This week, approximately 700 professionals in the advertising, marketing and technology industries gathered in Los Angeles for the 11th annual Adcolor diversity and inclusion conference.
The event, which sold out for the first time, featured such luminaries as Uber chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John, actor and activist Jesse Williams, ad agency boundary-breaker Carol H. Williams and rapper-turned-Martha Stewart BFF Snoop Dogg.
As in past years, Adcolor 2017 focused on celebrating the achievements of people of color along with members of the LGBTQ community and other underrepresented groups. Conversations across the three-day event mirrored the state of our country: Many speakers referenced the recent presidential election, and the word “Charlottesville” came up several times with no real need for explanation. Despite this underlying sense of urgency and defiance, it was not a time spent bemoaning an industry or a culture in crisis.
“In a world and country where we’re reminded time and time again that our differences should divide us, Adcolor encourages people to come together to celebrate our differences,” said Wieden + Kennedy Portland account supervisor Analysa Cantu. “It’s those different perspectives that will allow us to make better work in our culture-influencing industry and ultimately, make us stronger as a society.”
TBWA\Chiat\Day New York content director and Adcolor Futures honoree Anastasia Garcia added, “One thing we’ve all experienced is the ‘only one syndrome’: being the only LGTBQ, minority or woman in the room. It’s very rewarding to have an experience like this when we’re not the only ones anymore. It’s more than just networking … it’s about the emotional support that this provides.”
Celebrating individual and industry-wide milestones
Even as ad agencies face continued criticism for a lack of diversity, Adcolor made clear that people of color, both established and up-and-coming, are doing great work every day—as they have for decades.
“There’s much more awareness and conversation about [diversity and inclusion] than ever before,” said TBWA Worldwide North America chief diversity officer Doug Melville, who compared the agency world’s gradual progress on that front to its attempts to get ahead of the last decade’s digital wave.
“Ten years ago, there was one chief digital officer, and this poor individual had to solve every related problem at the company,” Melville added. Similarly, many networks hired chief diversity officers in the aughts to better organize their efforts. Agencies and holding groups have approached the challenge differently, with some essentially arguing that every employee is equally responsible for developing a more inclusive workplace.
“To say that [the chief diversity officer role] is not necessary doesn’t give justice to the importance and scale of the work,” he said. “People often ask me if there were one tip I could walk away with, and I say, ‘Give difference the benefit of the doubt.’ There is a perception that difference is inferior.”
BBDO associate creative director Nedal Ahmed told Adweek, “I think as an industry we are learning that to tell diverse stories, you need diverse perspectives. Diversity has the power to keep work fresh—and honest.”
Founder and president Tiffany R. Warren of Omnicom has shaped Adcolor into a well-oiled machine that vividly illustrates the products of that process. While watching the young marketers in the Futures program present their “hackathon” projects on empathy in the workplace, hearing DigitasLBi North America group director of talent engagement and inclusion Ronnie Dickerson Stewart explain how to make a real-world impact on agency culture, and listening to Carol H. Williams recount the many times when she was the only black face in the room at Leo Burnett in the 1970s, it was hard not to conclude that the industry has made significant progress.
Major goals remain unmet
The event itself was an unqualified success, yet many still voice deep skepticism of the business at large.
“Diversity and inclusion has become a hot topic in the recent years, but seemingly relating to gender more than race,” said BBDO New York senior content producer Whitney Collins, who has worked in advertising for years, though she did not attend this week’s conference. “Rarely, if ever, do you see black or brown faces in the ad industry. This is the real reality of advertising—the illusion of inclusivity.”
The tables at Adcolor’s awards show were filled with faces just like the ones Collins described, but they remain the exceptions to the rule. “When it comes to race and inclusion, I don’t know that I can truly say I’ve seen much actual progress,” she said. “It’s always a discussion but never an action.”
Loren Monroe-Trice, talent director at 72andSunny (which was one of Adcolor’s main agency sponsors along with GSD&M) agreed. “The industry has barely scratched the surface,” she said. “We like to congratulate ourselves for small wins, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, the flip side is that we have not made systemic lasting change.”
“There is tangible evidence of progress, like the fact that the conference sold out this year,” said Thas Naseemuddeen, partner and chief strategy officer at independent L.A. agency Omelet. “But when I think about the way I am perceived in the press and in the back of your mind as a female creative person of color, I always think—am I a quota? Maybe it’s a weirdly shielded form of affirmative action, but what can I do with this opportunity? How can I change perceptions of young brown women?”
“The biggest hope we all have is that it’s not just a fad,” Naseemuddeen said regarding the recent wave of C-level promotions for women in the agency world. “It’s super encouraging to see, but why is it just starting now?”
Tech moves in on promising talent
While advertising has devoted a greater share of its resources to finding and nurturing minority talent in recent years, the tech industry may ultimately prove better equipped to do so.
“Something that was very surprising to me as a newcomer was who was investing in us,” Anastasia Garcia told Adweek. “One is Omnicom … but it’s mainly Apple, it’s Google, it’s Facebook.”
Apple sponsored Adcolor Futures for the third year in a row while Google supported the University program, and the larger conference included events in which representatives from Facebook showcased “the emotional power of VR” and Twitter executives highlighted the difficulties of enacting real, lasting change in an organization.
“It’s definitely visible to me that tech companies are looking to help us grow,” Garcia said. “This freedom to explore is something that young talent is looking for, and I feel like ad agencies just aren’t investing in that at this point in time. Being here speaks volumes over any press release.”
Doug Melville also noted that tech companies, unlike agency holding groups, “have unlimited data and money,” with Naseemuddeen adding that they are able to attract young people “way further upstream” for that very reason. But tech’s own struggles to diversify have also led to a wave of criticism and negative headlines, with the issue growing especially pointed since Google began publicizing its staffing numbers two years ago. BBDO’s Collins countered that, while such companies have drawn many employees from the international community, “Our own urban minorities are notoriously underrepresented.”
“We often say the talent is not out there, but Adcolor dispels a lot of that,” said David Elfving, an associate creative director in Apple’s marketing department. “It’s easy to participate in efforts like this, and it’s one way to bring people together in a meaningful way.”
The fact that Elfving is a white man—as were a small number of the conference’s attendees—points to what several agency talents described as a next step in this ongoing conversation.
Where does the movement and the business need to go now?
“We need to take a hard look at ourselves, be uncomfortable, and get vulnerable,” said Monroe-Trice about the future. “Where have we done well? We talk a good game. We talk about business case. We believe it’s the right thing to do. That’s not enough. We have to take a stand, take risks and support our talent. Leadership must get in the game—not advise from the sidelines.”
For Naseemuddeen, this means bringing her almost exclusively older, white, male agency partners to Adcolor and similar events in the coming years while also mentoring younger minority talent. “The only criteria you need to go to this is having an open mind,” she said. “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
Melville noted that many shy away from such conferences—and the diversity and inclusion conversation in general—due to “fundamental unease” and a very human tendency to focus on controversy. “Negativity gets a lot of headlines,” he said in echoing a line spoken by Snoop Dogg during the duo’s conversation on Monday night. “I wish more people would highlight what we’re doing that’s good. TBWA spent $150 million in five years with female and minority-owned [vendors] and no one writes about it.”
For Wieden + Kennedy Portland executive creative director Eric Baldwin, “Working with Glenn Singleton at Courageous Conversation has taught us that it’s not about ‘talk versus action.’ It’s both. If we don’t talk about the challenges people of color face, then we won’t progress, we won’t see true change.”
Still, Collins emphasized that action is critical. “We need to see minorities in positions of power,” she said, noting that this process starts with education in the form of “more awareness and more scholarships for minorities and the underrepresented.”
Melville remains optimistic that the ad and tech industries will continue to move forward, if not as quickly or decisively as many would like. “Diversity is not easy; It’s not a simple fix because there are so many small, different pieces like pay, access and geography,” he said. “[But] 50 percent of everyone in America under 34 years old is multicultural. We’re making the media and the message, and we’re driving purchase decisions. This is the audience of the future.”