Rapp’s Devin O'Loughlin: Agencies are ‘stuck’ in DE&I awareness

O'Loughlin breaks down where DE&I is thriving in the industry — and where it still needs work.

Diversity and inclusion is an integral part of advertising, but it’s still tricky territory for Madison Avenue. 

Devin O'Loughlin has followed DE&I’s trajectory in the industry as Omnicom agency Rapp Worldwide’s global chief diversity, equity, inclusion and communications manager. 

O’Loughlin led DE&I responsibilities in the agency over the last decade, before being promoted to the newly created position in November. She’s worn many hats, including VP of global communications.

O’Loughlin also cofounded OPEN Pride, part of Omnicom’s people engagement network focused on diversity and inclusion efforts for the LGBTQ+ community. The project “opened her eyes to the inequities in our industry,” and inspired her to use allyship as a tool to make real change.

Campaign US caught up with O’Loughlin about the importance of diversity in advertising and where the industry still needs to deliver a greater impact.

Campaign US: Do you feel you’ve had enough support implementing DE&I?

I work closely with our CFO because everyone knows that in DE&I, you need money, funding and support to make any of this happen. On that side of the coin, I have Rapp’s support. But sometimes you get that age old, “We need to watch our budget or profit margins.” I'm a team of one. DE&I is not like copywriting. You’re not doing one thing for one, two or even three clients. You're touching every facet of the business. You are communicating with not only internal folks, but you're also liaising with clients. You're hopefully creating systemic changes and ways of working that will impact the business long-term. But, you're also working on those immediate awareness initiatives across those different months [i.e., Black History Month, Pride Month]. There’s so many layers and facets to the role that you can't do it with one person.

Was there a learning curve approaching DE&I from your communications background?

There's less of a learning curve coming from my comm’s background and more of a learning curve being an ally, and not necessarily having the fully ingrained experiences as some of  my BIPOC colleagues. It has given me an opportunity to exercise the art of listening, learning, not speaking, letting people teach me and not always putting my own opinion out there. The comms piece has actually been helpful because a lot of DE&I work, especially in the world today, is speaking to some of the disgusting, horrible things that happen almost on a daily basis. So having some writing acumen has helped in crafting communications and overarching statements for our brands.

What are agencies getting right and wrong about DE&I?

I think what they're getting right is now most agencies have awareness. They are observing different calendar events and cultural moments that mean things to the people who work for them. Some of it is still high-level or a little surface-level, such as a cooking class, to check the box. But at least they’re covering awareness and, hopefully, people within those agencies are starting to feel seen and heard. Where I think agencies need to step up is that a lot of them are stuck there and not moving into the next phase of changing ways of working. For instance, making sure DE&I is infused into how you write a brief or how you approach your clients.

Before that, it’s making sure the balance of talent reflects all of these conversations that you're having. That's a little harder because it requires recruiting folks, and everyone is obviously reaching for the same talent right now. But if you're having Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month, and 95% of your employee base is white, it stops at that awareness. If you don't do it, people leave and they'll find a place that does.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the anti-Asian attacks, what conversations still need to be had?

A big one is the differently-abled community. Despite how many differently-abled folks are in our population and how much capital they have to spend, they're still not being spoken to. And if they are, it's usually in an inauthentic way. But there are so many differently-abled folks who fall into other categories. I don't think advertisers and brands have figured out intersectionality yet. I've talked to folks in my agency who work with different clients, and these clients still want traditional segments as their target. It’s incumbent upon us to have that conversation and try to explain to them that the world doesn't look like these clean boxes anymore. Because there are very few people I know who are just one thing: white and heterosexual, don't have a disability, or whatever the case is. Everyone is everything.

I would love to see brands and organizations find a way to not so intensely zero in on one group, and then pull back and then zero in on another group. Maybe the solution for that is creating steady programming or initiatives that speak to all of these different cohorts and people throughout the year so that you're not just dipping in February for Black History Month, or in June for Pride Month, because that's what you see a lot. Consumers are starting to notice, too.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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