Are we there yet? Mother's Aarti Thiagarajan on AdColor's vital role

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.

Aarti Thiagarajan
Managing director and partner
Mother New York

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

The problem is very visible. We continue to see specific communities of people underrepresented across disciplines and leadership roles.

Attending AdColor this weekend, the depth and dimension of the issues were made even more palpable: a behavioral scientist demonstrating how even subtle shifts in words and imagery can have patently negative results; an accomplished showrunner recounting the frustration of goalposts that always seem to move for some, and yet not for others; a CMO discussing the massive impact of micro-aggressions; and numerous 1:1 chats with people sharing their own personal stories around bias and exclusion.

It can’t be reduced to one thing. But much of it can be traced to a lack of understanding and intention in addressing these issues.

How about something that proves we’re making progress?

AdColor is an incredibly inspiring event, equal parts a reminder of the work still to be done and a true celebration of the progress that has been made. Not the least of which was watching and meeting such a diverse group of professionals across the industry share their talent, ambition and truths. 

And the truth was spoken loudly, with depth, nuance and real clarity from not-yet-graduated to CMOs; from advertisers, marketers and creators; and of course, a range of diverse voices. The conversation was more expansive than ever before. And with so many first-time attendees, it’s a signal that the message was sought out and received by more people, and more kinds of people, than ever before.

All this truth was spoken unfiltered and without concern for making people uncomfortable. This is absolutely necessary; this is progress.

Ultimately, this year’s AdColor allowed me to observe advancement in the attempts to understand the depth and breadth of these issues. This means more opportunity for those of us with privilege, myself included, to find countless ways to acknowledge and use our privilege to create change every day. 

What else needs to be done to get there?

Leaders first and foremost set the tone and the course for real change. But that will only matter if every person who participates in the millions of decisions made every day -- about hiring, coaching, advancing, goal-setting, creating, casting, producing -- does so with real intention toward a shared ambition around diversity and inclusion.

The theme of AdColor this year was centered on Moments of Truth. And we’ve all had a few. The AdColor 2018 experience certainly serves as one of mine. I’ve been too occupied by trying to figure out the exact playbook for change. Stymied by a feeling that there is a single right way to make progress, or questioning if I am the right voice for it, or wondering if the perfect choices can be found somewhere other than through the courage to take action.

What I learned: encourage conversation, listen to truth, define clear intentions and, most critically, act accordingly. 

We will make mistakes while trying to achieve greater diversity and inclusion in this industry -- but I know for sure that we won’t mistakenly get it right.


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