Deutsch 'no longer going to invest in diversity,' says former head of program

Felicia Geiger.
Felicia Geiger.

Felicia Geiger, ex-diversity director, says budget to support iniatives like MAIP, TORCH and ADCOLOR was eliminated in January

Faced with financial constraints, Deutsch NY chose earlier this year to eliminate its diversity budget so it could invest in other areas, says the agency’s recently dismissed director of diversity and inclusion.

"I was told that the agency was no longer going to invest in diversity," said Felicia Geiger in a telephone interview. "They wanted to put their efforts behind other initiatives, such as technology."

Geiger, who had been with the Interpublic Group agency since 2002, says the agency’s director of human resources informed her of the change in January. Geiger was also told at the time that the shift would likely result in her position being eliminated. Her last day with the company was March 30.

The director of human resources position has long been held by Robin Lander, though Geiger declined to confirm it was she who made the statement.

A Deutsch spokesperson initially denied that the agency had cut its diversity budget. The agency later followed up with a written statement, "Diversity and inclusion is a business imperative at Deutsch, not because it’s fashionable but because it makes the thinking and the work better."

The agency added: "Diversity and inclusion initiatives have always been led by Robin Lander, who is not only director of HR, but a partner at the agency. She oversees implementation and we continue to make considerable investments in a number of diversity programs and initiatives, pro-bono work for companies that support diverse audiences, and lastly recruitment initiatives aimed at attracting diverse candidates."

Geiger’s dismissal was first reported last week by Campaign US in a Q&A with Chairman Linda Sawyer and NA Chief Creative Officer Pete Favat following the agency’s announcement that it had hired two new CCOs, Jason Bagley in Los Angeles and Dan Kelleher in New York.

Sawyer and Favat were addressing concerns that both new CCOs, as well as the agency’s three other most recent senior hires, were all white men.

When Sawyer and Favat were asked about Geiger’s dismissal, EVP and director of communications Vonda LePage, who had been sitting in on the call, characterized it as a strategic move to shift the responsibility for diversity to everyone in the agency.

"One of the philosophies we lean into is that everybody at Deutsch, from the CEO to the receptionist, owns diversity," she said. "And we wanted to really make sure that everybody was stepping up and owning it. And by having one person who owned it, which is what that role was, kind of took the responsibility off everybody else."

The agency’s written statement this afternoon added, "IPG has numerous programs we regularly participate in.

In fact, every senior manager’s compensation is tied to diversity and inclusion objectives developed by IPG."

Geiger says that before she was dismissed, she had implored agency executives to try filling the CCO roles — one of which had formerly been held by a woman, Kerry Keenan — with a diversity candidate. "I had suggested this would be a great way to infuse diversity at the most senior levels, and that suggestion was not taken up," she said.

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Geiger first joined Deutsch as a general recruiter in 2000. She briefly left the agency for TBWA in 2001, but was brought back by Deutsch in 2002. She was appointed the agency’s first director for diversity and inclusion in 2008.

At first, the job came with a budget "well over six figures," Geiger says. That money went toward establishing internships for diversity candidates and employee resource groups, as well as sponsoring internal programs that invited groups like the Brotherhood/Sister Sol and Ghetto Film School into the agency to talk about their work. Deutsch was also a perennial supporter of programs like M.A.I.P, the Multicultural Advertising Intern Program run by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, ADCOLOR and TORCH, a nonprofit that exposes New York City high school students to career opportunities.

 Deutsch received numerous diversity awards during Geiger’s tenure, including a MAIP Service Award, a Coalition for the Homeless Partnership award, the Live Out Loud Corporate Leadership Award and the IPG Inclusion Award for Community Partnerships. Geiger said Deutsch also received consistently high scores in the IPG Climate for Inclusion Survey, an annual anonymous survey that measures employee satisfaction with agency diversity and inclusion programs.

Geiger herself received an ADCOLOR change agent award in 2011, and a 2013 TORCH L.I.G.H.T. award.

In last week’s interview, Sawyer boasted of Deutsch’s high rates of gender inclusion. "We have always had a lot of women in management and in our organization," she said. "If you look at our senior leadership, we’re at like 58% women, and if you look at our organization overall, we’re over 50% women, as well as around 50% in our creative department."
Geiger says her diversity budget began to shrink in 2014, when the agency started scrutinizing budgets across the board. When she was told in January that the budget — and probably her position — was being eliminated, she reacted with disbelief.

"I was gobsmacked," she said "What do you say to that? I’m not going to throw a fit."

"I said I would like to keep this confidential, because as the agency cheerleader, people would flip if they found out," she said. "And we agreed that we would keep this under wraps."

In the days after Geiger’s dismissal became public, supporters protested the decision on Twitter using the hashtag #WTFDeutsch.

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