Big Clients Put Pressure on Advertisers to Diversify

Big Clients Put Pressure on Advertisers to Diversify

Major companies are increasingly pushing for greater representation of women and minorities at the agencies they hire to produce their advertising. Digiday’s Shereen Pathak first picked up on this trend last December, when PepsiCo executive Brad Jakeman scolded agencies at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual meeting for their lack of diversity, saying: “I am sick and tired as a client of sitting in agency meetings with a whole bunch of white straight males talking to me about how we are going to sell our brands that are bought 85 percent by women.”

Recently, we’ve seen other examples of executives putting the same sort of pressure on their advertising partners. Quartz’s Ashley Rodriguez takes note of one example at HP:

Last week, Hewlett-Packard’s chief marketer Antonio Lucio sent a letter to Hewlett-Packard’s US advertising agencies asking them to ensure that at least half of the top marketing roles on its account are held by women, which is the current gender makeup of Hewlett-Packard’s own internal marketing team. Lucio asked the agencies to submit formal plans for increasing the number of women in key creative and strategy roles within 30 days, and to make good on those plans over the next 12 months. If the agencies don’t comply, “we will re-evaluate our relationship and we won’t hesitate to make a change if it’s needed,” a spokesman for the company said.

“Including women and people of color in key roles is not only a values issue, but a significant business imperative,” Lucio said in the letter, which was sent Aug. 30. “We make printers and personal computers. Who buys them? Women: 53 percent for computers, 45 percent for printers,” Lucio wrote. He added that Hewlett-Packard will take different approaches to diversity in different countries, and is starting by addressing women.

General Mills has also included a diversity requirement in its new creative review process, Ad Age reported late last month, requiring that the creative departments at candidate agencies include at least 50 percent women and 20 percent people of color.

This trend of organizations shopping for diversity in their suppliers of knowledge work is not new: Companies have made similar demands of the firms they hire for legal services for decades. You can imagine doing the same thing with accountants, for example: Because there are similarly many accounting firms for companies to choose from, if you’re a company that cares about diversity and inclusion, why not pick the most diverse option? There are a few reasons to do this: First, as Jakeman and Lucio underlined, their organizations sell to a diverse group customers, so it’s a smart business move to make sure the people helping sell their products have a good understanding of these customers’ perspectives. Second, in the spirit of HR as PR, these statements and actions are highly visible ways to demonstrate leadership on D&I and invite good press. Finally, as customers of these, they motivate ad agencies (or law firms, or other suppliers) to focus on diversity as part of their brand.

Nonetheless, Jessica Davies observes at Digiday that some agencies are pushing back on these requirements, arguing that quotas make diversity a numbers game and won’t help the industry solve its real problems:

“What if half the team are women who are all white and went to Oxford or Cambridge or Ivy League schools? Is that better than having 30-40 percent women, but the whole base coming from a real mix of places?” asked OgilvyOne CEO Jo Coombs. “Some may have a university degree, others may have dropped out early from school. You can find creativity anywhere.” Women also don’t want to be picked to be part of teams, simply to make up the numbers, but because they’ve earned their place, or are a right fit for a particular client’s brief, she added.

Agencies need to transform the way they recruit to attract more diverse talent and break the cycle of recruiting “lookalikes,” according to Dentsu Aegis Network U.K. CEO Tracy de Groose. “Having a clear target to work toward is important; however, imposing quotas are not the solution itself,” she said. But they can be used to get the wheels in motion for making positive change, she added. “Agencies need to understand why talented women do not make it into the top jobs or why people of color are less representative in general, and put a strategy in place to break down any barriers to change.”

“This approach to set targets is a bit disappointing,” said Coombs. “I don’t only put female creative teams on female products, and I never would. It’s about having the right person for the job. It’s like saying men can’t create ads for Tampax, or a slightly older person can’t come up with something to target youth, or a straight man can’t do something that would appeal to an LGBT audience.”

The criticism here is valid, but it feels a little like a chicken-and-egg game. You get this anywhere you talk about D&I: Nobody wants to impose quotas, but unless there’s some heat, pressure, and accountability, D&I will remain a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have” for many organizations. Also note that in the case of HP, Lucio isn’t telling agencies “We’re going to drop you”: It’s not an enforced quota, per se, but rather a very, very strong message for their suppliers to take them, and D&I, seriously.

We’ve heard from our member companies that there is good work being done in the media industry already, especially around gender and women in leadership. It sounds like HP’s marketing function is dialing up the heat, just as their counterparts in other functions, like legal, have already been asking supplier to account for their diversity statistics and efforts.

Perhaps this customer pressure will compel ad agencies to re-evaluate their approach to D&I. In another thoughtful take on this issue at Ad Age, Rochelle Newman-Carrasco responds to the recent controversy over Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts’s claim that the debate over gender equality in advertising is “over,” with a call for the ad world to do just that:

We need to stop talking about gender and racial diversity as a problem. Our industry’s impotence when it comes to dealing with structural racism and gender bias isn’t a “problem,” because if it were, it would be fixed. That’s what we do in advertising. We design strategies to solve problems. … Somewhere along the line, the word “diversity” became more about otherness and less about inventiveness. …

Mr. Roberts’ assessment of the state of gender equality doesn’t account for the fact that race and gender do intersect. His certitude that advertising women have arrived is a response to employment trends in which white females are making inroads more quickly than women of color. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. In the eyes of decision makers, be it conscious or unconscious, white women are familiar — giving them one less perceived “adversity” hurdle to clear. It has been said that familiarity breeds contempt, but, in advertising and corporate America at large, familiarity inspires comfort, confidence and camaraderie. Not creativity.

As for inclusion — what could possibly be wrong with something that sounds so, well, inclusive? It rules out exclusion and promotes acceptance, right? Yes, but it’s inclusion into pre-existing structures with pre-existing rules written by — well, you know — dominant culture decision makers. Without disruption there can be no real inclusion. Change, by definition, requires creating a new system. To quote French-Cuban journalist Paul Lefargue, “inclusion with strings attached is exclusion by another name.”