Let’s Talk Research & Diversity in Ad Land

The “Creative Echo Chamber” Study and Challenges in Self-Reporting, Measurement, and the Current Diversity Dialogue

The annual Cannes International Festival of Creativity is in full-swing right now, which means chief among the many topics being discussed is diversity in the advertising industry, or rather the lack thereof.

Now I must admit, I’m fortunate and privileged to be currently working on a diverse and open-minded team, but that’s my personal experience and hardly the case for most others.

As such my peers and I try to stay abreast of any significant developments on the topic of diversity. And this year, amidst the usual Cannes chatter, no other announcement grabbed our attention more than a recent study commissioned by global PR agency Ketchum and media brand Fast Company.

The study, which surveyed 500 ad industry creatives, indicates the existence of a “creative echo chamber” where the hiring of like-minded people not only solidifies polarized views on society, but also limits the diversity of suggested and approved creative ideas.

At first glance this sounds just about right, and there is truth to it, but a quick skim of some industry publications’ interpretations of it left us… perplexed.

Wait what?

The survey results, which some industry publications have been quick to interpret as suggestive of the absolute importance of diverse experience over gender and racial diversity (Adweek and B&T), can be found below:

There’s a lot to digest here, and until the report is released in its entirety or divulged in more detail at a live panel come Wednesday morning, we can’t evaluate it as a whole.

However, we can discuss some initial merits and faults of the study, and the greater implications of diversity research like this on the advertising industry.

MERITS & FAULTS OF THE “CREATIVE ECHO CHAMBER” STUDY

As far as merits go, the survey makes an earnest attempt to address the very real issue of homogeneity in the advertising industry. It’s difficult to deny the existence of an industry echo chamber, and these results continue the conversation on the need for diversity.

However, the survey isn’t without its flaws, of which we’ll focus on three:

  1. Challenges in Self-Reported Surveys
  2. Measurement and Confirmation Bias
  3. Mutual Exclusion of Experience and Diversity

CHALLENGES IN SELF-REPORTED SURVEYS

The human mind’s inability to accurately report on its own inner workings is well documented by now, as is the fault in over-reliance on self-reported survey results. Yet still, the ad industry continues to place faith in the mind’s ability to recall subconscious information.

In the case of this survey, respondents are given a fixed choice of “creative influences” to choose from, then asked to disassociate their gender and race from their “personal experience”.

Not only does this survey discount the fact that one’s identity is inseparable from their personal experiences, it also places faith in respondents’ abilities to accurately attribute the origin and approval methodology of creative ideas to character traits— a tall task to say the least.

This isn’t to say that the impact of racial and gender diversity on a business is immeasurable. In fact, researchers at the University of Illinois were able to quantify this impact in a 2009 empirical study, which concluded that:

Racial diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share, and greater relative profits. Gender diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, and greater relative profits.

While past research on the effects of diversity programs arguably output varied results, there still exists precedents to this survey that are far more comprehensive and empirical, yet modest and mediated in their conclusion, which brings us to our next point.

MEASUREMENT AND CONFIRMATION BIAS

By the end of the report, rather than form potential hypotheses and explanations for their observed results, the survey comes to a rather rushed and definitive conclusion:

“While many organizations strive to increase gender and ethnic diversity within their walls, this isn’t enough to overcome the self-segregation and unconscious biases that contribute to groupthink and lead to a creative echo chamber.”

For starters, this conclusion dismisses the relatively recent efforts of gender and ethnic diversity programs in the ad industry as ineffective— a conclusion made even more questionable by 94% of respondents’ agreement on the need for diverse cultural influence.

More importantly though, this conclusion is a textbook example of confirmation bias, or the tendency to favor interpretations that align with one’s preexisting beliefs.

To counter this bias, we can propose an alternative interpretation of these results: that there’s simply not enough diversity to move the needle.

As you might have read earlier, Uber is appointing Nestle executive Wan Ling Martello to its board, raising its grand total of female board representation from one to two. While commendable and a step in the right direction, Tali Mendelerg, professor of politics at Princeton University, is quick to remind us that “Simply going from one woman to two women is going to do nothing to women’s voice or influence” on the board.

The gender effect, as this has been referred to, is an observed phenomena which shows that the further from gender parity we are, the lighter the effects of gender diversity initiatives. Conversely, the closer we are to gender parity, the more female presence impacts business decisions.

A similar case can be argued for racial diversity, especially at leadership and C-suite levels; the further from racial parity we are, the smaller the “measured” effects of demographic diversity initiatives.

If and when the full report has been released, it will be interesting to see the demographic breakdown of the respondents and just how diverse the surveyed sample was.

MUTUAL EXCLUSION OF EXPERIENCE AND DIVERSITY

As the dialogue on diversity has evolved, so have the definitions of it. In recent years, two popular interpretations have dominated the discussion:

  1. Diversity in experience
  2. Diversity in race and gender

Both have their merits, and neither are exclusive of the other. It makes sense that efforts to improve diversity in race and gender employment would naturally result in a team of diverse experiences as well.

However some interpretations, including the conclusions from this study, would seem to hold the two in conflict— that gender and ethnic diversity “isn’t enough”, and that diversity of experience is “true diversity.” Not only is this misleading, it also lends to a counterproductive narrative: that diversity and experience are mutually exclusive.

You can be diverse or you can be experienced, but you can’t be both.

Not only does this mutually exclusive interpretation devalue current diversity efforts by suggesting that experience is sacrificed in the process, it’s also an underestimation of the impact that one’s identity has on their career experience. My identity as an AAPI male and son to Vietnam War refugees may not be overtly mentioned in my resume or the creative briefs I write, but my life experiences as one are inseparable from my values, perspectives, and the work I ultimately help create.

Yes, if we want to remedy the creative echo chamber of our industry then we need to address homogeneity in the workforce — there’s no arguing that. But if that’s the case, then we need to focus on the real source of homogeneity in, and (surprise!) that hasn’t changed: a severe lack of gender and ethnic diversity, especially in leadership.


If you have any thoughts or opinions to share, please comment below.

Thanks for reading!