When I started my career in advertising, I had very few female leaders around me to look up to. My first agency job was intimidating. I’d worked hard to get there, but I still felt like I’d be laughed out of the room (full of men) if I presented my own ideas.
In the last 20 years, I’ve been thrilled to see diversity evolve from being a nice thing to do, to being a responsible thing to do, to finally becoming a business imperative. It took too long, but the industry has finally realized we need to more actively address the glaring diversity gap in creative agencies.
In an industry that demands innovation, and consumers that demand representation, homogenous agencies face an existential threat.
Agency leadership has to prioritize and advocate for diversity
Diversity of talent in our offices has progressed in a lot of ways, particularly with women. I’m proud to be part of an agency with female CCOs in India, Brazil, San Francisco, Chicago, and Canada, and to work with an incredible head of talent -- Cindy Augustine -- who’s constantly pushing us to do more and cast our net wider.
Last year, we played a huge role in Free the Bid, a global initiative started by director Alma Har’el that advocates for ad agencies and brands to ensure at least one bid for every commercial job comes from a woman director. (On average, each project gets three bids, and after years of gender bias, women directors don’t often have the opportunity to build competitive reels.)
If we can guarantee that one of every three bids is from a female director, we’ll see change in a heartbeat. I thought it was a brilliant idea. So I called all my CCOs in North America to see if they agreed (they did), and then I called my CCO friends in other major agencies to ask if they’d be willing to sign on. Within 24 hours, my entire company and just about every agency were on board.
That’s one benefit of being a woman in a position of power: being able to quickly network with other CCOs and advocate for women. As a result of Free the Bid, FCB has significantly increased its outreach to women directors and they’ve been awarded many of the jobs.
It also started an encouraging trend among production companies. They’re funding more young women and helping to build their reels because they know they have a third of a chance of winning a job if they have a talented woman on their roster.
Find and nurture diverse talent
Today’s consumers don’t just want ads to be relevant to their interests and needs; they want them to speak to who they are and where they come from. Thanks to the Internet and social media, today we’re all exposed to different stories, we interact with people who aren’t like us, and we see more of the world.
This is especially true on platforms like YouTube. In part due to its strong creator culture, YouTube has been a home to groups that have been underrepresented in traditional media. Case in point: nearly two-thirds of black millennial viewers say YouTube is a place where black people have a voice. And, In the US, 60 per cent of self-identified LGBT respondents see positive change for LGBT people on YouTube in a way they don’t in traditional media.
It’s clear that consumers want to connect with and get inspired by others who share their background. This holds true for the stories we tell too and it starts with who we hire to tell those stories.
First and foremost, we have to make the industry itself more attractive, particularly to first-generation college graduates. It’s on us to emphasize that the industry is purposeful, respected, financially rewarding, and that we truly believe our efforts at work are worth the time we put in.
Secondly, we should look beyond portfolio schools. Where are the poets? Where are the painters? Where are the photographers that tell amazing visual stories but haven’t thought about advertising?
Third, we need to value diverse voices. We can’t hire diverse people and then ask them to act like everyone else. Remember when women went to work and tried to act like men? That’s not embracing diversity.
A lot of agencies strive to bring in young people with diverse backgrounds and expertise — and that’s a good first step. But research has shown that there needs to be diverse talent representation in an agency for people to feel comfortable speaking up. If you’re the only person of color in the room, it’s that much harder to find your voice. Leadership must commit to making people feel creative, not intimidated. Mentorship is important here — I mentor several people once a month so they know they’re a valued team member and have someone at the top to talk to.
How to stay accountable as we make progress on diversity efforts
The time is now for agencies to make change. Lip service isn’t enough. Here are the three tenets I use to hold myself and my teams accountable.
1) Commit: It can’t be a one-and-done effort. You have to wake up every day committed to making it work and, when it’s not working, ask why. We should be incentivizing organizations to treat diversity as more than just a box to check; it’s vital to the business because it has real economic value.
2) Measure: Support diversity efforts with hard data. If another agency is watching what you’re doing and sees tangible proof that diversity is making a positive difference, how quickly do you think they’ll want to do the same thing? That’s what happened with Free the Bid — when people saw that more great female directors were suddenly being celebrated, more people wanted to commit to the cause.
3) Talk: Keep the conversation going across all levels. Every time I talk to my CCOs, we discuss how they’re approaching diversity, and if we’re hiring people who will push us to the next level creatively. If diversity isn’t part of the hiring conversation, it becomes invisible. It’s one of those things that has to be front and center all the time.
I truly believe the more you show diversity out in the world representing your company, the faster your company will become diversified. At FCB, PR is an important part of that effort. We’re always pushing for diverse representation on panels, award juries, and in the press. For instance, I’m thrilled FCB is sending the first "Working Parent Cannes Correspondent," Sarah Latz, and her son Henry to cover the Cannes festival for us this year.
The challenge we as an industry have to collectively take up
Advertising is a people business, and it only gets better when we have talented people with different points of view. The changes I’ve seen since joining the industry are amazing and inspiring, but we can always do more.
We’re not going to solve the diversity gap overnight — it’ll take a high level of focus, urgency, and commitment across the industry. But it’s a goal worth fighting for, and an essential one for the future of advertising.
We’ve done a better job representing white women, but I’ve seen very little change with people of color. That’s a high priority for me. On every jury and every panel, every time we put a group together, the team isn’t complete unless it includes people of color. Is that an impossibility within your organization? Then that’s your next brief.