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Artificial Intelligence Agency Culture Diversity and Inclusion

​Don’t get too distracted by AI, ED&I may be as big an opportunity


By Sadia Siddiqui, Founder and director

June 13, 2024 | 9 min read

We shouldn’t get lost in the myriad possibilities of AI at the expense of the ED&I. That’s according to Sadia Siddiqui of Language Matters.

Is AI the shiny new thing?

Before I start, I don’t really believe that AI’s unstoppable march has usurped ED&I, but it is a slippery slope. And we do tend to get distracted when we see something new and shiny.

But the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent racial reckoning was a pivotal moment for our industry and many others. It was the first time in my two-and-half decades in advertising and marketing that discussions about race and ethnicity were happening that hadn’t been initiated by people of color. It took this heartbreaking incident for many leaders to confront the reality that their offices did not reflect the society and communities they market to, and that simply wasn’t good enough.

Nearly four years on, there have been many discussions about what has changed, and the consensus is “not enough.” I think that response hits at the heart of the issue.

For too long, ED&I has been regarded as a social responsibility rather than a crucial pillar of economic success. However, we’ve all seen the data that proves businesses that embrace it - thrive. Until we acknowledge that, like new business and business development, our ED&I efforts need to be “always on,” we won’t shift the needle.

Diversity is, by definition, infinite, so whatever we’re doing will technically never be enough. That’s the point–we should always pursue growth, with our ED&I ambitions evolving alongside that commercial success.

Here are seven strategies you should consider to ensure that ED&I is a central pillar rather than a one-and-done affair that is superseded when you’re distracted by something else.

1. We’ll only accelerate change in the industry if we work together

Most agencies are working independently and in silos. The reality is that we can’t wait for these grassroots programs to take effect. Otherwise, another generation of underrepresented talent will be locked out of the industry.

While celebrating cultural events can go a long way toward building an inclusive agency culture, they won’t be effective unless they are backed up by programs focused on systemic change.

‘All In’ is an initiative by the Advertising Association, ISBA and the IPA designed to improve inclusivity. Qualifying agencies are encouraged to sign up to be All In Champions, working towards six main pledges designed to improve inclusivity across several areas, including improving the experience and representation of talent from working-class backgrounds.

There is power in numbers and collaboration, so I’d encourage all agencies to apply to become an All In Champion; if that’s not possible, the All In Hub offers a wealth of free resources and guides.

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2. Ditch referral schemes

According to Tangent, which is setting out to revolutionize employee referral culture, you’re 9x more likely to be employed through an employee referral, and 82% of employers rank referrals as their best hiring channel.

That’s great for those of us who are connected and have friends and family in the industry, but if you come from an underrepresented community or a lower socioeconomic background, you may not have that network, thereby excluding you from these employment opportunities.

3. Mentoring is essential in retaining candidates from underrepresented community backgrounds

Once we’ve recruited someone from an underrepresented community, the real work starts to ensure they thrive in their new environment. This is especially true for more junior team members.

If we can all agree that diversity is a fact and inclusion is a choice, we must cultivate cultures where people feel they truly belong. Regardless of background, everyone should start their new employment journey feeling supported and included.

Actively design what those first 10, 20, 30, or 100 days look like for everyone - similarly to how we treat a new business win. If they are at the start of their career, consider whether you can introduce them to someone from your network who shares facets of their identity. You can’t be what you can’t see, and we all need to see what success looks like. Representation matters.

4. Our language matters

I would say this, but inclusive language is at the heart of an inclusive culture. Language is a living, breathing organism, so you must keep abreast of the latest innovations and evolutions. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about being inclusive and using your language to bring people ‘in’ rather than ‘other.’ Everything from how you ask questions or pass commentary betrays our biases, which needs active work and focus.

5. Don’t fall foul of being performative

If you cast a young man wearing a turban and a woman wearing a hijab in your latest spot, but you’d be wary of employing people like them because ‘What would the client say?” - your inclusion efforts are entirely performative. Actively work on unlearning such biases.

6. Understand that diversity doesn’t have limits

You may get a client who thinks the casting has gone “too far diversity-wise.” That’s an oxymoron. ‘Diverse’ means difference, and that’s infinite. There’s room for us all. Remember, if you have someone disabled in a spot, they are a person first and foremost, as we all come in different packages. Let’s not lose our humanity or shortchange them from theirs. This is a mantra for life and not just for business.

7. Use AI

Although AI is far from perfect, it can support your ED&I efforts. One advantage is that AI can mitigate unconscious biases in recruitment, helping find people from more varied backgrounds. AI tools analyze applications based on specific skills and experience versus factors that might be influenced by unconscious bias, such as where they went to Uni or an applicant’s name or age.

Until the industry views ED&I efforts as systemic change rather than a trending topic and nice to have, nothing will change, and we’ll shortchange another generation of talent from underrepresented communities.

Sadia Siddiqui is the founder of Language Matters, an ED&I consultancy that helps organizations develop and elevate their ED&I efforts through effective communication.

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