Corporate leaders must put diversity at center of goals

"I want to ensure my kids have the opportunities they deserve."

Are we there yet?
Davianne Harris
VP, Head of Strategy
Oberland 

Tell us about one thing that's happened recently that leads you to believe that there's still a problem?

Party invites are coming but not requests to dance. Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance. I didn’t make up this sad-but-true analogy. It’s been around for years. But when a recent Google search flagged a poignant speech delivered by author, strategist, and inclusion expert Verna Myers in 2015, the reality that society is stuck in quicksand hit me hard. As a woman of color in advertising who leads strategy at a purpose-driven agency, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to spark real change in our industry. Being the mom of two little ones fuel injects my motivation. I do not want my children to face the same stereotypical situations that exist in business today when they eventually enter the workforce. I want to ensure my kids have the opportunities they deserve.

For too many companies, promoting diversity and inclusion is a rote, check-the-box move to seem in line with #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #TimesUp, and other essential movements. The unfortunate truth is that too many corporate leaders don’t place diversity at the center of their business goals. Change only comes when there’s a profitable incentive behind it. 

How about something that proves we're making progress? 

Many marketers are clearly struggling with finding an authentic path forward. Wise organizations and marketers are tapping the Verna Myers’ of the world to shift gears. Showing diversity in a way that does not marginalize or tokenize is key. 

Yes, discussions on diversity and inclusion are on the rise across Madison Avenue. Nowadays, it is rare to hear about diversity without it being locked up with inclusion. Diverse workplaces have a long way to go before they become inclusive. While diversity focuses on representation – from race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, to religious beliefs, physical abilities, socioeconomic status and more – it does not require the sustained sense of belonging, involvement, and respect of inclusion.

Only 19 percent of the ad industry includes people of color compared to this group representing 37 percent of the U.S. population. Perhaps more surprisingly, women make up a mere 3 percent of agency creative directors despite accounting for half of the U.S. population. Despite living in a diverse society, we’re in a time when the demographic shift of brand audiences has far outpaced what marketers are portraying. The prevalence of culturally insensitive ads that we see is not necessarily a function of blatant contempt, but rather a lack of nuance and context that fails to be recognized by those who have not experienced discrimination firsthand. While much has already been done to open up seats at the table, true change across the ad industry and others will come only when their diverse voices start to count. 

I’ve now got a seat at Oberland’s table where my voice is being heard and helping brands and nonprofits bridge gigantic divides. I might keep raising my voice a few octaves. Here’s hoping others do the same.

What else needs to be done to get there?

Study after study shows that when diverse leaders participate in high-level business conversations and are decision makers, great things happen. As the Harvard Business Review shared, companies with above-average diversity also have higher innovation revenue.

Not to mention, consumers are demanding diversity at the companies they support. They seek businesses that align with their personal values and generally make the world a better place. According to a recent Forbes and Forrester study, more than half of the adults in the U.S. actively consider company values when making a purchase. And, the number increases to seven in 10 among millennial audiences. 

That sure seems like a wake-up call.

According to a recent McKinsey study, companies in the top quartile for diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry median. Likewise, a Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19 percent higher revenue due to innovation than companies with below-average diversity scores. 

Proof. Concrete proof. Yes, it takes a lot of capital to make organizational shifts. Huge investments are needed to attract and retain diverse talent and to invest in the training it takes to drive change. To be preaching about the benefits of diversity and inclusion on bottom lines seems admittedly ridiculous to me. Yes, strides have been made. But there’s millions of miles to go. With so much hate-filled rhetoric being spewed by supposed-to-be leaders, those on the right side of moral responsibility need to continue to shout. Doing what’s right and profitable, amazingly, has not yet proved to be enough. 

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