As agencies drag their feet on diversity, some Black creatives take matters into their own hands

Agencies say they’re serious about being a catalyst for change in the diversity, equity and inclusion realm, but it's still not happening fast enough.

Since last year’s wave of anti-racist pledges, agencies haven’t made nearly enough headway in diversifying the workplace. To Walter Geer III, this unfortunate state of affairs underscores the need for accountability.

“How many people and holding companies came out this past summer and said that they were going to donate millions of dollars?” recalled Geer, executive creative director, experience design for VMLY&R, during this month’s MM+M Racial Equity Summit. “‘We’re going to donate $10 million and we’re going to help build Black businesses and [hire] all these Black employees.’” 

Seven months later, precious few of those promises have materialized, he lamented. But Geer — an outspoken Black creative with a talent for using social media — hasn’t been shy about holding well-meaning but potentially hesitant white execs to their word. 

“When we talk about how we actually move the needle, and why people are slow, people are slow because they’re not being called out,” he said.

The latest to witness Geer’s brand of accountability first-hand: Gary Vaynerchuk. Vaynerchuk vowed to hire two black C-level execs, but the VaynerMedia CEO missed his own Jan. 1 deadline. Because Geer had elicited the promise during an earlier video interview, he had it on-record. “I very kindly called him out by reposting that clip,” he quipped. 

A Twitter exchange ensued, and Vaynerchuk — to his credit — agreed to an Instagram Live chat with Geer last week. During their 49-minute conversation, Geer urged Vaynerchuk to explain his lack of progress on the DE&I front. 

Vaynerchuk acknowledged that many companies have exhibited what he called “keyboard advocacy that’s not backed up by action.” He later confirmed to Adweek that he intends to fill three new C-suite positions with BIPOC candidates by June 1.

Agencies say they’re serious about being a catalyst for change in the diversity, equity and inclusion realm. But behemoth advertisers like Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson aren’t exactly demanding it of their marketing partners, and it’s simply not happening quickly enough. In fact, while gender diversity improved last year, racial representation in the ad industry actually worsened.

Comments by Geer and two other insiders suggest that ad firms won’t truly shake up the status quo until they devote larger sums of resources and commitment to force change. As an example, W2O head of diversity, equity and inclusion Marcia Windross said that, after the death of George Floyd, a lot of companies stepped up their search for a chief diversity officer — “but as an individual contributor, with not a lot of support.” W2O, she noted, has two sides to its DE&I team, one which focuses on employees and the other on client engagement.

As for other forces impeding progress, Windross said during the MM+M Summit that “it could also be that there is a certain amount of fear… Folks do not want to give up their spots at the top, and that’s the same fear that caused the [Jan. 6] insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.”

Fellow panelist and Havas Health Plus associate managing director Tayla Mahmud echoed that point, describing it as a mindset of scarcity. “There is a thought that there’s only a certain amount of jobs,” she explained, noting that a senior leader might be thinking, “‘If I have to fill those with diverse employees… then that may take away from me or others.’” 

These leaders should instead adopt a mindset of abundance. “All the research shows that diverse leaders and a diverse workforce positively and substantially impacts the bottom line,” Windross said. As to why progress is so slow, she added, “I don’t know if it’s because they don’t believe the research [from the likes of McKinsey, Deloitte and Mercer] or it could be that they don’t know about it.”

Geer urged that C-suite-level incentives tied to diversity should have more teeth. “If you start to impact their revenue and their salary, that’s when change happens,” he said, adding that diversity should be factored into bonus compensation. “I know a lot of agencies are saying, ‘Yes, we do that.’ But when it’s like 1% or 2%, it doesn’t matter because 1% or 2% of [a base salary of] $250,000 or $500,000 really isn’t that much money.”

Mahmud said that follow-up must be similarly emphasized. “There’s another aspect to say, ‘Have you kept them longer than a year? Are they moving up the organization? Are they supported?’ That needs to come into play.”

Indeed, it’s in marketing firms’ interest to be intentional in creating the right environment to attract and retain diverse talent. Representation for BIPOC in the advertising industry (34%) lags the national average (41%), according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while leadership teams are more than 80% white male. 

“We have a lot of pipeline programs. But then when they get to the mid-level, there’s this broken rung for Hispanics and for Blacks,” Windross said. “If we’re not doing the work to create the type of environments that are inclusive — where our colleagues can thrive, feel like they belong, be innovative and creative — then we’re not going to attract any of the diverse talent that’s out there.”

Of course, the repercussions in healthcare of not having a diverse marketing team are often more serious than the egregious missteps by CPG advertisers, such as Pepsi’s highly criticized Kendall Jenner TV spot or H&M’s “monkey in the jungle” hoodie promotion, which elicited accusations of racism. 

“When creative and communications miss the mark in healthcare, communications is the difference between minorities not being included or not wanting to participate in clinical trials for products that will directly impact their lives,” said Mahmud. “It’s a matter of someone walking into the ER and their pain being underestimated. It’s a matter of a physician speaking to a patient in a very condescending way, turning the person off from going to the doctor. Or disproportionate distribution of vaccines. We’re talking about impacting people’s lives, and that can’t be understated.”

Added Geer, “A lot of these pharma companies, when they have medications created specifically for people of color or Black people, they don’t even thoroughly know or understand the audience that they’re making these drugs for,” said Geer. “So it’s our responsibility to get in there and educate and help craft the story, help message the story correctly.”

To that end, Mahmud would like to see agencies assign some form of third-party oversight –  “a resource that’s not fully ingrained in the system,” as she put it, “because sometimes when you’re in the system, you’re blind to the challenges and the broken parts of the system that would impact someone else.”

Agencies, she continued, should treat diversity as they would any other business challenge. “Agencies are experts at solving big business challenges; that’s what we do every day. And we should be looking at this as a business challenge and be approaching it with the same level of rigor.”

So has the situation materially improved? Last May, a woman later dubbed “Central Park Karen” played into prejudice by falsely accusing a Black man of attempted assault. That same day, Floyd was killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, setting off a firestorm of pent-up anger born of the pandemic lockdown and the earlier deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The nationwide social reckoning spawned many an agency promise to address racial inequity in their ranks, but agency leaders’ good intentions have yet to be backed up by more action on the hiring front.

Referencing the Pepsi and H&M gaffes, Geer said, “Everyone asks us, ‘How did that happen?’ Well, it happened because there’s [only] two Black chief creative officers in the major holding agencies, six Black ECDs — I’m one of them — and six Black GCDs.” There are similarly few Black strategists.

Individuals in those positions, he explained, have the final say on creative before it goes out the door. Having so few Black execs in these roles is the root of past campaign disasters — and could lead to future ones, too, if not enough is done to disrupt the representation status quo.

And even if there had been a Black person in the room during the sign-off stage of those ill-advised efforts, perhaps “they didn’t feel that the climate was inclusive, or they didn’t have a speak-up culture where they felt that they could say, ‘Hey, I don’t think that’s a good idea,’” Windross suggested. Psychological safety to speak and be heard is just as important as having a seat at the table, the panelists noted. 

That, too, comes from upping the number of BIPOC in all levels of the workforce. Until more of their suggestions are followed, there will be a lot of agencies and holding companies that are very good at talking the talk, but not necessarily walking the walk.

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