Why diversity and inclusion is so hard

Larry Woodard, president and CEO, Graham Stanley Advertising
Larry Woodard, president and CEO, Graham Stanley Advertising

The answer is simple — but it is also so difficult that it might very well be impossible.

This piece is for everyone, but especially those who run ad agencies. I’m not blaming or shaming, just taking on a difficult topic with some good, old-fashioned truth-telling. I’m now at the age where just seeing the truth in print represents progress. 

I remember proudly attending my first 4A’s convention more than 30 years ago. Agency leaders from across the country convened to discuss the most important issues facing our industry. I was young and full of excitement and optimism about my profession. 

Imagine my delight as then President O. Birtch Drake addressed the attendees by calling out lack of diversity as one of the most critical issues facing our industry. I was excited that our industry was tackling important issues head on. Of the hundreds in attendance, I had seen only three or so other people of color. But Birtch was on the job. 

More than 35 years and three presidents later, it feels like the movie Groundhog Day. I’m stuck in an unending cycle where one of “those” guys stands behind a podium and addresses the leaders of the largest and most influential agencies in the country with solemn sincerity to sound the clarion call that agencies must become more diverse. Then we eat food, go to breakout sessions, play golf or tennis, go home and come back to another locale to do it again a year later. And in the interim, nothing changes. 

Why is diversity and inclusion so hard? Why have changes been so slow in coming? The answer is simple. In fact, the solution is simple. But it is also so difficult that it might very well be impossible.

The group with the power to make change is disincentivized to do so. 

Despite the Black population making up just under 14% of the U.S. population, we make up about  5% of ad agencies. Whites account for nearly 90% of the advertising workforce. If agencies truly reflected the makeup of the country, many of the people working there now would not be. Those who would still be there would have to learn about things that they currently have no interest in — like how other people think and what they care about.

Here is where it gets hard. Black influence is pervasive in culture, music, sports and entertainment. Almost all Black people can code shift — change language, dress and even behavior to fit into the dominant white culture. But very few white people can code shift into ethnic cultures. 

To put it simply, most black creatives work with cultural handcuffs. Their bosses generally don’t know how to evaluate or rate their ideas — so, consequently, they don’t get presented to clients. They can’t be their authentic selves at agencies. Most importantly, they almost never become the boss. There have been a handful of Black CCOs at big agencies, but even in their departments, Blacks are still underrepresented. 

How does this change? White people have to believe that the creative becomes better when those producing it are diverse. They have to promote more Black people into positions where they can approve the work being presented to clients. 

Current best practices include hiring a director of diversity and inclusion. This is like hiring a hall monitor when you need a principal. D&I positions often have no teeth and lack resources. True diversity and inclusion must be driven by the people (usually white and male) who run agencies. But their representation has to decrease, by percentage, in order for minority representation to increase. What incentive do they have to relinquish or share power?

At some point, to really represent diverse points of view, people of color must be among the shot callers at agencies. I’ve seen agency leaders try to dictate diversity strategies by tying bonuses to meeting certain criteria. But these never hold — because the true measure of success in the ad business will always be profit and client satisfaction. 

People of color have made progress in society by fighting, demonstrating, suing and pretending like we’re white — but we’ve not succeeded in getting into positions that allow us to make lasting changes.

Can you imagine a world where even 20% of major agencies have people of color running their creative departments? Can you imagine a world where even 30% of the workforce at major agencies are people of color? Can you imagine a world where the entire point of view of the agency is truly diverse? 

I can’t…and you can’t either. That puts a bow on why diversity and inclusion is so hard.

Larry Woodard is president and CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising.

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