Diversity after distancing: Ensuring D&I efforts are stronger than ever in a post-COVID world

"We can't sit around and wait for these magical solutions -- we have to be the ones with the input."

Did you know that Henry Ford basically invented the weekend? Yeah. Your Saturdays are sponsored by an automotive brand. How do you feel about that?

The Ford Motor Company president's decision to give his staff two days off sparked a nationwide -- and later global -- movement that changed the blueprint of how we work forever.

It’s happening again. Only this time it’s a global pandemic creating a new roadmap, says Doug Melville, chief diversity officer at TBWA.

"When we come back, there will be things that may catch on at a much larger level scale that may be part of Americana moving forward," he told Campaign US, speaking of the mammoth, unprecedented and inevitable transformation advertising and other industries will endure whenever a "new normal" takes place.

It will include a relaxation on working from home policies, something which has garnered mixed reactions from where Melville stands as a D&I practitioner. 

He said: "A lot of people I’ve spoken to say they enjoy working from home, but the isolation doesn’t help mental health. It’s so nuanced. One thing we’re seeing from a lot of the Zoom calls is that people are able to share their full selves. People are culturally being very ethnic and sharing parts of their world. 

"It’s going to be a combination of some people feeling that they work from home and excel better and are more efficient, and then some people realizing that they need a centralized place because their home is not set up to sustain the digital traffic they’re exporting."

Melville, like other diversity officers, sits at the epicenter of inclusion -- adland’s most valuable necessity for success and a movement that had major pace before the pandemic took hold. COVID-19 brought about many challenges for these efforts, but one immediately came into view. 

"After COVID hit, the first challenge that I saw was the current D&I ecosystem is set up on in-person interviews, meetings, in-person everything," he explained. "How do we translate all these messages to digital?"

The physical aspect of D&I was far greater than anyone realized. Pretty much all of these major efforts are centered around some sort of conference, award show of happy hour. The digitization of a physical world has hung a huge question mark over the role of a diversity officer, says Melville.

"Does it change to become more of a digital officer versus someone who raises money or sets up events? Is it more of a project manager role rather than a HR role? Can you update a website, can you hold an audience digitally, can you make memes, does your content translate online? Because we’re going to have to do better than Zoom grids. 

"I think there’s a lot of questions here about what the best D&I practitioner looks like. That’s one of the areas that’s likely to change."

Melville encourages everyone in this space to get really, really comfortable with a host of platforms like social media channels which are currently experiencing crazy-high engagement rates, including LinkedIn. 

"These digital platforms are going to carry a lot more weight than they used to," he stressed. 

Melville explained that there is a real danger in times of downturn for people to become more conservative and revert back to what feels familiar. But now more than ever we must push to learn.

He said: "We have to create our own reality -- and this is the scary part -- we all have to be continual learners and allow D&I to have a space to evolve and thrive and for differences to have a place to live. Hopefully it will break down the silos, but we’re the ones who are going to have to do it and create the lanes for it."

Asked whether diversity drives have been shelved amid this economic chaos, Melville said that leaders have engulfed the D&I practitioners into decision-making among the sweeping cost-cutting measures we're seeing at agencies.

He said there is immense emphasis on ensuring that the narrative behind diverse talent at this time is as strong and factual as possible.

"The diversity officers at large are communicating with each other, and as a collective I feel that we as practitioners are building more of a bond to unify our messaging," he explained. "It’s important that we look very specifically at the reality; we made such great progress and the COVID-19 situation can’t be one where the perception is that it’s a way to have less diverse employees or that more diverse employees are getting let go or furloughed. That cannot happen in the narrative because it’s not true."

Inclusive talent can be broken down into three main pillars: Recruiting; agency culture that influences retention and; vendors such as third-party production companies. Melville said each of these have to be looked at separately because they are all dealing with their own COVID-19 realities. The diversity answer at this time is not general and industry-wide, it is sector-specific. 

Melville said his message to other agencies is to ensure the chief diversity officer role reports directly into the CFO. 

"Agencies must integrate D&I into the process. If you align diversity with finance and with the core veins of the business, you will have a lot more understanding of the financial realities and headcount of that organization. If it’s put in other departments, sometimes it's hard to get the teeth and the movement to create change in an organization. Align D&I with finance to make sure it has enough resources and funding to properly work and to execute against the goals."

For diverse talent who have been let go or fear losing their job, Melville said now is the time to keep honing their skills and open up their lens to creative opportunities they may not have considered before.

He explained: "I look at the creative industry like a heartbeat; sometimes the heart is out and sometimes it’s contracting, but it’s always pumping. We’re in this situation now where it’s contracting and we’re going to need creativity to scale out, so it’s about widening your aperture and looking around for different creativity. Categories like health are growing. Platforms, streaming services -- there are other ways to place your talents."

Melville has no doubt that our industry can handle and create the practices needed for a "new normal." 

He added: "The reality is we’re the ones who are creating them and we have to know where we are in the conversation -- we can’t sit around and wait for these magical solutions, we have to be the ones with the input."

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