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Three things agencies can do to celebrate and learn about cultural differences

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Jack Morton’s account director reflects on her Colombian roots and what agencies can do to make employees feel accepted / Image via Jack Morton

We just closed out Hispanic Heritage Month in the US. While this month is a prescribed time to celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of Hispanic and Latinx people and cultures, my Colombian heritage is something I celebrate every day – but that’s not always the case for everyone.

I grew up in Amish Country – Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My family was one of the few Hispanic families in the area. When we were kids, my parents told us they moved there because it was an excellent place to raise a family. I later learned that they had moved there to assimilate our family into American culture. As immigrants, they had been subjected to racism and teased because of their accents, so they wanted us to grow up being ‘American.’

When you walked outside my home, you were in Anytown, USA. However, when you walked inside, we transported you to Colombia. My parents made sure that our Hispanic roots remained a powerful influence in our lives – the music, the food, the language, the culture. But as a result, when I left the cultural safe haven of my house, I was seen as different than the other kids in my homogenous town. At Show and Tell, I was the only one wearing a traditional Colombian ‘pollera’ skirt, handing out homemade empanadas. All the other girls wore Girl Scout uniforms and doled out chocolate chip cookies. I never quite fitted in there.

Fast forward a decade or so, and I found myself gravitating toward multicultural environments. People with fascinating and diverse backgrounds draw me in. It’s no surprise that I found myself in America’s melting pot, New York City, working at a Hispanic advertising agency – and that was the first time I felt seen in a way I hadn’t been before. Smart, talented, professional Latinxs surrounded me. They were bilingual like me and understood what it was like to live in two worlds. I was in heaven.

Of course, it’s easy to feel like you belong when everyone comes from a similar background, but that’s not diversity either. I’ve moved on from working exclusively at Hispanic marketing agencies. And while I’m glad to be a part of an organization that values diversity and inclusion, I’m never that far from being the girl from Lancaster, PA and trying to explain what a Bandeja Paisa is.

And I think many people from other cultures feel the same way. We are grateful that there are opportunities to celebrate and share our cultures with our colleagues at specific times of the year, such as Hispanic Heritage Month. Still, it doesn’t have to be a singular occurrence.

As agencies continue to embrace diversity in recruitment and strive to be more inclusive, it’s essential to implement programming and policies that educate employees about their colleagues’ cultures and make a real impact on those who have felt unseen. Here are three ways agencies can go beyond performative actions, demonstrate inclusivity in the workplace and help employees become cultural allies, so no one feels like the lone Colombian girl in Amish Country during Show and Tell.

  1. Provide storytelling platforms. Giving people an opportunity to share their stories with a broad audience is paramount to promote inclusivity. Allowing people to share their history during occasions such as Hispanic Heritage Month is a significant step. Still, it’s a good idea to create other opportunities for employees to showcase their cultures regularly. For example, you might hold a monthly culture club, where groups of employees take turns hosting and sharing food, music and entertainment from different cultures over an open dialogue or learning session.

  2. Give people of different backgrounds seats at the table. Every table. There doesn’t have to be a multicultural brief to engage Hispanic, BIPOC, LGBT+ and disabled colleagues outside of your team and tap into different perspectives. For example, besides being Colombian, I am also a hardcore dog mom – you want me in the room when you’re presenting to a potential new pet care client, whether the target audience is Hispanic or not. Brainstorms, concept testing – look for any opportunities to bring in fresh voices year-round. It’s beneficial for clients to have a team working on their brand that reflects the world we live in. And an agency that encourages this frequently demonstrates that they prioritize not just diversity but allyship and inclusivity.

  3. Find or create a new talent pipeline that reaches people with non-traditional backgrounds. Gone are the days of recruiting interns and entry-level employees from just the top American universities. It’s refreshing to see agencies offering different types of internship programs aimed at talent from underrepresented communities. These programs shouldn’t just focus on Hispanic, BIPOC, LGBT+ people and those with disabilities either; they can also create opportunities for people with non-traditional backgrounds, such as parents and caregivers returning to the workforce, people looking to switch careers, or those without college degrees. Camp Jack, the learning and mentorship program that Jack Morton started two years ago, is a great model of this. We’ve been able to introduce many people to the experiential world that may not have considered it otherwise. In return, we’ve learned a lot about some fantastic people – and yes, we’ve found some extraordinary talent along the way.

No agency is perfect. Most are a work in progress. The key is continuing to move forward and not back. If you want to create an inclusive multicultural workplace, start by actively providing opportunities to make all employees feel accepted, wanted, like they belong. At agencies where diversity is valued, and there is an inclusive sense of culture, there is vibrancy, a feeling of warmth and a level of creativity unique to an environment full of people from all walks of life. And that’s the kind of place where I’d want to work, wouldn’t you?

Veronica Tabares, account director at Jack Morton.

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