Dear advertising, you’re late. Here’s what you need to do right now

There is too much self-congratulation happening at the moment in ad land. After all most of these DE&I efforts should have taken place long ago. 100 Roses from Concrete founder Keni Thacker discusses what must happen to make up for lost time.

Vernã Myers' heavily used definition of diversity is, “being invited to the party.” While inclusion is defined as” being asked to dance.” But what happens when the party is exclusive? The way the advertising industry has addressed diversity and inclusion problem that has plagued the industry for decades – is like a person showing up to the party three hours late with horrible snacks and cheap booze. And since, they decided to show up literally an hour before the party is over, they want to be treated special and want all their favorite songs played.

Many diversity, equity & inclusion advocates I know are all a little thrown off because all it took for the industry to pay attention to this very old problem was the unfortunate dropping of black and brown bodies. Black Lives Matter didn’t matter to the mainstream when COVID-19 hit, even though it targets black and brown communities more than white ones. Nor did they matter when children like Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin (to name only a few) were taken too soon. However, now all of a sudden in the middle of a global pandemic, and amid racial unrest, are holding companies and agencies are trying to figure out ways to do better by black employees and other employees of color.

For decades DE&I advocates have been requesting more transparency, and only now are agencies aggressively dialing up DE&I roles. For such an “innovative” industry it is constantly playing catch up when it comes to humility. So, I’m unapologetically saying, “advertising, you’re late.”

So, where do we go from here? There are four fundamental shifts in focus that must happen in order to move forward:

People over profits

Once the dust settles and the new world begins, the vigor and wealth of resources must still be there in order to insure people are more valuable than profits. The statements on agencies’ websites must actually be the truth and be reflected in the genetic make-up of these champions of creativity and commerce. The playing field will only be level when everyone is given the access, experiences, opportunities, and exposure to live out their wildest dreams of success as they’ve seen their counterparts do for years. This will result in some big questions like: will the “powers that be” turn down working with clients that do not align with their diversity manifestos and views? And, will they ever run data that shows diverse companies do better actually matter? The data is literally in black and white. If that actually does come true, then the people over profits conversation will be over, hopefully.

Creativity over commerce

They say there is a fine line between creativity and commerce. In most cases, commerce wins, and artists have to sacrifice their art just to pay their bills. The ad industry has used “diversity of thought” as a scapegoat in order to not to address its racial and gender inequalities. What leaders need to understand is that with homogenous teams you will not have diversity of thought. The facts are quite simple, that by bringing people from different ethnic backgrounds, genders, sexual preferences, abilities, religions and the list goes on, people will find ways to walk that fine line between creativity and currency – and creativity will win. It does not and will not work with only one type of person at the table. And at the agencies that do have BIPOC representation, the real question is are they empowered and are they given the platform to call out biases in the workplaces? Creativity can only thrive when you have a variety of perspectives, coming together without barriers. That’s when it is something of true beauty.

Mindfulness over mediocre

A few years ago, I recall reading that an executive said, “We shouldn’t lower the bar just to be more diverse.” The rage that went through my body, when I read that, was uncontrollable because I wish I was in that room that day. The integration of a diverse workplace starts with leaders who are mindful, not mediocre. Never has anyone who asked for a more diverse workplace been associated with lowering the bar of talent. All that is being asked is the BIPOC get the same treatment and opportunities as their counterparts. BIPOC are skipped over from entry level — all the way up to the C-suite where they represent less than 2 percent of leadership at agencies big and small. BIPOC often do not have access to people to get in the door with no experience, yet it happens all the time. Agencies need to be mindful of the psychological effects of what it is like being consciously and unconsciously being treated less than, which has dire effects on how employees bring their true selves to work and their productivity. In some instances, employees find no reason to be loyal and leave in under two years and leapfrog from agency to agency. While others suffer in silence with no mentors or sponsors to advocate on their behalf. The act of mindfulness is very simple, but it’s not surprising that mediocre management often wins out instead creating a huge impact on how BIPOC view and rate company culture when they are not included.

Empathy over egos

In a normal world the topic of empathy over egos would be a no brainer, however that isn’t the case too often in our industry. Empathy is defined as, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another by Oxford Languages. Ego is defined as, a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance. The age-old problem of diversity in advertising, public relations, marketing and media is due to the lack of empathy for BIPOC and women. It has been truly driven by ego and looking out for number one.

This behavior has created a huge disparity in opportunity and equity. All driven by ego and the maintaining of power. Right in front of their eyes, leaders have witnessed employees of color feeling as if they had no one to talk to when it comes to issues that affect their communities in the workplace. And when the few BIPOC do congregate to discuss some of these issues, they get stares from their counterparts. But when someone sees a group of white employees together, no one bats an eye.

There are too many egos to mention that are late to this party. Now is the to time press pause on privilege and not let the egos write checks that will never be cashed because they are suddenly pressured to actually be accountable for diversity and inclusion.

I do hope the good girls and guys do win now and for the future. The world and our industry could use a win right now. But it needs to be a win where everyone can reap the rewards. This needs to be a party where everyone shows up fashionably on time, living their best lives without losing sight of what’s important.

Bringing together people, creativity, mindfulness and empathy will finally give a voice to the voiceless and make the playing field fair for everyone as we move into a new way of working in a new world.

Keni Thacker is founder of 100 Roses from Concrete, program creator of the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative and diversity, equity and inclusion consultant at McGarrah Jessee

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