Advertising Is Walking a Fine Line With Accelerating DEI

Here's how other sectors have attempted to reverse regressive trends


With all the continued talk by the advertising industry of its intention to become more inclusive over recent years, it would appear to be in danger of actually going backward in many respects instead. That was made all the more disturbing by the poignant recollections and points shared by advertising strategist Zoe Scaman, in her brave and shocking “Mad Men, Furious Women” blog. Of the various stories and statements contained within the piece, one stood out to me: “For an industry crying out for talent, we excel at killing it.”

How can it be that a whole industry is thought to be failing 50% of its talent pool?

I personally don’t believe an entire industry is hell-bent on the self-destruction that comes with excluding half of its talent pool, but from an outsider’s perspective, it’s clear that seismic change is required and fast. For that to happen it must be led from the very top. The token diversity and box-ticking culture is long past its sell-by date and, as Scaman rightly points out, women are feeling greater empowerment to call out their experiences of bad behavior.

Other industries have faced this issue

The advertising industry is not alone in facing challenges. Lessons can be learned from the banking sector which, a little over a decade ago, was brought to its knees by poor decisions made by groupthink. The collapse of Lehman Brothers marked a turning point that has seen the banks transform their workplace cultures and practices, embrace diversity and recover from the global financial crisis far quicker than was expected, returning robust profits for shareholders in the process.

Here are some examples of what other sectors have attempted to do, with varying results.

NatWest is a good case-in-point. Back in 2009 it faced the dual challenges of both improving financial performance and restoring public trust. As part of its self-reflection, the bank identified that, whilst 51% of the U.K. population was female, the number of women in business was at the low end of 20%. It identified an opportunity to not only improve its own bottom line but to support the overall economic output of the country by attracting more women into business.

In order to achieve this, it implemented an innovative accreditation program, endorsed by the Chartered Banking Institute, that helped deliver enhanced customer service for women in business alongside specific diversity-based training to help advance 3,000 men and women at all levels within the bank. At board level, NatWest worked to ensure that its leadership was closely aligned to its customer base, setting the DEI agenda from the very top and consequently building trust and advocacy throughout the business. This wasn’t merely the right thing to do; it was important strategically that products aimed at women were being shaped and developed by women.

Global management consultant Accenture has taken a different approach by making a public commitment to creating a culture of equality with specific goals for women including gender parity and reaching 30% female managing directors by 2025 as well as better representation of women across all levels of the business.

A key part of its journey is to provide the right opportunities for women to grow their leadership capabilities and to help them acquire the skills that will better position them for senior positions through a program of self-managed learning that empowers its female employees to take control of their own development. Male employees benefit from the program too, helping them to better understand the challenges women face in an organization and to recognize parallels and problems with their own situations, such as imposter syndrome.

The challenge of representation

Underrepresentation is another challenge faced by many sectors where men typically outnumber women. Despite its vast brand awareness and the high profiles of executives such as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook still struggles to show what a career in tech can look like for underrepresented groups, including women. Andrew Odong, Facebook’s talent attraction program manager in EMEA, believes that the tech industry lacks the well-defined career paths of more traditional sectors, such as finance.

There are expectations that Facebook, as one of the world’s best-known brands with 50,000 employees and annual revenues similar to the GDP of Luxembourg, should be leading the way in diversity and inclusion. Like the advertising industry, it is challenged to change perceptions and break that cycle.

The industry clearly has a long and rocky path ahead of it as it navigates its #MeToo-style reckoning. Reputation makes and breaks a business: without tackling the issues head-on and transforming outmoded culture, advertising runs the risk of alienating its young and best talent, who will not stand for inappropriate, oppressive and bullying behavior.

Approached sensitively, it has the chance to reveal huge potential as investors, employees and customers increasingly apply a lens on diversity and inclusion to the supply chain through ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) metrics. This could be the factor that forces the seismic change that is required.

Back in 2019, S&P Global Market Intelligence launched a study that found that businesses with female CFOs are more profitable and have produced better stock price performance. Similarly, firms with high gender diversity on their boards are more profitable than those with less. The issue of “Diversity Equals Profitability” will continue to gain momentum and businesses that fully utilize their female talent will see their global market valuations soar. Those who choose to ignore or simply pay lip service to gender diversity do so at their peril.