Bridging the Diversity Disconnect: Charting More Inclusive Pathways to Growth

February 25, 2019

By Elliot Lum


Interviewing more than 120 business executives and academics about the state of diversity in the marketing and advertising industry provided a rich and broad foundation for understanding what is happening in the diversity and inclusion landscape in both organizations and universities. We spoke to those who either specialized in diversity, such as chief diversity officers, in addition to those who are considered diverse such as executives of color and professors at Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions. We didn't limit those who we interviewed to just this sample size but made sure to capture perspective from the wider community responsible for talent such as chief marketing officers, CEO's of agencies, and chief talent officers.

The unanimous consensus — from both industry and academia — was the important role that diversity and inclusion plays in enhancing the cultural richness of and in creating a greater sense of belonging within our respective organizations. These collective benefits help drive growth for our organizations. Diversity and inclusion is an area that both industry and academia have similar interests to help continuously improve.

So, what's been the problem then? Why are we still talking as an industry about being, as one respondent said, on a "hamster wheel" when it comes to diversity and inclusion? The best perspective comes from the talent entering into the industry who can look at this with fresh eyes and can provide the raw insight of how we can get off this hamster wheel and address some of the emotional, hidden challenges they face when trying to find their place in the industry:

  • Management Disconnect: While new hires can appreciate their managers for their industry experience, the relationship is still not optimal. Several new hires admit that they feel like their manager can't relate to the challenges they face with regards to diversity, and often don't trust them to share these experiences or perspectives for fear of "causing trouble" and retaliation (e.g., delayed promotion). This also exposes how a lack of people of color in senior leadership positions means there are no other alternatives for mentorship and support from a likeminded individual in their current work environments.
  • Microaggressions: While some new hires could name them as microaggressions, others described similar experiences even though they didn't have the word. Microaggressions, even when unintentional, are internalized as insults to these individuals, their culture, and their intelligence. Coworkers engaging in behaviors that are offensive, even on a minute level, leave that person feeling uncomfortable, disrespected, and helpless at this point in their careers to address such behavior.
  • Cultural Illiteracy: Cultural acceptance has a varied history in the United States. But just because we aren't living in the past doesn't mean that some of the mannerisms of yesterday don't still exist in new forms today. Without true cultural understanding, many minority new hires feel like they are constantly on edge, trying to make sure they don't inadvertently cross the line, but also making sure that the stereotypes of the past aren't assigned to them. The other side of cultural literacy is understanding how and why someone engages and interacts the way they do based on ethnic cultural norms and creating an environment that is opening and accepting of this different way of working and interacting.
  • Workplace Integration Dissonance: New hires often don't feel comfortable starting a conversation around diversity due to the risk of losing their jobs. When organic cultural conversations happen, new hires carefully pick and choose their battles, mostly opting not to engage to avoid conflict and not to be heard as the lone voice of the people in the room. More importantly, they realize that no one has prepared them to have these conversations in the workplace, or prepared them for the culture shock they've experienced in the workplace.

For so long, the industry has focused on scrutinizing diversity numbers. Measurement is key to managing business performance, so it is not surprising that the industry has been so focused on improving diversity numbers. But diversity is not a hard business outcome like return on investment when optimizing the media mix. Diversity encompasses real people who encounter real experiences — like what was described above — in the workplace that must be acknowledged, addressed, reconciled, and understood. We need to supplement scrutinizing these diversity numbers by also understanding how those numbers are achieved.

This research is not meant to "fix" anything. We know that the topic of diversity and inclusion is inherently fluid. It is a change management process that is constantly changing with no real end point. We hope to evolve this conversation by building an inclusive index which maps back to the four disconnects described above. We are looking to pilot this index with organizations that are looking to improve their inclusive practices within their own internal culture surveys that are administered.

Our approach is intentionally pragmatic to see how we can truly build a sustainable approach to inclusion that drives more conversations within our respective organizations and starts to bring our industry together around similar kinds of language. We know there are a lot incredible diversity and inclusion efforts underway. We also know that there are no forums where the diversity and inclusion conversation is folded into the larger narrative around talent.

Diversity and inclusion cannot be a conversation that is sidelined to those who have diversity in their job function or because of the color of their skin. DK Bartley, SVP and head of diversity at Dentsu Aegis, explained, "it is the responsibility of everyone, not just a few." William Gipson, president of end-to-end packaging transformation and chief diversity officer at Procter & Gamble added, "Diversity is not something that we should compete with other companies on, but something we as a business community should embrace together, to raise us all up."

This spirit is one of the reasons why the ANA created the Talent Forward Alliance (TFA), a unified partnership committed to inspiring and accelerating the development of exceptional talent to fuel our industry's growth. It invites the entire talent ecosystem to come together — marketers, agencies, and publishers — who come from different backgrounds — marketing, human resources, and diversity and inclusion — to help solve our industry's most pressing talent challenges, one of which is diversity and inclusion.

A model that our industry can look to is from what Kevin McDonald, vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity, and equity at the University of Missouri has implemented at his school and within his community. He developed, introduced, and rolled out the Inclusive Excellence Framework that is organized around five key principles:

  • Access and Success: This dimension refers to the objectives and strategies used to increase or maintain compositional diversity among the university's constituent groups and includes activities related to recruitment and retention of our students, faculty and staff.
  • Institutional Climate and Intergroup Relations: This dimension refers to the objectives and strategies that enable the institution to create a climate that is supportive and respectful and that values differing perspectives and experiences.
  • Education and Scholarship: Targeted professional development activities directed to improving the multicultural competencies of faculty and staff will contribute to a learning and research environment where innovation and creativity thrive.
  • Institutional Infrastructure: This dimension refers to the policies, resources, organizational structures, and the use of metrics and other evidence to drive intentional decision making around diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Community Engagement: Leverage MU's mission as an AAU land-grant institution to improve outcomes and reduce disparities for historically underrepresented and underserved populations in Columbia and surrounding communities, Missouri and beyond.

While these principles are embedded into the fabric of university life, local government officials, as well as the business community, started to adopt this language. The focus on inclusion was intentional to drive larger community engagement that brought together different stakeholders. McDonald explained, "The term 'diversity' can be polarizing. I moved away from narrow definitions of diversity to a broader definition that defined it as the various mix or combinations of human differences. This allows everyone to see themselves as part and parcel of the process. As a result, no one can sit on the sidelines and say that diversity and the work that accompanies it involves 'them' and not 'me.' I wanted to broaden the conversation to recognize inclusion so that everyone would see an opportunity to get involved."

Mayor Bryan Treece of Columbia, Missouri declared August 24, 2018, Inclusive Excellence Journey day in the City of Columbia. It was the culmination of a long journey where the local community was grappling with how to more meaningfully move diversity and inclusion work forward subsequent to the racial protests leading to the resignation of the University System President and University Chancellor in 2015.

McDonald explained where the origins of this journey started: "When the protests happened, the community felt that the university insulated themselves. When I met with local community officials, I could see that there was great passion around this subject matter. Community leaders wanted to find ways to reconnect with the university, and they wouldn't let me leave that lunch meeting without sharing a bold idea. Thinking on my feet, I said why don't we create an inclusive framework as a community. This construct could serve as a backdrop for our city and our county. We could become the nation's first inclusive city and county. That was the seed of the idea that led us to find a path to come together as a community and continue the healing processes that were underway in the community."

We could learn from these efforts at University of Missouri to become the first inclusive excellence industry. This approach will not only will help improve our collective business results, but it will signal to the next generation of talent that their voices truly matter. Creating this sense of belonging will attract this talent as the industry needs their perspective, their skills, and their spirit to help drive growth for our industry, our organizations, and ourselves.


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