At SXSW, the diversity conversation turns to solutions

Attendees spoke about their experiences in an industry that's fighting to be more inclusive

SXSW Interactive ended yesterday, and much of the conversation over the last week focused on diversity — or the lack of it — in technology, media and advertising. Whether on stage or clutching drinks at Parkside or in line for tacos, there were stories of hope and horror from people working in advertising, praise for forward-thinking brands and vocal criticism of companies that don’t advocate for gender equality, racial diversity and visibility for underrepresented groups.

"It's becoming mainstream. It's becoming a movement," said Marta Martinez, senior vice president of AOL Advertising. "It's becoming okay to say that you're a feminist, and it’s cool again."

Martinez singled out companies like Unilever and P&G that are "actually putting their dollars and their brands where they can see the mind of the consumer is, and they're investing in it," she said. "For a period, it wasn't okay for brands to take a stand, and now it's not only okay, it's starting to become expected."

It was an assessment heard repeatedly during panel discussions. "We have an obligation to the consumers we have a privilege to serve, and if you’re on the brand side or the agency side, you’re serving these people by being authentic to who they are," said Manoj Raghunandanan, senior marketing director at Johnson & Johnson, who spoke on Saturday about Tylenol’s #HowWeFamily campaign. "That’s your job." And in an age of ubiquitous social media, he said, brands that don’t will suffer the consequences.

Much of the dialogue was aimed at members of the majority. Though there was a sense that most companies have moved past needing to convince managers and executives that lack of diversity is an issue, presenters still offered plenty of data, from the dismal numbers of minorities in the ad industry to high attrition rates and poor career trajectories for women.

Speaker after speaker made the business case for fostering diversity. "How much bias do we have in our own culture that could be getting in the way of opportunity, creating potential and delivering on results?" said Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global director of diversity, during her session on Friday.

Panel sessions also gave underrepresented people in the industry a chance to share their stories, offer advice and commiserate in a "safe space," as moderator Erin Swenson Gorrall, group planning director at MullenLowe U.S., said on Saturday during a panel on racism in agency life.

Vida Cornelious, chief creative officer at Walton Isaacson, told the story of a client’s reaction to a pitch that included an African-American in a suit. "How in God’s name can this guy be a businessman? He’s black. He should be working in the mailroom in the spot," she recalled, to audible gasps from the audience at a panel on branding families.

"By knowing that other people have gone through a similar experience, it actually strengthens your resolve," said Trae Vassallo, an investor and tech industry advisor who testified during Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit, during a keynote session with US Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith on Sunday. "I felt it personally, as soon as I understood I wasn’t the only person. It wasn’t some fundamental flaw of mine that caused the experiences that I had, but rather a systemic problem."

There was a notable compulsion to turn conversations quickly toward solutions, rather than focus on "awareness." And there was widespread agreement that the ad industry is well-positioned to help the culture overall. "We can affect change and do it at scale. What we can do from the content creation and from the advertising perspective has huge consumer impact," said Martinez, adding that it’s especially important for young women and minorities to see images that reflect themselves, in positions of influence. "You can't be what you can't see."

"If you don’t see yourself in an image, how are you going to be changed by it?" said Don Perry, CEO of the image archive Digital Diaspora, during the panel on racism at agencies.

And the best way to improve diversity in the content coming out of agencies is to improve the diversity of the agencies themselves. "For anything to change in front of the camera, you have to start behind the camera," said Arwa Mahdawi, chief strategy & innovation officer at the creative agency Cummins & Partners, panel or interview, speaking at the same panel.

To that end, Smith recommended a version of the NFL’s "Rooney Rule," which requires that minority candidates be considered before hiring for any management positions. Williams from Facebook called this a "diverse slate" and noted it’s "a sourcing goal, not a hiring one."

Since most of the people running agencies are white men, many people stressed that allies among well-represented groups are one of the most important assets. "It’s very challenging when you don’t have anyone across the table who’s a champion for that," Cornelious said.

Despite even big setbacks, there’s a palpable sense of progress about the state of the industry, from executives being held accountable for indefensible behavior to meaningful work like Mini’s #DefyLabels and "Like a Girl."

"We've gone from calling out the problem to finding solutions," said Martinez from AOL. "This industry gives you the opportunity to do that."

Follow I-Hsien on Twitter @ihsiensherwood.

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