The Real Work on Diversity and Inclusion Is Just Starting

To promote diversity in their ad campaigns, brands and agencies have to practice what they preach

By Anne Field

Michael Austin/

In late March, Havas New York announced it was hiring three high-level creative executives in an effort to achieve a triple play: boosting diversity at the company, adding disparate points of view to the mix, and creating culturally relevant ad campaigns. "The only way to put inclusive communications out into the world is to ensure we create inclusive environments from which to create," says Stephanie Nerlich, CEO of Havas Creative North America.

As the country faces myriad challenges post-pandemic — and gradually becomes a majority minority nation — marketers understand that their brands must increase their appeal to a much more diverse and younger demographic.

But the reality is that the marketing industry remains mostly white, particularly within the C-suite. To stay viable, a growing number of agencies are taking pains to build a much more diverse culture and respond to rapidly changing demands from their clients.

According to a recent survey of 2,250 U.S. adults from The Harris Poll and worker diversity group Hue, 67 percent of Black men and 46 percent of Asian women working in marketing said their employers did not address opportunities to advance their careers, compared with 33 percent of Black women, 28 percent of white women, and 22 percent of white men.

Havas and other agencies seem to be trying to flip the script. According to the survey, marketers were more likely to say that in the past six months their employers had "made a commitment to building a more equitable environment for employees of color" and "hired someone to lead diversity and inclusion." Late last year saw a series of new agency hires: Barkley hired Adam Miller as director of diversity and inclusion; RAPP Worldwide promoted Devin O'Loughlin to global chief diversity, equity, inclusion, and communications officer, a newly created role; Merkle appointed Kirt Morris to the new position of global chief equity officer for Merkle, dentsu's CXM service line; and The TBWA collective promoted Aliah Berman, previously head of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) at GMR Marketing, to chief diversity officer, North America.

On the brand side, Nike named Felicia Mayo to the newly created titled of chief talent, diversity, and culture officer. Sandra Sims-Williams succeeded Nielsen CEO David Kenny as the company's chief diversity officer, a role he held since February 2019.

Black executives are leading the charge to broaden the lens. In March, basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal was part of a team of founders who launched Majority, an Atlanta-based agency that will ensure at least 75 percent of its staff is Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), women, or LGBTQ+.

Another NBA star, Dwyane Wade, teamed up with entertainment and sports agency CAA's Brand Consulting division in early 2020 to launch CAA AMP, to help marketers engage diverse audiences.


Major Disconnect

The challenges marketers face when it comes to practicing diversity are multitude, with the situation particularly acute internally.

A Publicis Groupe report showed that 1.9 percent of its senior staff are Black, 10.7 percent are Asian, and 4.5 percent are Hispanic and Latino. Havas Group data released last July showed that just 2.7 percent of its senior executives and directors are Black, while 76 percent are white.

"The brand has to do the work first," says Jocelyn Monroe, head of business and brand development at CAA AMP. "You can't simply market your way into DEI."

How does promoting diversity and inclusion work operationally? Diversity officers start their efforts by engaging employees throughout the organization and having soul-searching discussions in both large and small groups. "Before you can invite guests to your house, you have to clean it up," says Barkley's Miller.

Not long after he started working at Barkley last fall, Miller organized and moderated a panel discussion with five BIPOC employees who talked about their experiences both inside and outside the agency, with most of the company's 420 employees attending. The effort uncovered revelations both large and small, such as how the casual use of certain words and/or phrases comes off as cultural appropriation to some people.

Miller worked to ramp up four existing employee groups — each with two managers — to educate the agency about diversity and measure the efforts.


Recalibrating Recruitment

Nielsen is also taking steps to ensure that all of its senior managers are actively involved in a wide range of diversity efforts. Last year, for instance, the company changed its accountability metrics for top executives who report directly to the CEO to include diverse representation on their teams and job promotions. That followed the 2019 introduction of performance review workshops for managers to help them understand how unconscious biases may affect their evaluations.

Hiring more diverse talent is at the heart of the changes confronting the industry. Lincoln Financial recently added two diversity-focused recruiters to their talent organization.

Under Morris's leadership, Merkle is expanding the company's recruiting pool through strategic partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as diverse associations.

In late March, the company announced a partnership with the Howard University School of Business to develop a consumer marketing curriculum and extend the pool of diverse talent.

Morris is also making sure diverse hires find a welcoming environment. He began a pilot program, The Seat at the Table (SATT) mentorship, in April that will pair 50 employees from minority groups with senior executives for six-month-long mentorships.

Morris's goal is to expand the program throughout the company by the end of the year. "It means not only are the senior leaders mentoring people at the director level and below, but that they come to understand what it means to be women or people of color in the organization," he says.


Uncomfortable Conversations

For some brands, diversity and inclusion have long been key elements in their marketing and ad campaigns. At the inception of the D&I team at Lincoln, the company started a process in which members of its diversity team work with the insurer's internal advertising group to develop the creative for ad campaigns, from initial concept to editing to distribution.

According to Allison Green Johnson, SVP and chief diversity officer at Lincoln Financial, the input typically involves critiques that are strong on nuance. "We've been on a learning journey, and I think we're now at a very good place," she says.

During the development of an ad campaign that ran last year, titled "Now You're Talking," depicting different generations of families having group phone calls, some members of the diversity team asked whether certain cultures might be alienated by a scene showing younger family members challenging their elders.

"Now You're Talking," from Lincoln Financial, emphasizes how important it is that families make the time to talk about their financial future. During the creative development, two members of the insurer's diversity team asked if certain cultures might be alienated by a scene showing younger family members challenging their elders. It's part of a process at the company to have more nuanced conversations when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Lincoln Financial/YouTube

Barkley has created a program for new clients called "Liftoff," in which, during initial meetings, the agency explains why diversity is so crucial to its work. The agency is taking similar steps with existing clients.

At a recent focus group meeting for a client, for example, Miller's team pointed out that the brand's social media content largely consisted of white models, something the company's leadership didn't realize. "We're holding up a mirror to clients," Miller says. "It can be uncomfortable. But that's when real work can begin."



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