Are we there yet? 4A's 'encouraged at industry's willingness to look in mirror'

Every week, we ask industry insiders across all job levels and titles to share personal stories about equality, diversity and inclusion in adland. We know we're not there yet, but we want to document the highs and lows as the industry slowly transforms for the better.

Simon Fenwick
EVP talent engagement and inclusion

Tell us about one thing that’s happened recently that leads you to believe there’s still a problem?

At the 4A’s Decisions 20/20 conference last month, I demonstrated the huge deficit of diversity in the room by asking all the white men, and then all the white women in the room, to sit down. Few attendees were left standing, highlighting that we’re still in amidst a diversity crisis.

While I remain encouraged by the continued involvement of agencies in MAIP and other diversity based intern programs, there is still widespread and overwhelming evidence that "closed network" recruiting still occurs, which at face value, is discriminatory.

I see the industry trying to increase "referral hires" because they "save money and time" but that promotes sameness within the organization. It’s still the antiquated "old boys" mentality that favors those we like and see as friends over those with the best result. This is furthered in how the industry promotes based on tenure because those who have the loudest voice and are the most outspoken rise to the top.

Taking the challenge to another level, the industry has even gone as far over the past couple of years to "rebrand" diversity as an aspect of individuality. I have experienced first-hand and continue to hear HR and business leaders say, "we value diversity of thought, which allows for many voices and ideas." This only helps to normalize and reproduce inequality under the guise of inclusion.

With all of these factors at play, it’s no wonder that the majority of diverse employees leave the industry after only a few years because they feel "left out" "forgotten" and "overlooked."

How about something that proves we’re making progress

I am encouraged to see that there is a move to appoint dedicated diversity, inclusion and in some cases equity officers and leaders across many agencies where they did not exist before.

Debate has been sparked once again around the age old challenge, how do we hire, retain and grow our diverse populations, particularly our populations of color.

At the recent 4A’s Decisions 20/20 conference in Washington DC, a panel of agency diversity leaders joined Microsoft to discuss how the industry needs to start to address diversity and equity across the industry.

What was most encouraging, coming from the conversation, was the discussion around how more and more agencies seem willing to take the conversation from pure rhetoric to action, agreeing, that as an industry, we can no longer sit idly by and do nothing.

There seems to be agreement that hiring on "cultural fit" maintains the status quo and that there needs to be more commitment to developing and deploying training for diverse employees, in particular black and hispanic employees. We all agree that while change will be difficult and requires investment, now more than ever, we have reached that inflection point that will not allow us to turn back and continue to act as we always have.

At the 4A’s, we are working closely with the industry to align on how to drive more enlightenment among agencies, working with leaders to set criteria for the industry to address challenges across gender, race, LGBTQI+, age, differently abled people and faith.

What else needs to be done to get there?

While it is encouraging that the industry seems woke to change and that there is an increasing groundswell to evolve hiring and retention/development practices, there is still much that needs to be done.

The 4A’s professional and organizational development practice (formerly L&D) is working to create development and training modules to help the industry address retention and growth around race.

But the industry still needs to do more. A good place to start would be to adjust the following:

Ensure that C-suite individuals understand the importance of diversity. Companies must share data on the value inclusion to build consensus at the organization’s highest levels. Leaders need to be held accountable through metrics and transparency around hiring, promoting and retaining diversity.

Use data to identify problems and measure progress. Make analytics your ally to help identify patterns of gender and racial bias, disparities in compensation, rewards, bias in hiring and promotion. Hold managers (even the great ones) accountable.

Consider diversity, inclusion and equity an integral part of corporate infrastructure, just like you do with compliance and IT.

I am encouraged at the willingness of the industry to look in the mirror and say, we need to change. I am encouraged that as a whole, the industry is taking steps to change, and I am excited to see what will change. To coin a famous byline, "it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen."

I will leave everyone with this final thought, "diversity hiring, retention and promotion must be practiced by everyone and owned by all leaders, it is not just an HR responsibility."

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