more interesting and relevant things become.

A case for adjustments

Changing an internal process to make diversity more likely can sound big and intangible; but it gets easier when you put the focus on finding smart adjustments you can socialize, then having leadership that’s willing to hold the agency to it. (Either one without the other doesn’t work.) There are several adjustments I've found useful to activate in each of the core disciplines. None are revolutionary, but if integrated into the process, can help make a diverse output more likely.

Here’s a quick mashup:

  • Audit your account’s work and turn gaps into goals. Intangible goals like “more diversity” are harder to achieve. But if you look back at the last three years and see that only 15% of people in ads were of color, or notice reoccurring casual stereotypes, that makes improvement concrete.
  • Start with the comps. From the beginning, comps create the image of the ad in our heads and the clients’; starting there makes a diverse end more likely. Twenty20, Dissolve, Stocksy, 500px, Offset, CreateHer Stock and Mockupdated all have more diverse imagery. Challenge creatives to bookmark and create agency accounts.
  • Be specific in casting specs and treat diversity like an advantage in casting calls. “Open to all ethnicities” isn’t enough and doesn’t usually get you an equitable range. Getting comfortable asking for it even when there isn’t a specific purpose is the only realistic way we start to raise that 19% number.
  • Start a lunch-and-learn style series examining diverse audiences. Could be led by the planners or a research vendor, but nuances matter and we don’t explore them nearly enough. By the time you’re in a pitch for a brand with a heavy Latinx audience, it’s too late.
  • Make fresh eyes a part of the process. Challenge creatives (or anyone) to show work to two people who aren’t on the account and don’t have context. Too often, we’re clouded by our closeness to ideas and we don’t see missteps that become obvious when the world sees something. (e.g. Pepsi and Kendall Jenner) Fresh eyes help guard against these sort of mistakes and just make ideas better generally.

Sparking more empathy around diversity is important – we all need more good-intentions in our hallways – but if we can adjust the process in ways that make diversity more likely, we’ll be in a much stronger position to make the kind of change our intentions want us to have.

Donovan Triplett is senior planner at McGarrah Jessee

Advertising Diversity & Inclusion

More from Advertising

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +