Are we there yet? Wolff Olins' Cynthia Pratomo

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.

Cynthia Pratomo
Creative director
Wolff Olins US

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

In the first decade of my career, I never questioned my ambition to become a creative director. Yet as I earned seniority and joined larger agencies, I also gained an informal prefix -- "Asian woman" -- a reminder that my gender and ethnicity set me apart. I wondered whether my own success was luck or a sign of changing times.

The truth is that the women are there, but ethnic diversity is not. We urgently need to develop female careers as we actively recruit diverse students.

I teach at Pratt Institute, where the student body is 65 percent female, but the majority of faculty is male. Two of my senior students organized a final project, which pondered a core question: "If women account for more than half the student body in art school, where do they all end up?" The implication was clear: bereft of mentors, are female careers stalling? Statistics further show that black students represent fewer than five percent of student bodies in the majority of art schools indicating an immediate crisis of diversity in the industry.

When we began recruiting for a creative director, I assumed the pool would reflect the world I knew. Yet there were roughly four male candidates for every female. The vast majority were Caucasian. Acknowledging that we might be stuck in our familiar, homogenous pool of referrals and personal contacts, we tasked recruiters with helping us diversify our candidate pool and also aggressively expanded our search online. Yet the statistics largely held. Like my students, I asked myself, "where is everyone else?"

How about something that proves we’re making progress?

Two things give me hope that the industry is making diversity and inclusion a priority and that the incoming generation is holding us to account.

The focus on diversity at Cannes and the AIGA signaled an explicit and tangible shift across advertising and design. From Cannes’ pledge not to recognize work that objectified women to numerous panels addressing Times Up and #metoo, both made the clear correlation between creative leadership and content. At the same time, the AIGA honored a significantly more diverse group of design medalists than ever before and highlighted the Inneract Project. Taken together, these signal meaningful progress for both public recognition and recruitment.

I’m happy to see that students refuse to accept mere awareness but demand action. At this year’s Harvard Design conference, the subject was design’s power to influence communities, systems and individuals. First acknowledging bias, the speakers called on the audience to live up to their ideals by changing structures to empower communities, not to only acknowledge and help along those who have pushed through.

What else needs to be done to get there?

I’ve got three priorities ready to go for anyone in a senior leadership role who might have the power to recruit or mentor others.

First up, be an active ally and mentor to young creatives. This won’t just work if women support women or minorities support minorities. Inspire young creatives to enter the field and take responsibility for supporting them as they work their way up. Notice who you’re inclined to reflexively support and make an active effort to advance the potential of those outside your familiar circle.  

Make a hiring goal and talk about it. Don’t wait for your recruiters to go to a diversity training and trust they’ll take care of it. Pursue and demand a diverse pool of candidates at every level. Set hiring goals and strive to meet them. Hold all of your candidates to the same standards of performance. Acknowledge that the process is imperfect and invite input to drive awareness.

Change the structure. We were founding partners of Pledge Parental Leave at Wolff Olins, pushing to establish guaranteed standards for parents in the creative industry. Big gestures like this are significant investments that pay back and reinforce a diverse,dynamic team.

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