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One year later: where agencies stand in the fight against racism in the industry

One year on from the murder of George Floyd, how can the advertising industry ensure it is diverse and inclusive?

May 25, 2020 marks a deeply painful day in American history: the murder of George Floyd. It is impossible to reflect upon this day, one year later, without revisiting the trauma that the weaponization of racism caused and continues to cause Black people and people of color every day. The 4A’s chief exec Marla Kaplowitz asks: amid this reckoning that prompts feelings of anger, frustration and exhaustion, we must ask, what has changed?

In an effort to address the need for significant reform in everyday and professional life, I considered the ways this event catalyzed a social justice movement within this industry that impacted the work and teams at every level. For one, it is no longer an unspoken reality that the marketing and advertising ecosystem has a lot of work to do to increase its diversity and culture of equity and inclusion.

Last year, brands and agencies were urged to address the need to build a better industry amid one of the largest surges in the Black Lives Matter movement by issuing statements of condemnation against racism and pledging to do better through more than just words – real, impactful actions. When it comes to living up to pledges made in moments where statements of allyship were the minimum expectation, May 25 marks something much more actionable than a time for reflection: it signals the need to revisit how much progress has or hasn’t been made within our own professional, everyday lives.

Some agencies – though not all – took significant first steps toward having hard, long-overdue dialogues about racism in the workplace and began taking actions that would improve policies and culture. This included setting metrics that measure accountability and benchmark where progress has been made in addressing social, cultural and organizational challenges at work, as well as where it still lags. Many agencies are gearing up to share the progress they have made so far later this summer.

Another positive change for agencies was taking the step to hire a DE&I leader for the first time – and having that leader report to the chief executive officer. Additionally, agencies are now more willing to pay a competitive salary for top talent to take on the role, with responsibilities that range from creating policies that guide inclusive actions and behaviors to retention and recruitment efforts specifically for diverse talent. Agencies are also focused on instituting an auditing of policies and processes related to all points of difference to drive equity. Many agencies have also implemented unconscious bias training and are upholding a rolling education on antiracism at work.

Within the 4A’s, we are also walking the talk, and have diversified our own executive leadership team to ensure greater diversity within practice areas. Our announcement earlier this month was a step forward in reflecting the full spectrum of our membership, but we still have more work to do. On the program level, we created Vanguard to support the retention and growth of mid-senior level Black/African American talent across the industry. Notably, the program already saw six fellows promoted within their agencies.

We also issued an annual diversity survey to establish industry benchmarks last summer using extensive definitions beyond the standard EEOC guidelines, and held our first Equity & Inclusion Congress that brought the industry together and developed a manifesto highlighting the industry’s commitment across five action areas at the end of last year. And, up next, our long-standing MAIP program will welcome its largest class ever with 430 fellows and a record 209 agencies and partners – up from 90 in 2020.

Lasting, needed change will not happen overnight. The devastating events that took place this time last year provided unmistakable visibility into the longstanding problem that is racism, as well as the urgent need for solutions. In considering how far we have come, we must not lose sight of where we have yet to go in the journey that lies ahead. It is our responsibility to ensure advertising finally evolves to truly include everyone.

Marla Kaplowitz is president and chief exec of the 4A’s.

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