Are we there yet? Dailey's CCO on depicting diversity in ads

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.

Marcus Wesson

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

From idea to execution, advertising still struggles with how to depict diversity.

When a creative comes up with an idea, whether it’s for TV, video, or a short film, they think of an idea first, not the person in it. Let’s say you’re brainstorming an idea for a general market campaign. "Mom and Dad give X product to Kid. Kid takes a bite and smiles." At this point, in a creative person’s mind, these are avatars. They’re not people yet. But by the time they’re represented visually, from storyboarding to casting, the default will be to almost always make these characters white. It seems as though when people hear the world "general market," unless you specify diversity, they won’t offer it on their own. It’s a systemic problem that reveals itself as we implement our concepts.

Brands are trying to bring more diversity into their ads. But last year, H&M caught attention for a photo featuring a young, African-American boy wearing a shirt that read "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle." As advertisers and designers, we know the model probably tried on several shirts, but the one H&M selected for their ad was a misstep.

Last year, Dodge used Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice from a speech in their Super Bowl commercial. While their intent was good, the spot was a huge misstep, due to the fact that MLK was a noted critic of capitalism. Putting his voice on an ad to blatantly sell trucks felt incongruous for such a noted humanitarian, especially in an era where the NFL is coming under fire for not supporting kneeling players. What's next? Ghandi selling McDonald's?

Good intentions aren’t enough. You have to think holistically about proper representation.

How about something that proves we’re making progress?

It used to be the only diversity you’d see in advertising was in the background. Later, beer commercials had the One Black Friend. Now, more diverse people are landing general roles.

It was only 2014 when Cheerios featured their first interracial couple. If you went on Twitter, it seemed like half the Internet was angry, the other half was saying, "Welcome to the Now." Since then, I’ve noticed an increase in interracial couples on screen, but no more public outcry. Odd to say that’s progress, but it is.

Personally, I’ve had the good fortune to move up in the industry and recently became CCO at Dailey. Most CCOs I know aren’t people of color. I was fortunate. A middle-class upbringing led me to good schools; I got the degree, the internship. While I’m so thankful to take on this role, the fact that it’s noteworthy shines a light on how little diversity we have in the creative fields.

What else needs to be done to get there?
We need to flip implicit bias on its head.

Implicit bias is seen as a negative thing. That’s because these biases we’re unaware of are typically used to keep people out. People like people who are like them, so they hire and mentor those who remind them of themselves.

But when you have people in charge who have wider perspectives, that changes everything. When Dailey bought itself back from IPG in 2017, five managing partners took over, including two women, one of whom is a woman of color, and they had me as ECD. We came to realize that our implicit bias is pro-difference.

When creatives get together, we immediately start trading recommendations — movies, music, Netflix. For me, and for most African-American creative directors, we find we have more sources to draw from. Not only do you know the music and movies that everyone’s talking about, I know the African-American culture as well. Whether it’s licensing a music track no one’s ever thought of or tapping into a trend nobody’s noticed yet, that’s cultural currency.

Do you want to hire only people who have your same favorite band? Or do you want to hire the person who’s going to turn you on to something you’ve never heard before?

If you want to see change, look for opportunities to place people of different colors and genders in higher-up positions. Then, juniors will want to be part of your agency because they see a pathway up. Diversity makes a richer workplace environment and a richer product, so let’s have some fun.

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