Apologies appreciated, Mr. Tindall, but now what?

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The time for change to improve diversity in the industry is right now, says MDC Partners' head of talent and inclusion.

I don’t know Justin Tindall, so I can only assume the apology addressed to Caitlin Ryan over his controversial comments on diversity is sincere and was the result of poorly communicating his true feelings about what he calls the "diversity agenda." Presumably, this was the chance to formulate a well thought out statement that accurately reflects his position on diversity and inclusion.

And that’s exactly why examining apologies teaches us as much about the uphill battle we face as original statements. My intention truly isn’t to pile on Mr. Tindall, but in these cases, his words help illuminate some of the challenges in front of us and are useful in advancing the conversation. 

To review his apology: 

"Firstly, I would like to apologise to you and everybody else who has taken unintended offence at my Private View."

Challenge 1: Taking Ownership. Rather than framing this discussion around those taking offense to comments, as though they bear responsibility for creating this situation, let’s simply say, "I apologize for offending you." Intended or not, it was a person’s words that did the damage here, not the reaction to them. 

And even more powerful than saying sorry for the comment would be the acknowledgment that the real angst on the part of the offended is that those attitudes—particularly if held by decision makers—have real world implications on who is hired, developed, promoted and compensated. 

"Your perspective on building a career in a male-dominated creative environment is both sobering and humbling." 

Challenge 2: Recognizing the Problem. This was likely simply a respectful nod to Caitlin Ryan’s illustration of a female creative’s career journey, but my reaction to her story would only be "sobering and humbling" if it wasn’t so common.

Instead, I personally feel more of a mixture of anger and frustration. Angry that women still need to share these experiences to educate men who have either been active or complicit in maintaining male-dominated creative environments. Frustrated with the reality that despite all the work being done, all the stories being shared, there are still those seemingly unfamiliar with some of the core problems in our industry and beyond. 

"As I have recently explained to my agency, the frustration that I feel around the term diversity, particularly when it is used in isolation, is provoked by a deep sense that ad agencies continue to prioritise predictably short-term solutions to what is a long-term issue. A long-term issue that requires long-term strategies to maintain and cultivate our industry’s strength and depth of talent."

Challenge 3: Competing Interests of Short-Term and Long-Term Strategies. As someone who is responsible for helping create and execute strategies to expand opportunities for diverse talent, I am well aware of the need for actions that are sustainable and that will truly change the face of the industry. This of course has to be reconciled with some key realities:

  1. Our clients need, and are increasingly directing us, to have more diverse teams that in turn will fuel better work for them, right now.
  2. The diverse talent knocking on the door of our industry—or currently in it—expects and deserves equal opportunities, right now.
  3. Agencies will right now benefit from doing something about numbers 1 and 2.

Though Tindall doesn’t detail what he sees as "predictably short-term solutions," his view of "diversity being prioritized over talent" and referencing a "quick fix" and the desire in boardrooms to "tick box, get headline, move on" led me to infer that he believes women and people of color are being hired and promoted on the grounds of their diversity and not their talent. 

This is why Caitlin Ryan would write, "When you get the job, there are mutterings it was to tick a diversity box, not because of your ability." Probably worthy of its own discussion, but criticism of the "quick fix" by its nature incorrectly assumes that prior to these short-term diversity initiatives, advancement within the industry and being welcomed into it was solely based on merit, and white males were not the beneficiaries of any unofficial strategies to maintain the status quo.

This is not to say that there isn’t a need to invest in the type of long-term strategies that combat systemic barriers that stunt progression toward a more inclusive industry. Agencies and holding companies have a long history of supporting great programs aimed at expanding the creative class. I would argue that, in actuality, much of the industry’s efforts trend toward the long-term play, with a focus on entry-level talent. And likewise, Tindall should be commended on challenging the grad scheme and developing the Creative Circle Foundation.

But as Marcus Graham Project CEO and Co-Founder Lincoln Stephens often points out, despite the many investments and programs dating back decades, at its current pace the industry will not reflect the U.S. population until 2079. (I realize Mr. Tindall is in the U.K.)

So, when there is so much aligned interest for talent, agencies and clients to see rapid change, why do we see so many primarily advocating for more long-term solutions? Perhaps because it offers the ability to participate—with good intentions—in the diversity and inclusion discussion without being accountable for its outcomes at this very moment. Is it possible that—intended or unintended—there is a form of self-preservation at play?

For those currently at the top of the pyramid, career development for a 23-year-old woman is not perceived as a threat, but a worthwhile investment. However, solutions that call for more female chief creative officers today are far more disruptive (and threatening) and can make some fearful people claim that diversity is being prioritized over talent. 

I wish it didn’t have to be said, but to all those in that camp, please be advised that you can and should, in fact, have both.

Jason Magnus is VP Talent and Inclusion at MDC Partners.