Over the last few weeks, many advertising agency leaders have produced public statements condemning racism, inspired by the current events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. To those of you who have chosen to make your voice heard — I applaud you. However, my concern is that too many agencies will follow an all-too-familiar crisis management playbook: issue a statement on social media, hold a meeting with affected employees, donate to a worthy cause, and then return to business as usual. This impersonal, rinse-and-repeat method of addressing systemic racism simply doesn’t provide enough comfort and support to your Black employees. To help you better navigate this process, I offer some ideas below on how agency leaders might support their Black employees.
Let’s be clear — your Black employees are hurting. They don’t need you to pen another thought piece on diversity where you wax poetic about how you’re going to make sweeping changes. They don’t need a “white savior”. We don’t like it when we see it in movies and we definitely don’t want to see management emulate this complex in the workplace. For those of you not familiar with the “white savior” narrative, it’s a tiresome Hollywood template, in which a white character rescues minority characters from a bad situation — think The Help, The Blind Side, or Greenbook.
To be totally frank — your Black employees need you to shut the f*ck up and listen.
You need to listen to their anger, grievances, hopes, desires, and fears. Rather than taking the floor, they need you to acknowledge the ways in which they’ve felt marginalized in the workplace. They need you to understand how unconscious bias has affected them personally. They want you to listen to their ideas on how to move forward together. So just listen. Can you do that?
One of my good friends would always say, “Education before execution.” He’d never let you talk tactics until you knew enough about the subject to articulate a sound strategy. Similarly, I recommend that agency leaders educate themselves on the Black experience before trying to put any plans in place. There are plenty of reading lists circulating around the Internet right now that can aid your learning, such as this Black Lives Matter Reading List, this one by Goodreads, and this one by Newsweek. I’ve included the links to make it easy for you to start learning — it’s a great idea to put in the effort and read. Think of this as the same way you’d approach educating yourself for a new client pitch. Your primary research is when you sit down and listen to your Black employees. Your secondary research is checking out some of the reading materials on this list.
Measure What Matters
Chances are your agency business is built off of your ability to accurately measure what matters. Whenever you develop client ideas, you always calculate return on investment. Internally, you are a whiz at calculating metrics that matter in your business, like your utilization rate and profit margin. Your team sees you holding them accountable to metrics, they’ll expect nothing less here, too. Now, you need to translate that ability and use it to address key issues affecting your Black employees.
You need to work with your team to put metrics in place to support the professional success of your Black employees. Put metrics in place for achieving diversity within your management ranks. Put metrics in place for opportunities to work on prestige accounts. Put metrics in place to eliminate unconscious bias from the workplace. Then hold everyone accountable.
Are you familiar with the NFL Rooney Rule? In its simplest sense, the Rooney Rule states that an NFL team must interview a person of color for a senior position. The rule doesn’t dictate preferential treatment or even a hiring quota. It simply says that NFL teams will ensure that talented people of color are given an opportunity to interview for leadership positions. How might your agency implement the Rooney Rule? Brainstorm with your employee resource groups; if you’re a smaller agency, brainstorm instead with your Black employees to determine how they feel about the Rooney Rule. You want to start the discussion by saying that you want to put a measure in place to ensure fair and equitable representation within your management ranks.
There are a handful of marketing agencies and companies in other industries doing a good job of listening to, respecting, and investing in the success of their Black employees. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to put a plan in place — there are others out there making similar strides. Leverage the work of others that have already gone down this road. As inspiration, read what Ben & Jerry’s posted on the work they’re doing to combat the effects of structural racism in their company. Having a clear and visible benchmark allows team members to see the impact of change in the agency in real-time.
Empathy to Engagement
Your employees joined the agency because they believe in you. They trust your vision and trust that you will help them achieve their professional goals. This is your chance to prove to your employees — especially your Black employees — that their trust in you is deserved. Take this moment to show your empathy and engage with your employees in a purposeful way. This journey will not be easy, but it will be meaningful to your team. Remember — this is your moment. Your team is paying attention to your next move. Be empathetic. Be inclusive. Be a leader.
I wrote this for advertising agency leaders since I speak with them every day and hear their challenges. However, this approach can apply to any business. Take the first step with your team members. Schedule that meeting with your team and commit to making change in the workplace. Put tangible metrics in place and hold everyone accountable.
Jeff Meade — Management Consultant to Marketing Agencies