Ad industry silence on Tyre Nichols proves we still ignore blatant racism and injustice
R/GA’s Ashish Prashar reflects on empty DEI pledges after death of Tyre Nichols.
A BLM protest in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2020. Ashish Prashar questions the value of agency pledges made that year / Unsplash
We in the advertising industry talk a lot about equity and inclusion. We design a lovely showroom that celebrates our apparent commitment to diversity in all its forms. Sadly, this is all superficial. Pull back the curtain and we see: nothing. We continue to ignore blatant racism and injustice and fail to take even the most basic steps that can drive real change.
For all the pledges we saw in 2020 to finally address systemic racism, just over two years later we’ve seen little real action and the conversation comes up again as police once again kill an African American man in their custody.
Even while they complain of a ’war for talent,’ agencies aren’t doing enough to change how they recruit and promote talent and are struggling to make a meaningful cultural impact.
Racism and exclusion persist in the workplace, with higher turnover rates and lower promotion rates among people of color. For years we’ve known there’s a clear business case for prioritizing DEI at work beyond lip service. A McKinsey study found that the most diverse companies were 36% more profitable in 2019 than their least diverse counterparts.
While companies may sometimes have good intentions in coming forward with commitments after a big cultural moment, the impact falls short every time. After George Floyd’s death in 2020, company after company promised to recruit and retain more diverse talent and pledged to put cash toward DEI. But there was little accountability, because companies often don’t report their demographics and it’s even rarer that they disclose information about spending.
A number of agencies are recruiting more diverse talent, and some are willing to share their data with varying degrees of detail and frequency, but there is a lot more work to be done – particularly when it comes to instigating change at the top. This is where agencies can move beyond anti-bias and anti-racism training to provide things like committed executive sponsorship and mentorship of young diverse talent.
It can be difficult to hold organizations accountable when it comes to all aspects of DEI, particularly when looking beyond financial commitments and assessing what data is important when considering DEI progress.
We need to think bigger if we’re going to make meaningful change. The best DEI strategies target all parts of companies and that starts by going beyond recruiting. Recruiting a diverse workforce is one part of DEI – but it should be viewed as a first step, not a comprehensive solution. It takes holding leaders accountable for change, something agencies haven’t seemed willing to take on. This may include difficult decisions around current leadership and has to encompass taking the impact on talent and agency culture into account when filling new leadership roles. Managers who create or enable a workplace environment that makes people of color uncomfortable should never be shoe-ins for new leadership roles.
It also means asking questions about who we work with, the kind of work we want to create and the stories we want to share with the world. Companies often make the biggest difference when they change something within their spheres of influence. In this industry, our sphere of influence is narrative.
The creative industry has served as an arbiter of ideas and a reflection of a society’s failing or burgeoning health. Creatives have had a powerful hand in building either massive propaganda machines or culture-changing art and movements. The question about which side we’ll fall in this dichotomy can be answered by choosing to be conscious of our resources and of our responsibilities.
It is our responsibility in the creative industry to question what ideas and values we are disseminating, what stereotypes or biases we are introducing, and to whom we are giving platforms through our work. But it’s not enough just to avoid making the mistakes of the past; this industry has a responsibility to create new narratives that help tear down the biases and stereotypes it has previously helped perpetuate.
If agencies really want to make a difference in connecting with people of color, they can start working on the issues and causes that impact and shape our lives. There is no shortage of partners in need of help addressing issues like justice reform, education and healthcare equity. Find out who you can work with to make an impact and get to work. Talent (and prospective talent) will notice.
Make 2023 the year that your agency was truly an ally in the fight for diversity.
Ashish Prashar is the global CMO at R/GA and a justice reform activist. He sits on the board of Just Leadership, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice.