Adcolor 2017 Highlights the Industry’s Progress and Challenges on Diversity as Tech Scoops Up Young Talent

The business has come a long way, but still has far to go

Adcolor founder and president Tiffany R. Warren of Omnicom speaks onstage Tuesday night.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images

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.”

Snoop Dogg with Doug Melville of TBWA and Ryan Ford, executive vice president and chief creative officer at Cashmere Agency.
Ashley E. Osborne

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.