How Diversity & Inclusion Should Work in Advertising: Do We Have to Say This Again?

via The Blue Diamond Gallery

My original plan was to wax poetic about today’s #SaluteBlackTwitter panel discussion at Advertising Week New York wherein Black Twitter’s influence on advertising and buying habits was discussed. But, alas, I have to get some thoughts on what happened directly afterward off of my chest.

The next panel discussion, on the same stage, featured Jason DeLand, Partner in marketing strategy at the agency, Anomaly. Since the topic at hand was company culture, inevitably, the question of diversity came up and what was said in short was, “We’re not looking for diversity in appearance, we are looking for diversity in thinking.”

This statement is not out of the ordinary at all. You may remember a similar sentiment was communicated via a Ketchum/Fast Company study presented at Cannes this past summer: Diversity of experience is more important than race or gender. Granted, you may or may not have a problem with one or both of these statements. However, let me illustrate some of the problems with statements like this — especially in the advertising industry.

…in an industry where finding ways to shape perception is the majority of what we do, at best it looks (and feels) bizarre to seemingly erase race and gender from the concepts of experience or thinking.

To begin, when we talk about diversity and inclusion it should absolutely refer to more than race and gender. The problem rears its ugly head when you leave context out of the aforementioned assertions. The perception (and reality) of the ad industry is that the vast majority of it is run by cis white men. Thus, in an industry where finding ways to shape perception is the majority of what we do, at best it looks (and feels) bizarre to seemingly erase race and gender from the concepts of experience or thinking while recognizing the traffickers of such a message.

With that being said, you cannot predict someone’s personal experience or way of thinking on race or gender alone. That fact notwithstanding, what you must do is acknowledge the ways society, whether it be local, regional, national, international or global, has allowed them to be treated by others based solely on race and gender. These factors can do a whole lot to shape the way someone thinks or the types of experience(s) an individual can bring into a conference room.

…and I haven’t even touched the subject of intersectionality.

Furthermore, when Mr. DeLand was asked about the pressure some brands are putting on advertising agencies to have more diverse teams, he stated his disdain in brands making such a demand. He seems to believe brands are not in a position to require diversity and brands should let the agency do their job. What’s wrong here? The fact that any brand worth its weight is a proxy passing this demand down from a very important entity: the consumer. The world we live in is represented by many different types of people. Those who are misrepresented, underrepresented or not represented at all are not taking this from companies that want their money.

Likewise, the call for diversity at agencies is, at its heart, one where brands and consumers are looking to ensure that the team in the room making decisions on the outgoing communications accurately represents the recipients of such messages. Simply put, in a world where consumers have an unprecedented amount of perceived power, representation matters. And the factors that contribute to diverse thinking or experiences often include (but are not limited to) race or gender.

Another part that bothers me about any allusion or actual erasure of race or gender (or ability or sexual preference or identity or etc.) from conversations about diversity and inclusion is the framing such an omission around quotas. Any mention of quotas can be used to deflect or redirect the conversation and subsequent solution and this is a problem whether someone is actively participating in this activity or not. We do not need nor should we have this as an issue within the ad industry. We already have more than enough issues on which we should concentrate.

At this point, I don’t even know how to fully close this thought. Part of it is simple fatigue in having to explain such context or even just mentioning that we can very easily discuss both diversity of thought and diversity of appearance since the two are by no means exclusive to each other. I will say this though, I will continue to champion those who are not sufficiently represented — some of whom look a lot like me — through my work, my efforts, partnerships and my words.

And when it comes to making sure your agency is doing what it needs to do in the area of diversity and inclusion, from a business perspective, I will gladly quote the illustrious leader of ABM in State Property, “you either get down or lay down.

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