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Adland says representation matters, so why isn’t the talent in the room?

By Devin O'Loughlin | Global head of diversity and inclusion

June 20, 2022 | 6 min read

71% of people agree that it’s important to work for an organization that values diversity, yet they don’t see people who represent them on the agency roster. Devin O’Loughlin, global chief of diversity, equity and inclusion and communications officer at RAPP, explains why representation remains an issue for agencies, and how retention and ascension plans can make the difference.

Diversity & inclusion

‘Agencies obviously haven’t nailed the wide spectrum of representation’ / Image via Unsplash

It’s shocking that an industry tasked with promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) to the masses remains painfully homogenized behind the curtain, but that’s the truth in advertising halfway through 2022. What, then, can agencies do to reverse this wretched reality and infuse themselves with the DE&I necessary to accurately reflect the society we live in?

Where are the depictions of older people, disabled people or the LGBTQ+ community in mass marketing? Agencies obviously haven’t nailed the wide spectrum of representation. But it is improving, and plenty of major agencies have started to lay the necessary groundwork for bringing talent with more diverse backgrounds and perspectives into their creative teams through initiatives such as building relationships with target universities, academies and other groups. But it’s obvious that most agencies are still predominantly white.

If an agency has done a decent job at bringing representation into its organization, it’s likely still woefully behind on equitable practices that will ensure retention. Some of the biggest issues stem from leadership buy-in (or lack thereof). If leadership isn’t taking these systemic shifts seriously, they’ll be slower to happen, if they do at all.

Advancing everyone equally

Simply put, most people don’t want to enter spaces where they don’t see themselves – and the real world – reflected. Folks are no longer putting their energy into pushing against the tide; they’d rather join organizations that are already doing the work and have results to show for it.

Retention and ascension plans are key to keeping diverse and skilled talent, particularly in a job market where competition for great workers has never been so fierce. Top-quality candidates know they have control. This means that, at all levels, it’s almost impossible to woo new talent into your agency (especially when the competition is often sexier and better-paying, such as flashy tech companies). As such, agencies prefer to promote from within, grow their talent and keep shining stars on their team.

Crafting thoughtful and relevant growth plans for talent makes that more of a possibility. Plus, creating a culture where talent is equitably acknowledged (and advanced) for their contributions to the business improves morale and fosters genuine camaraderie – and, frankly, better work.

Ways to begin balancing representation

In short, agency and marketing leaders must create effective retention and ascension plans to work toward more representation and to maintain top talent amid increasing competition. Here are a few important places to start:

Figure out where your gaps are. Create various forms of programming – coaching, sponsorship, training – that focus specifically on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) talent, as well as other underrepresented workers. We collectively know that we’re not where we want to be from a representation perspective, and we understand that our BIPOC talent needs to be supported in order to stay put amid competition. Find out specifically where your company’s gaps are by looking at your employee data: who’s staying and leaving, which levels and disciplines are seeing the highest turnover, who’s being promoted – and having one-on-one conversations with employees from underrepresented communities so that, as a leader, you can educate yourself and nurture your people accordingly.

Don’t assume you know what your people need. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that could prompt uncomfortable answers, such as:

  • Where do you feel least supported within the agency?

  • Where do you see the agency has the most room for growth overall?

  • Do you see yourself here in a year?

  • If the company had to focus on one initiative to foster the evolution of our culture and continue our pursuit of equity, what should it be?

Leaders then need to act on the feedback they get because the only thing worse than not asking the questions is asking them and then not actioning on what your people need. Open communication is key. When teams feel neglected and unheard, engagement suffers and poor business results follow.

Prioritize sponsorship over mentorship. Your people need someone to speak their name and help them grow. This may seem like splitting hairs, but the promotion that comes with sponsorship is often the missing piece in ensuring diverse talent feel happy and supported at their agencies. According to Rosalind Chow writing for Harvard Business Review, “sponsorship can be understood as a form of intermediated impression management, where sponsors act as brand managers and publicists for their protégés. This work involves the management of others’ views on the sponsored employee. Thus, the relationship at the heart of sponsorship is ... between sponsors and an audience – the people they mean to sway to the side of their protégés.”

Ultimately, too, the whole industry needs to do a better job at training and upskilling managers to support direct reports who may not look like them or have similar backgrounds or perspectives. It’s the elephant in the room to acknowledge that these gaps create inequities for different people within an agency structure, but it’s resoundingly true. We need a level playing field, which requires managers who know how to create that safe space and clear those pathways for growth.

Devin O’Loughlin is global chief of diversity, equity and inclusion and communications officer at RAPP, where she also serves as global co-chair of Omnicom’s LGBTQIA+ employee resources group Open Pride.

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