Brands, it’s time to stop passing the buck on diversity


By Mira Kaddoura, Founder and Executive Creative Director

March 23, 2019 | 6 min read

The advertising industry has gotten the memo on the “boys’ club” problem. All the scandals and public pressure from last year have seemingly lit a fire under us all. But is all the talk about diversity just, well, talk?

Brands, it’s time to stop passing the buck on diversity

During last year’s Advertising Week NYC, 24 sessions focused on diversity, yet research shows that nearly 90% of creative directors industry-wide are men, pitches are more likely to be staffed by men, and women are more likely to be assigned to gender-stereotypical briefs.

In 2018, Cannes explicitly targeted “being inclusive and embracing equality and diversity,” yet the number of Lions winners that list a female executive decreased in the last decade, from 9.9% to 9.8%.

Marketers are setting their own momentum, too. In 2016, GM set diversity goals for the agencies it works with. The same year, Verizon’s CMO sent a letter to its agencies describing diversity as “an explicit business objective.” And late last year, alcohol giant Diageo demanded that the agencies it works with provide stats on women in leadership, as well as a plan to address issues such as income inequality.

These moves are a step in the right direction, but well-meaning initiatives merely put a Band-Aid on the problem — long after the patient has been losing blood.

It’s time for brands to rethink who they hire in the first place. Then we’ll start to see real change.

I don’t see much real change. Do you?

For all the lip service paid to gender issues, look closely and you’ll see little action — and even less impact.

Don’t get me wrong. Initiatives such as Free the Bid, which promises to include a female director on any triple-bid commercial project, and the Association of National Advertisers’ SeeHer Movement, which works to depict women in advertising in more realistic ways, are wonderful. They not only call out the fact that women in ads and behind the scenes are either absent or misrepresented, they also call for meaningful steps and public commitments to change.

However, these movements address the industry’s lack of diversity at the end of the creative process. Where are the diverse voices when the head strategist steers the client towards its North Star, the creative team brainstorms ideas, leaders pitch the concept? If we don’t change the process upstream, we just pressure male-founded and male-dominated agencies to lay on a veneer of diversity by checking boxes, stoking resentment at so-called “token hires.”

Diversity is an essential component to success

Diversity and gender issues are often dismissed as feel-good, nice-to-have concepts, not real factors that affect a company’s bottom line. Yet research (and common sense) demonstrate that companies failing to incorporate a wide range of voices will flounder among the 21st century’s discerning customers.

Why should you care? (Well, beyond the obvious that you strive to be a decent human being.)

Consider: 70% of women say they feel “alienated” by advertising. Analysis shows that men get four times more screen time and talk seven times more than women in commercials; another study found that just 2% of women in ads could be described as “intelligent.”

This as a bottom-line problem — women drive up to 80% of all purchasing decisions and control $20 trillion in consumer spending every year.

Women aren’t the only ones paying attention. GenZers and millennials identify less with storytelling that rehashes traditional gender roles, and they’re hypersensitive to ham-fisted marketing attempts. (Remember the internet frenzy over Dorito’s Lady Chips and Bic’s Lady Pens? How many women do you think were around in those meetings?)

Brands: I’m talking to you

Much of the movement we see around diversity happens in the consumer-facing space: After all, brands want credit for airing ads that feature plus-size actors or women without makeup. But what happens behind the scenes — long before a product or campaign ever reaches consumers — is more impactful in moving toward gender equality.

Instead of forcing old-school agencies to retrofit their staff to meet client-mandated requirements, why not hire agencies that have diversity baked in their DNA? Agencies with an inherent dedication to diversity — such as those founded by women, people of color, and others underrepresented in the ad industry — don’t need to consciously “work on” creating a rich ecosystem of ideas and voices.

Hiring agencies with women at the helm aligns with clients’ agenda for diversity in the most authentic way possible. After all, copious research shows that female leaders are more likely to adopt LGBTQ-friendly policies, hire other women and minorities, and take a more democratic approach to leadership. That’s the change the industry — and consumers — demand.

Fight back against issue fatigue

The movements that call out inequality are already facing fatigue and push-back. Have you heard the impatient sighs around the table when someone brings up #MeToo or the lack of female creative directors? I have.

But we dare not let off the gas. Remember the countless women who have risked their job security, reputation, and even friendships to call out misogyny. Think of all the women before them and those today who aren’t able to speak up. We must continue — no, accelerate — this momentum.

So, brands: why not take Free the Bid’s promise one step further? Why not consider a minority-founded agency every time on every project? Why not practice conscious, honest self-reflection (and ensuing action) to overcome the biases that reinforce the status quo?

Time’s up to do something.

Mira Kaddoura is founder and executive creative director of Red & Co.


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