5 vital takeaways from the inaugural I&C conference

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Campaign US' celebration of inclusion and creativity included some tough words for the ad industry. Change voluntarily, "or someone's going to throw the #!&@ grenade," said Diageo's Marc Strachan.

One year after the ad industry was shocked into action by the discrimination lawsuit filed against former J. Walter Thompson Chairman and CEO Gustavo Martinez, Campaign US on Tuesday held its first I&C conference, a half-day summit that included frank talk about the industry’s struggles to diversity and a celebration of 16 creative teams that produced work defying stereotypes and featuring underrepresented people.

Speakers at the event, which took place at the Dream Hotel Downtown in Manhattan, included Marc S. Strachan, VP of corporate relations and constituent affairs at Diageo North America; Brad Jakeman, president of the global beverage group at PepsiCo; Tiffany Warren, founder of AdColor and SVP, chief diversity officer at Omnicom Group; Holly Brittingham, SVP, global culture & inclusion at FCB; Danielle Tiedt, CMO of YouTube; Kevin Brady, executive creative director at Droga5; Geoff Edwards, co-head of creative at Creative Artists Agency and cofounder of Saturday Morning; and Jeffrey Bowman, author, founder and CEO of Reframe: The Brand.

To see live coverage of the event, check out #CampaignIandC on Twitter. Below are five key points from the conference that warrant attention and further thought from everyone in the industry. 

1. Advertising needs to burn, and Marc Strachan will light the first match
On the cusp of the 40th anniversary of "Roots" and the last day of Black History Month, Strachan declared "the time for talk is over," and it’s time to burn the industry to the ground—so to speak.

"Advertising industry, you can change, but you need to burn down the current system of hurdles, serfdom, exclusion, and then maybe, you can change," he said in his fiery keynote speech, adding that there are two ways to transform: voluntarily or "someone’s going to throw the fucking grenade."

Today, target audiences are no longer homogenous, so to exclude them is to turn a blind eye to potential sales. "Change comes, driven by cash," Strachan said. "If that’s what you’re trying to do, to hide, it’s no longer acceptable."

He then rattled off a litany of excuses he’s heard during his 40 years in the business: "‘I don’t know how.’ ‘I don’t know where to look.’ ‘I looked but I couldn’t find.’ ‘We tried, but it didn’t work out,’" and called them "bullshit—all bullshit—hoodwink excuses by professional hoods."

2. Quotas can work as part of a holistic approach
The industry stood up and cheered last year when General Mills, Verizon and HP told their agency partners to diversify or lose their business. But are quotas really the best solution to a long-ingrained diversity problem? Does anyone even use the word "quotas" anymore? 

A panel titled "Are Quotas the Way Forward" suggested that the answer is no.  

Caitlin Lillie, director of talent at Work & Co., argued that quotas run brands and agencies the risk of making a checklist. If you check off your Hispanics, your LGBTQ, your elderly and your females, magically, you’ve solved diversity, she said. "Then what? What sort of planning are you putting in place to make sure that you’re growing those people?" 

Warby Parker’s head of people Susan Lee agreed, providing a real-life example of how her company is experiencing a high turnover rate among LGBTQ, female and multicultural employees. "We have a very young culture," she said. "We have a really wide range of sexual orientation. We have a large transgender community at Warby; we have people of color; we have women executives. But we have very high turnover in some of these areas because people aren't feeling like we're moving fast enough to create an inclusive environment in the company."  

But quotas—for lack of a better term—can work as part of a larger plan, but it won’t be an instant fix, said Paolo Gaudiano, president and CTO of Icosystem.  "It's not as simple as if we employ 50 percent women, all our problems will be fixed. It is true, however, that the kind of misogyny that you see is a little bit less likely to happen" if you employ more minorities, he said. "But you also have to think about the recruitment, the onboarding, inclusion, and it's really about the complexity of all of these pieces together that has to be taken into account."

3. Multicultural agencies will become a thing of the past
"Some of the ‘multicultural agencies’ are now just agencies that happen to specialize in a multicultural niche," said Strachan. Diversity in advertising has come such a long way, he said, now larger holding companies are adopting the same strategies, that will, in effect, cause many multicultural agencies to go by the wayside. "Many of them will not sustain because they just won’t be able to compete, whether it’s infrastructure, size, resources," he said. "We’re going to have to be comfortable with that, the economic reality is going to impact that business."

Part of the reason is that millennials don’t see "multicultural" as a silo, but as everyday life. They "interact with people of all colors, all cultures, all backgrounds just as a standard day-to-day," Strachan said. "You don’t silo. You might go by tribe: I’m a skater, I’m a geeker. I’m an early adopter. And ergo, I think you have a greater opportunity [to] control your future destiny."

4. Don’t confuse internet comments with public opinion
What happens when a brand produces a progressive or inclusive piece of work, and internet trolls unleash their vitriol in the comments? YouTube’s CMO Danielle Tiedt, in a panel discussion titled "Withstanding the Backlash: How to Stay Brave in the Face of Intolerance," advised brushing it off.

"Only 8 percent of people on the total internet ever comment on anything—8 percent—it’s tiny," she said. "And the people who do take time to comment, 70 percent of those only make negative comments ever. I think it’s important to put in context that it’s a very small percentage of people and the people who read comments are even smaller than that, so don’t get too wrapped up in that."

5. The best idea doesn’t always win
Brands are fond of saying they only care about the ideas, and the best ideas can come from anywhere. But in practice, that may not really be true, said Strachan.

If a multicultural agency presented the best idea in a pitch for a major brand like Ketel One, "a lot of people at my shop would be hard-pressed to give them the business," he said during a panel discussion titled "Creative Under the (Diverse) Looking Glass."

The Diageo executives would "lose a lot of sleepless nights; they’d come up with a thousand excuses as why they shouldn’t—or they couldn’t—give them the business: infrastructure, or maybe they can’t handle it financially" he said, "and we are light years ahead of where we used to be." But in the end, they would likely still not give the multicultural agency the business.

Mark Robinson, SVP at Carol H Williams Advertising, echoed this sentiment, saying that multicultural agencies lack the "deep pockets" of traditional ad shops, which is why they’re bought up by holding companies. "If you’re a multicultural agency whose reason for being is just that you’re multicultural and not that you are good, then you won’t survive. You’ve got to be good first and then expert in your specific subject matter second."

Geoff Edwards, co-head of creative at Creative Artists Agency and cofounder of Saturday Morning, took it one step further. In order for a multicultural agency to survive, he said, good isn’t good enough. "You have to be exceptional."