Diversity takes center stage at the upfronts

Marketers eye minority-owned media companies as diversity conversation heats up.

Upfront conversations are generally around pricing, programming and audience numbers. 

That’s changing this year after the events of 2020, which have brought diversity and inclusion to the forefront of ad industry discussions. 

There’s been a broader push in this year’s upfront conversations to shift spend from general market programming to not just channels that reach BIPOC audiences but are owned by minorities, as disenfranchised communities call for economic inclusion. 

As a result, advertisers and media agencies are finally addressing the gap between large media conglomerates and minority-owned outlets.

It’s a shift that’s not just the right thing to do, but necessary as the U.S. becomes a minority-majority country, changing a “whole segment of our demographic footprint,” Lisa Torres, president of Publicis Media's cultural quotient, told Campaign US.

To help facilitate this investment shift for clients, many agencies are promoting minority-owned media companies in dedicated meetings or events. 

Publicis Media set up meetings with diverse media owners to present their capabilities and help them navigate the upfront process. While the group hosted such meetings prior to the pandemic, it made them more frequent in the wake of the social justice protests last summer, Torres said.

Media agency UM finds new partners through word of mouth referrals or by tapping into parent IPG’s broader network. 

“We keep our ears to the ground to know what's happening across these diverse communities, what they're listening to and how they're taking in their information,” said Deidre Smalls-Landau, chief marketing officer and EVP, global culture at UM. “Economic inclusion is what's required to give diversity owned and targeted media opportunities for the future.”

Other companies, including Procter & Gamble, GroupM and IPG Mediabrands, are making concerted efforts to engage specifically with multicultural-owned platforms.

Mediabrands hosted its first Equity Upfront in March, which invited more than 20 Black-owned and targeted media companies, including The Grio, BET, Essence Communications and Urban One, to present to clients including Aetna/CVS, American Express, Johnson & Johnson and BMW.  

The goal was to educate clients on targeting BIPOC audiences, but also to support minority-owned businesses in media. Black consumers hold $1.4 trillion in buying power, and more than half of the general market feel that Black Americans influence culture in some way. 

Mediabrands will host future efforts to include other underrepresented groups including Latinx, Asian and LGBTQ+ audiences, according to Joy Profet, EVP and chief growth officer at Magna.

The pressure is on

The push for more investment in minority-owned media doesn’t come without some prodding from the community. 

Media mogul Byron Allen and other Black media executives posted full page-ads in the Detroit Free Press and the Wall Street Journal accusing General Motors of ignoring Black-owned outlets. Sean “Diddy” Combs also called out GM and other companies for excluding “Black entrepreneurs from participating in the value created by Black consumers.”

The public shaming got results. GM quickly revamped its media investment strategy, pledging to allocate 4% of its U.S. advertising budget to Black-owned media companies by next year, and doubling that to 8% by 2025.

But as brands start to spread their media dollars more equitably, they also have to pivot their messaging to resonate with minority audiences.

“Black consumers care about social responsibility messaging,” Magna’s Profet said. “It encompasses a focus on people, and the responsibility we have to serve people and not the ambition of selling a product.”

To evaluate “cultural readiness” for inclusivity, Publicis Media runs a cultural maturity audit for clients as well as consumer sentiment analysis that uses social listening and AI to understand language around the client and the content they are looking to buy. 

“We're being very careful and understanding of the importance of these decisions, not just for our clients, but for the industry,” Torres said. “We have to be responsible for how the industry changes.”

Deepening relationships with diverse audiences of all kinds is essential. Telemundo, for example, has historically marketed itself as a channel for the “200 percenters,” people who identify as 100% American and 100% Hispanic. 

“Through our research and insights, consumers say ‘I don't want to choose. I want both,’” said Peter Blacker, chief commercial officer and head of DTC Licensing for NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises.

In this context, marketers need to be mindful of intersectionality. “It’s important to be authentic,” Blacker added. “Our stories have to show every spectrum of Latino identities. That full spectrum is something that we not only are bringing into our programming, but we're hoping our marketing partners join us in as well.”

One thing is for sure: brands will be held accountable for their investment decisions long after this year’s upfront concludes.

“If you made a pledge to drive diversity in your workplace and to support a community, you need to understand these entities are part of your community,” UM’s Smalls-Landau said.

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