Q&A: Campbell Ewald discusses agency's evolution since racist incident in 2016

"To be frank, people need to understand the bar was the floor. And across our industry, it's no different."

In 2016, Campbell Ewald found itself in a heap of trouble after a racist email sent by one of the agency’s creative directors in the San Antonio office was circulated online and in media outlets.

The email, which invited staffers to a "Ghetto Day" event, included a photo of two black men and said it would include "ghetto music, Malt 45s at lunch, ghetto terminology, and of course, drugs and prostitute are legal all day until close of business."

Jim Palmer, the CEO at the time, was fired from his role due to the invitation, as was the creative director who sent the note, and a number of clients parted ways with the agency.

Kevin Wertz, previously president of Campbell Ewald, stepped in as chief executive following Palmer’s termination.

Now, four and a half years later, Campbell Ewald says it has been working hard to make meaningful change within its agency by implementing specific programs, structures and learnings around diversity and inclusion. But the agency’s leadership team admits it still has more to do.

Campaign US dives into the changes and what else is to come with Wertz; Walter Harris, group account director; Barb Rozman-Stokes, chief talent officer; Zenaida Torres, managing director, LA; and Kari Shimmel, CSO. See the full Q&A below.

Why are you talking about your evolution now?

Harris: "We need to do our part to ensure the country’s focus on racial inequity is more than momentary and that a sustained movement for tangible change is established. The story of our evolution proves that change is possible, even in a historically nondiverse industry like advertising. Additionally, making diversity a priority for our agency five years ago means we are poised to lean into this historic moment and assist with external education on racial disparity in society at large."

Rozman-Stokes: "Seeing and hearing from other companies and talent in the country right now who are struggling with many of the same things we’ve experienced and been working on, it feels like the right time to share our journey. This isn’t because we have it all figured out, but because if more companies can work together and learn from one another, we have a greater chance as an industry to increase equity and eliminate the systematic racism that exists in our business."

Torres: "Advertising has been around nearly 200 years. It’s going to take a lot of sustained action from all of us, over time, to co-create the industry we want to become from the one we inherited. I want to thank two pivotal groups — 600 & Rising and IN FOR 13 — for their leadership and rightly calling out folks for the inertia. We’re past dialogue and performative acts. Gorgeous posts and films are cool, but they don’t matter. Only measurable action does. And the onus is entirely on us. Everyone isn’t set up for success equally because of that systemic exclusion — the data tells us that’s true for diverse talent and especially Black talent. Now, the community is articulating what it expects. They shouldn’t have had to, but here we all are. Let’s just do the work — that’s it."

What were your goals initially? Have they changed over time? And if so, how?

Torres: "To be frank, people need to understand the bar was the floor. And across our industry, it’s no different. For us, we didn’t set out to make the changes we made because our employees demanded it, we demanded it of ourselves as leaders. It can be daunting work because the scale of the problem is so big, but imagine how tired Black and diverse talent are. We’re always going to be under construction, like anyone else, but until we named the problem, we couldn’t change anything. And ultimately, we don’t get to be the ones to declare success, only our workforce can tell us that."

Rozman-Stokes: "We began with a mission ‘to harness the power of our differences to advance the work we do and the world we live in.’ Over time, this mission has come to life by building it one step at a time and evolving our focus from the numbers (diversity) to the programs and offerings we have (inclusion) to the culture (belonging) and to action outside our walls (anti-racism). Our commitments, culture and employees have grown through each step in our journey by taking what we’ve done and building more institutionalized and impactful programs.

We’ve also worked to be more transparent with our goals and results so that all leaders and employees feel a more personal responsibility for our success and challenges. Specifically, in 2018, we set a goal of ensuring our workforce represents the U.S. population and the consumers we serve. We furthered that in 2019 by setting a goal of proportionate representation in all employment actions, including hiring, promotions and retention. By stating these goals and reporting on them to employees, we see better results while realizing there is still so much more work to do here."

Wertz: "Last year, we hired 49 percent people of color, and our workforce was comprised of 24 percent people of color and 55 percent women. With the recent call to action from 600 & Rising and IN FOR 13, we realize a further responsibility to ensure our proportionate representation doesn’t only look at all people of color like one group but measures our results and progress for each racial and ethnic group, including Black, Latinx, Asian and multicultural talent, against each discipline, each level. Our goal is to meet this challenge by 2023.

Despite coming off a year with nearly 50 percent hires being people of color, it didn’t shift our creative department. We are evolving our pipeline for talent and creating a more active on-ramp."

Please share what has been the hardest part of this journey.

Wertz: "The most challenging part has been the fear of making a mistake. Doing the wrong thing. Saying the wrong thing. Until you realize that when you are doing the work for the right reasons (and employees see the effort more than hear about the effort), they will support you when you inevitably make a misstep. Midway through last year, we realized we had a problem with retaining people of color. We shared this information and the corresponding numbers during one of our all-agency meetings. The only way to improve challenges is to be transparent. No one has all of the answers, but it’s better to include everyone than try to secretly fix them.

One of our biggest challenges has been not letting up on the urgency for change. Crisis mode pushed us to embrace the mantra of ‘progress over perfection.’ The moment we started to over engineer, we lost our sense of urgency and authenticity. These were times we made missteps. Where even with best intentions, people didn’t feel heard or valued because we let the process and perfectionism get in the way."

Shimmel: "Facing your bias is uncomfortable and highly personal. It was new for many of us to have these conversations, let alone in the workplace. One moment that was a milestone in our journey was a client and agency series we hosted called Talks That Lead. In that session, we asked a panel of Black Detroit marketing executives, activists and authors to come speak openly about cultural appropriation in advertising. They were honest, delivering hard truths and a personal challenge that made many employees feel uncomfortable. Feedback like this is what fueled us to lean in, and as leaders, we needed to communicate that we will not shy away from hard truths. If we aren’t feeling uncomfortable after these sessions, we aren’t pushing ourselves hard enough."

How are you maintaining these changes?

Wertz: "We’ve done this in several ways:

    • Publicly stating tangible goals to employees on a regular basis.
    • Setting new (and more difficult) goals as we accomplish previous ones.
    • Leveraging the fact that no one person or one department can drive the change we need. But if we support the ideas and initiatives of our employees, many hands make light work. And by support, we mean both in terms of time required as well as investment required.
    • We also tie tangible goals for our executives for leading and participating with our OneCE initiatives. 
    • Lastly, sharing the belief widely that there is no ‘finish line.’"

How do you do that as new people come on board?

Rozman-Stokes: "We hope that people who join Campbell Ewald recognize early on that equity and inclusion is a core value to who we are. It’s talked about from day one and woven into most employee experiences at CE. In 2019 alone, we hosted over 40 opportunities to get involved and learn or experience why belonging, inclusion and equity is part of what we do at CE. We believe everyone’s voice should be heard. As a result, many of our inclusion programs have come from employees both new and current. We believe if it is important to our people, our answer should be yes."

Wertz: "Once a month, I welcome all new employees to the agency. I take them through the history of our agency as well as the values that drive who we are. So one of the first real experiences new employees have with us is hearing from the CEO about what we believe in, how to be successful here and how to get involved in our efforts to drive continual change."

What are the most notable changes looking at five years ago and now?

Harris: "We are noticeably more diverse than we were years past. You can see and feel it when you enter the office. Upon my return to the agency after a four-year hiatus, I expected to be greeted by many new faces, but I was pleasantly surprised how many were faces of color. The last time I worked in an environment that felt this culturally diverse and inclusive, I was literally at a Black-owned shop that catered to multicultural advertising."

Shimmel: "We’ve learned to value authenticity over everything else. It works with our mantra of progress over perfection. We are creating brave spaces where we can have challenging conversations. Five years ago, not all employees could feel they had the authority to speak up if they saw something that needed to change — now they do."

What have these changes meant for employees? What has affected them the most?

Torres: "I recently had a conversation with an employee where we talked for over an hour about how she was processing this moment and movement, and she was kind of marveling that this was the first time in her decade-plus professional career where she wasn’t the senior-most and, in most cases, only Black person. That she has so many folks to talk to, to commune with, where truly authentic conversation is happening — no code-switching necessary. We’re all in this together as a creative community, but for some of us, we know this hasn’t really been true before. And by and large, still isn’t. We all benefit when every employee has that psychological safety, and that comes from equitable representation. That’s what this work actually means in human terms."

Shimmel: "Self-reflection isn’t usually asked of people in the workplace, but we have created an expectation to address your personal bias, while offering a place to do that. It’s not just about the work — it’s about us being better as humans."

Harris: "At CE, I know I’m receiving equitable pay, have more opportunity to affect mentoring for other people of color and can drive cultural change for the agency as a whole. We still have work to do, but the work we’ve done is already paying dividends in how the agency feels. Most important, I feel like I’m truly being acknowledged for the value I bring to the agency and that my ethnicity is a career strength instead of an anchor."

What advice do you have for other agencies?

Torres: "Always remember WHY representation is important — it’s our renewable energy source for great ideas, for cultivating vibrant culture, driving growth, and for folks being excited to show up every day. Our work could be so much more impactful, our business so much more profitable, and our industry so much more fun. We all win."

Harris: "When you begin to see how systemic the lack of diversity is in the industry, the work required to make significant and lasting change can be overwhelming. I encourage agencies to fix their eyes forward and begin marching toward that change, sustaining effort despite inevitable setbacks and stumbles. Eventually you reach a turning point where this isn’t "work" — it just starts to feel natural. And as the benefits of a more diverse culture start to blossom, it also starts to feel good, like it should have been this way all along." – Walter Harris, Group Account Director, Campbell Ewald

Wertz: "Don’t wait for a bad moment to push for meaningful change. Every other part of business has clear and measurable goals, including revenue and profitability. Why aren’t you taking the same approach with equity and representation of hires, promotions, and retention? Set tangible goals that you make clear to employees, and then share how you are tracking against those goals regularly. It’s amazing how impactful this is. If you are already on this journey, you can probably move faster. If you make mistakes along the way (we did, and you most likely will), keep going. The only real mistake is to stop moving forward or, worse yet, regress. You can’t stop — keep falling forward. If you revert, it wasn’t a real goal." 

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